in The People's Album

Well, hello there. Instead of taking a look back at my favorite new music of the last month or so, I figured I’d switch things up and return to an old recurring feature that I’m still technically pretty close to finishing but also feel very far away from finishing. With this entry, I finally break the top 10 of America’s best-selling albums of all time. I can’t promise that I’ll get through the top 10 any quicker than the other 40 albums I’ve reviewed over the last 10 years (Jesus Christ), since these will be especially ubiquitous albums that will be hard to find anything new to say about. Which might explain why it took me so long to get around to writing about this particular album.

Album: Greatest Hits
Artist: Elton John
Release Date: November 1974 (Hard to believe an album can be this popular and also leave no trace of its exact release date on the internet.)
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 17 million

Why Was This Popular?

Because America Loves Comfort Among The Chaos

One of the many things that must be addressed when talking about 1974’s Greatest Hits by Elton John is that it is almost certainly an incomplete look at Elton John’s greatness as a hitmaker. The man (along with songwriting partner Bernie Tupin) has been putting out albums at a pretty consistent clip for over 50 years and this album only accounts for four of those years. And yet, they are still the most important four years of Elton John’s career. They saw the initial breakout success of “Your Song” to the persona-defining “Rocket Man” to his first number 1 hit in the U.S., “Bennie and the Jets”. This is quite simply the most paired-down collection of this run of singles and albums that Elton John’s legendary career is built on, and the first widely released compilation to display what a knack Elton had for crafting radio-friendly singles during an era when the album was king.

Another thing that explains the popularity of this album compared to all of Elton John’s other greatest hits collections is that it came out at just the right time in his career. As I mentioned, Elton John was just on an absolute tear from 1970 to 1974 in terms of crafting the types of singles that catered to an audience hungry for dependable piano pop during an era when the rules of what constituted popular music seemed to be changing with each month. Though there was certainly good music that Elton would put out after Greatest Hits’ release, it was never quite as consistent or plugged into popular taste as it was during that run. So releasing an album at the peak of that run while also appealing to listeners who were merely content with Elton John’s hits without having to indulge the album cuts feels like a no-brainer formula for a mega-selling album with minimal effort on the part of Elton John’s record company, MCA.

That all said, it’s a little hard for me to speak to any personal experience with the cultural impact of this album, since it has been out of print for a while, being supplanted by several more comprehensive Elton John greatest hits collections throughout the decades. However, one of those subsequent greatest hits albums was, in fact, the album that turned me into an Elton John fan: the 2-disc set Greatest Hits 1970-2002. This was a CD I bought Christmas 2002 for my mom, a lifelong Elton John fan who owned various CDs from his 80s and 90s period that I remember being staples of the CD collection in my childhood living rooms. But as far as I remember, she didn’t own a definitive greatest hits collection spanning his entire career. This would’ve been because such a thing wasn’t possible until Universal Music Group acquired the rights to Elton John’s entire catalog in the early ‘00s.

Upon this initial purchase, I don’t have much memory of hearing this album apart from it being some pleasant post-Christmas listening that I still couldn’t help but be disinterested in due to a knee-jerk instinct to regard it as “mom music”. However, a few years later, when I was having my mind blown by the classic rock artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s, this Elton John greatest hits compilation seemed like a prime target for where my musical tastes were wandering.

As if the strength of the songs weren’t enough, I was also convinced of Sir Elton’s greatness by the compilation’s liner notes, which opened with depicting a scene where a 1970 post-Beatles John Lennon praised this up-and-coming singer named Elton John when meeting him for the first time, and thus painting him as some sort of heir apparent to the fab four. That sort of short-hand combined with the fact that the early singles on disc one of Greatest Hits 1970-2022 felt more potent and transcendent than his later work went a long way in evolving Elton John’s place in my mind as being more than just the guy who’d sang a bunch of songs in Disney’s The Lion King. 

Though the early singles contained within that compilation were good enough to make me seek out Elton John albums like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, I’m not sure that discovering his music was a revelatory moment for me personally the way The Beatles or The Who had been. Elton John’s music was perfectly pleasant and often electric, but it also lacked the more daring tendencies that a lot of the great artists of the ‘70s had. However, this probably speaks to why Elton’s music has been so massively popular — its perfectly-calibrated pop sheen is likable enough to appeal to more serious music fans as well as those just looking for something to hum along to.

It is interesting to me that one of the few other greatest hits albums to make it into the Top 50 best-selling albums of all-time is Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, since to me they operate in a similar lane as Elton John. These artists are both incredibly likable, so likable that they can appeal both to your grandma and your moody nephew who’s discovering “old music”. I also feel like Elton John was to the ‘70s what Simon & Garfunkel were to the ‘60s. They both were undoubtedly birthed from these incredibly turbulent decades, and yet there’s a kind of ease and comfort in their music that allows you to feel a kind of nostalgia for those times (whether you grew up in them or not), while also being able to appreciate the effortless songcraft involved in their recordings.

Did This Deserve To Be Popular?

Of all the albums I’ve covered, this feels like one of the most unnecessary times I’ve had to ponder whether an album deserved to be popular. It’s like asking if pop music itself deserves to be popular. Each song on Greatest Hits is so durable and also timeless in its ability to feel a bit outside of the time period it was produced in. Elton John certainly had ties to the various styles that were popular from the early to mid-70s: singer-songwriter folk rock, Beatles-inspired power pop, as well as the aesthetic flashiness of glam rock. However, Elton John has never fit that snuggly into any of those genres, and feels both like he’s a distinct genre unto himself, so timeless that he’s continued to be influential to countless pop singers across various sub-genres, showing up in the past decade or so on songs by pop artists as varied as Britney Spears, Kate Bush, and Dua Lipa. His music feels as if it’s in the DNA of pop music itself, and his legacy has only been further cemented by being one of the first singers (along with David Bowie and Freddie Mercury) to stealthily bring queer culture into the mainstream.

As for the songs on Greatest Hits, it’s hard to take issue with any of them, save for “Border Song”, which hasn’t really stood out as an Elton John staple. It’s also a little surprising that a few favorites from this period like “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon” aren’t included here. But this album is clearly just trying to be the most succinct primer on what made Elton John rule the early ‘70s, and the fact that all of these songs are so ubiquitous as to feel a little boring perhaps speaks to how effectively the album accomplishes what it’s trying to do. That said, it makes the album a little hard to get much out of if you’re someone like me who has heard these songs a million times.

So instead of pondering the greatness of this compilation, I’m more compelled to bring up the age-old question of whether greatest hits albums are a worthwhile endeavor in the first place. It’s something I’ve been questioning again recently as I’ve been listening to a bunch of Abba albums after years of letting Abba: Gold be the full extent of my knowledge of their catalog. I’ve found it to be a pretty enjoyable experience doing this for a band like Abba, whose albums always feature enough hits to keep you satisfied, and fit even more snuggly alongside the songs that were recorded during the same sessions. While there are a few artists who are so singles-oriented that a greatest hits compilation seems like the best representation of their sound, I continue to find that this is an extreme rarity, as even a band as hits-oriented as Abba is probably best enjoyed while listening to their proper albums. However, in our “all bangers”, playlist-driven era, I hardly think the idea of wanting to listen to “just the hits” of a certain artist will ever lose its appeal.

As for Elton John, I’ve had the same experience of getting more out of listening to his proper albums than his greatest hits compilations, since his albums always feature a song or two that reveal Elton’s less hit-obsessed instincts. It also feels hard to make the case that this Greatest Hits album (or any other) is the best introduction to the man born Reginald Dwight when Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is a great gateway album in that it shows both the true breadth of Elton John’s talent as well as his ability to crank out hits, featuring four of his most iconic singles. Still, it is a double album and it does have a few songs that people who are only casual fans would most likely end up skipping. Another thing that keeps it from being an easily accessible hits-fest is that the first track on that album, the thrilling “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” is 10 minutes long. So for that reason, I will concede that with Elton John’s best album not being entirely reflective of his crowd-pleasing instincts, it is perhaps necessary for a greatest hits album to be that gateway to his discography, much like Greatest Hits 1970-2002 was for me.

Would I Pay Money For This?

As good as the songs are on this album, as I mentioned earlier, there just isn’t much for me to get out of listening to this compilation. I just know Elton John’s singles from this period too damn well, and while it’s not impossible for me to imagine wanting to own this vinyl just because it’s out of print for pure collector’s reasons, I can’t really imagine ever wanting to listen to it again. There are more comprehensive Elton John greatest hits comps out there, but even that doesn’t take away from the fact that if I’m going to buy any Elton John music at this point, I’m much more interested in seeking out his proper albums from this period rather than Greatest Hits. So that’ll be a mild “no” from me.

Next Time On The People’s Albums: Man! I might feel like a woman when reviewing Come On Over by Shania Twain. Or maybe it won’t impress-a me much.