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For some bands, a greatest-hits release isn't the greatest move

Cake (with singer John McCrea, above) is a greatest-hits holdout. Cake (with singer John McCrea, above) is a greatest-hits holdout. (Regina Kuehne/Keystone via AP)

A side effect of today's fractured, tumultuous music industry is the fluctuating meaning of the greatest-hits album.

On one hand, it remains a giant moneymaker for labels, which are urging their artists to make best-of compilations increasingly earlier in their careers. On the other, iTunes has made it redundant. If you want an act's highlights, you can assemble them yourself.

This dichotomy has, for some bands, made the decision to make a best-of album an increasingly difficult, sometimes contentious one. Some view greatest-hits albums as a blatant money grab that disrespects the integrity of the album. Pressure from labels can also come sooner than expected.

The Sacramento, Calif., band Cake (its hits include "The Distance" and "Short Skirt, Long Jacket") was requested by its former label, Columbia Records, to make a greatest-hits album. With only a handful of well-known albums to its name, the band judged a best-of disc to be premature. They refused, prompting a legal fight between Cake and Columbia.

In the end, Cake left to form its own label, Upbeat Records, and will instead release "B-sides and Rarities" on Oct. 2, with a live disc to follow this fall.

"I have mixed feelings about greatest-hits albums," said Cake lead singer and guitarist John McCrea. "They're a force that can be used for good or evil.

"For us at that point, we felt like it wasn't the appropriate moment -- that we hadn't existed long enough to warrant some sort of wistful retrospection. It kind of reeked of desperation."

In recent years, a number of acts have released greatest-hits albums early in their careers, including Britney Spears, Hilary Duff, and Sugar Ray.

The advent of iTunes (not to mention illegal downloading and MySpace) has meant a band's most-popular songs can be instantly sampled or bought, but greatest-hits discs remain lucrative to labels. In recent Nielsen SoundScan sales charts, at least half of the top 50 top-selling catalog albums typically are compilations.

Labels often add rare unreleased material or unique packaging to these albums to entice die-hard fans. They are also viewed as a way to introduce audiences to acts with which they may be unfamiliar.

Still, there are several notable holdouts, including AC/DC, Radiohead, Phish, and Metallica. Many artists feel greatest-hits discs corrupt the integrity of their prior albums. For the same reason, Radiohead and AC/DC have thus far resisted putting their music on iTunes, where albums are chopped into single tracks.

It's a stance Chris Lombardi, founder of independent label Matador Records, often encounters. Many of the artists on Matador's roster haven't had hits in the conventional sense, but could benefit from having highlights assembled. In 2003, Matador released "The Best of Guided by Voices: Human Amusements at Hourly Rates" -- a sensible collection for Guided by Voices, whose prodigious output included 16 full-length albums.

"I felt the output was so huge for that band that to narrow it down would be helpful," said Lombardi.

Whether a label needs the consent of an act to issue a compilation varies from contract to contract. Catalog sales account for approximately 40 to 50 percent of a label's annual gross, so rereleasing and repackaging old material is far more than an afterthought.

"If an artist has a say in these kind of things, you'd think that they'd want a greatest-hits record to be an intro to the band as a way to guide you into buying the rest of the records as opposed to being a substitute," said Steve Kandell, deputy editor of Spin magazine.

Some greatest-hits records take on a life of their own -- like the Eagles' "Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)," which is the best-selling album ever in the United States. Other bands like U2 and Aerosmith have been criticized for a seemingly unceasing parade of greatest hits albums.

"There's a reason why it doesn't seem very artistic: It's not. It's a commercial ploy," says McCrea. "That said, there are some terrific greatest-hits albums."