DECEMBER IN the record business means four things: select superstar product, Christmas records, live recordings and best-of collections. This year is no different, though there are slight variations. Some recording artists are competing with their own pasts, with new solo albums pitted against retrospectives: Lionel Richie vs. the Commodores; George Harrison vs. yet another Beatles collection; Yoko Ono vs. John Lennon; Glenn Frey and Don Henley vs. the Eagles; Frida Lyngstad-Frederickson vs. ABBA.
A recent twist is to include a live version of an old hit or one or two new cuts on a greatest-hits package, though the new songs only occasionally become bona fide hits. So here are the easy choices of the season:
The Beatles, "20 Greatest Hits" (Capitol SV-12245). This is one Beatles package that makes sense, with all of the Fab Four songs to hit No. 1 on the American charts, from "She Loves You" to "The Long and Winding Road." It's almost 55 minutes that changed the sound of music.
"The John Lennon Collection" (Geffen GHSP2023) is 15 songs, half of Lennon's post-Beatles best-of ("Shaved Fish") with every one of his "Double Fantasy" songs except "Cleanup Man," even though only a few were hits. "The Collection" also tends to underplay the tougher New York and Plastic Ono band material ("Cold Turkey" and "Working Class Hero" are omitted entirely). The tape version has two more songs, "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" and Ben E. King's "Stand By Me."
Squeeze, "Singles-45s and Under" (A&M SP-4922). A fine collection from the just-disbanded group whose songwriters, Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, were correctly compared to Lennon-McCartney. Squeeze wasn't flashy, but its buoyant music was classy and beautifully crafted, everyday popscapes with a delicate balance of dreams and realities. From 1978's "Take Me I'm Yours" to the previously unreleased "Annie Get Your Gun," this is some of the finest and most accessible pop of the times.
The Eagles, "Greatest Hits Volume 2" (Asylum 9 60205-I). This group has spun more successful solo careers than the Beatles, but most of its classic work appeared on Volume 1 in 1976. The group only made two studio albums after that and only six songs here went top 20. "Seven Bridges Road" is drawn from its live album; the rest is filler. There are some great tunes ("Hotel California" and "New Kid in Town," in particular) but it should have included "Please Come Home for Christmas," a single that actually was a hit.
ABBA, "The Singles: The First Ten Years" (Atlantic 80036). Apre s les Beatles, ABBA is the world's most successful singles act (even though it never made a proportionate dent in America). Master of harmonically dense and (some feel) overproduced Europop, ABBA recently made a down payment on its native Sweden with the royalties from the 23 songs included on this double album. Included are two previously unreleased songs, "The Day Before You Came" and "Under Attack."
Little River Band, "Greatest Hits" (Capitol ST-12247). Australia's masters of punchy pop. Glenn Sharrock is gone, but his songs live on in "Lady," "Cool Change" and "Reminiscing." Again, two new songs, "The Other Guy" (which actually is turning into a hit) and "Down on the Border" (which doesn't have a chance).
Olivia Newton-John, "Olivia's Greatest Hits, Vol. 2" (MCA 5347). Volume 1 in 1977 was pretty wimpy, syrupy and bland; this one features the new, improved, physical, dare we say sexy Olivia, as well as newly sophisticated production. There's still some pap ("Hopelessly Devoted to You"), but the pop of "Magic," "Make a Move on Me," "Xanadu," "A Little More Love" and "Physical" is sly and solid. Again, two nonalbum cuts, the recent No. 1 "Heart Attack" and the unproven "Tied Up."
Dan Fogelberg, "Greatest Hits" (Full Moon/Epic QE38308). Soft-focus pop from 1974's "Part of the Plan" to the brand-new, single-only "Missing You." Though he's given to overproduction, Fogelberg comes up with some of the prettiest ballads and most sensitive lyrics this side of Jackson Browne.
Commodores, "All the Greatest Hits" (Motown 6028ML). Including four that were on the group's first hits package in 1978 and two new, unproven songs, one of which, "Painted Picture," features Harold Hudson, who may be the replacement for Lionel Richie. Half the songs here are Richie ballads, including the monster crossover hits "Easy," "Three Times a Lady" and "Sail On."
Outlaws, "High Tides Forever: Greatest Hits" (Arista AL9614). Country-rock that rocks hard, from "Hurry Sundown" to "There Goes Another Love Song." The angle here is new, never-released live versions of two hits, "You Are the Show" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky." The band's first hits package after nine albums.
Foreigner, "Records" (Atlantic 80999). In which our jukebox heroes mine their own platinum albums and come up with more gold (minimum) even though it won't "Feel Like the First Time." Also included: "Cold as Ice," "Double Vision," "Headgames," "Urgent" and five others.
"The Natalie Cole Collection" (Capitol ST-12242). This is it until Cole finds her way out of some apparently deep personal problems that have caused her mother to be named executrix of her affairs. Cole's a fine pop chanteuse with a sometimes gritty, often exuberant edge to her voice, heard best on such songs as "This Will Be," "Inseparable" and "Our Love."
Rhino Records, a small Los Angeles independent label, is doing the kind of seed-group re-issue work that most big labels have stopped caring about. Their latest releases include Freddy Cannon's "14 Booming Hits" (RNDF210), a third Beau Brummels collection, "From the Vaults" (RNLP104), "The Box Tops Greatest Hits" (RNLP161), a picture disc of The Monkees called "Monkee Business" (RNLP701), with few of the hits, but interesting oddities like "The Porpoise Song," a Jimi Hendrix interview-picture disc (RNLP254) and a fish-head-shaped record featuring the "greatest hits" of the decidedly weird Barnes and Barnes, including the classic "Fish Heads" (RNLP 282).
Most promising is a collection called "Wonder Women" (RNLP055), the first volume in "A History of the Girl Group Sound." It features classic cuts from the Shangri-Las, Chiffons, Claudine Clark, Betty Everett, Ellie Greenwich, the Jelly Beans, Dixie Cups, Jaynetts, Sisters, Ad Libs and Paris Sisters; another plus is the liner notes by Alan Betrock, whose superb book, "Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound," should rewhet the appetite for this classic rock 'n' roll. This promises to be an important and enjoyable series. The best of yesteryear stacks up well with the best of today.