Previously, I discussed (again) the direction of the record selling industry, and the continued futility of trying to demand that any given market conform to your exact expectations. It did not touch upon a sort of truism, which is that the product largely available from the record selling industry is mostly crap anyway. So, thinketh I, how crap is it1?
1 it may have been my inner audience responding to my inner Buddy Ebsen, but, y’know, we’re going to treat them like they’re one and the same.
What makes an album a gajillion-seller is a combination of factors so incoherent that it’s more-or-less impossible to llist or talk about them in any real sense as a class – each gajillion seller is different in its genesis. At a certain point, however, the primary force behind a record selling a bunch of copies is momentum. More copies sold means more chart presence which means more press presence which means more people exposed to it which means more people hearing it which means more copies sold. These records have reached a point where they have a kind of gravity – they accrete sales at this point, rather than achieving them, planetary bodies around which other records orbit, touchpoints for people to find and recognize while they find other, more personal planets.
That said, many of the best-selling records of all time are not specifically good or bad. I’m not going to bat for most of them here, but there’s usually a reason. What that reason is is sometimes anybody’s guess (and sometimes it’s more a success in marketing and stuff than it is in actual music). So, in the interest of figuring it all out, I listened to them. All of them. Even when it was painful. Even when it was really painful.
So I bring you this extensively-researched, closely-examined regarding of the biggest-selling records of all time2.
2 according to Wikipedia
Michael Jackson – Thriller
WHAT IT IS: The Michael Jackson record and, by extension, kind of the pop record. Even if you’ve never intentionally put this record on to listen to yourself, you’ve heard most of (if not actually all of) its songs. Historically, this record went a long way to ending the record-selling slump in the early eighties.
WHY IT’S HERE: It happened at a time when it could take advantage of everything the music industry was able to do to market things – one of the first huge “event” videos, a ton of songs that wound up marketed to radio.
AND…?: It’s fine. It’s super-dated. Michael Jackson was a very good singer. It’s hard to say how much of this would actually hold up, given that for many years there was a ton of music that sounded like this. Michael Jackson is an interesting case in a lot of ways, because his music would shift stylistically pretty wildly, but it always sounds basically like Michael Jackson’s music.
THE BEST SONG: “Wanna’ Be Startin’ Somethin’”, which in addition to being the best song, also has the best dropped g’s.
AC/DC – Back in Black
WHAT IT IS: Whatever could be meant by “rockin’,” Back in Black is pretty much its apotheosis.
WHY IT’S HERE: Tunes that it’s hard not to like, wrapped up in tight, radio-friendly production. Actually, in terms of its outright sonic influence and general sounds-like-itself-ness, Back in Black has a lot in common with Thriller3.
AND…?: I mean, it’s fine. It sounds like it sounds. Not else sounds very much like it. When I sit down with AC/DC (which doesn’t happen that often) I’m always impressed, at the very least, by how, no matter how much they sound like a band that’s easy to imitate, they really kind of aren’t. That’s pretty cool. They’re pretty cool. I’ll probably not listen to this record all the way through again until I do something like this again and give it another spin.
THE BEST SONG: “You Shook Me All Night Long”
3 provided you’re not actually, y’know, listening to the music.
Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon
WHAT IT IS: The longest-charting record of all time4. Probably the worst Pink Floyd record made while Roger Waters was in the band. Another album you know all the songs on, mostly because of classic rock radio.
WHY IT’S HERE: It was on the album charts for sixteen non-consecutive years. Whatever else, everybody bought this friggin’ thing eventually.
AND…?: For all that you’ve heard it all way too often and for all that Pink Floyd has done much, much, much better, it’s not bad. But there’s a lot of studio wankery going on here, and it doesn’t serve the record particularly well. I suppose it earns its longstanding reputation as a good record to use to test your hi-fi. Y’know, if you have a hi-fi.
THE BEST SONG: “Brain Damage/Eclipse”
4 861 weeks!
Whitney Houston/Various Artists – The Bodyguard
WHAT IT IS: The soundtrack to The Bodyguard. Whitney Houston was in it opposite Kevin Costner. It would literally be impossible to remember were it not for this album and, specifically, its single.
WHY IT’S HERE: Movie soundtracks used to be enormous business (there’s several forthcoming on this list5), especially movie soundtracks with a hugenormous single attached to them. People used to have to buy the album to get the song, and the song had the advantage of being in the movie they were watching and having feelings about. The soundtrack itself was actually nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars for two different songs6, but most of the songs are pretty bog-standard early-nineties soundtrack stuff. Really, this soundtrack is about Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You,” which probably deserves every accolade ever heaped upon it in terms of Whitney Houston’s voice (which was a force of nature, and is put to better use here than on any other song she ever recorded), and prooooobably doesn’t deserve much credit for being a very good song in the first place7. Anyway, that’s why this album sold in the gajillions – Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You.”
AND…?: There’s basically nothing else to recommend it. There’s a song you’ve heard seven hundred million times and a bunch of other songs that I’m struggling to remember even after having just listened to it.
THE BEST SONG: Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You”
5 spoiler alert!
6 one of which was written by Linda Thompson, of all people.
7 I have a complicated relationship with Dolly Parton, which I may have gotten into previously, whereby I think she, as a person or as a public presence, is 100% great, but as a songwriter is pretty much not at all good. I do not like her voice. I do not like her songs.
Meat Loaf – Bat Out of Hell
WHAT IT IS: A grab-bag of late-seventies hard rock styles (kind of proggy, occasionally throwbacky, always enormous), carried on the back of Jim Steinman’s more-is-more arrangements, Meat Loaf’s enormous opera voice, and Todd Rundgren’s impressive ability to give all of the kitchen-sink-inclusive songs room to live their lives. It has a couple of sequels (because of course it does), neither of which is as good as this one.
WHY IT’S HERE: Between this and The Bodyguard, I’m starting to think people just really want there to be people with huge, loud voices on the radio8. It’s also got some really impressive numbers for its chart success in England, which I’m not sure I can explain.
AND…?: I like Bat Out of Hell. I heard it roughly seventeen thousand times in my house growing up, and it still sounds much like it did then: it’s huge and engaging and impressive in its bombast.
THE BEST SONG: “Bat Out of Hell”
8 see also: a future installment’s treatment of Adele’s 21
The Eagles – Their Greatest Hits
WHAT IT IS: The Eagles are widely maligned, and that’s for a very good reason: they’re awful. This is awful, boring music. This record doesn’t even have the decency to have “Journey of the Sourcer”9 on it.
WHY IT’S HERE: Classic rock radio playlists would be denuded without these morons, so the familiarity necessary to buy the records is definitely programmed into everybody by the time they’ve got spending money.
AND…?: Smooth harmonies. Unending guitar solos, followed by more guitar solos. Don Henley is a better singer than he is a drummer, but the songs he plays drums on and doesn’t sing are the better songs. For a value of better. Too much production. Too much fingerpicking. Too much everything, except anything that would make this tolerable.
THE BEST SONG: I guess “Desperado,” because at least then you can remember that one Seinfeld episode and be happy for a minute.
9 aka the theme to the BBC’s Hithchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Bee Gees/Various Artists – Saturday Night Fever
WHAT IT IS: The soundtrack to Gene Siskel’s favorite movie.
WHY IT’S HERE: Really, I was previously underselling the number of people that would buy soundtracks albums to movies that are ungodly huge, especially if they have a song that ends up on the radio every day forever everywhere on them.
AND…?: You people are on your own. This is worse than The Eagles.
THE BEST SONG: Kool & The Gang, “Open Sesame.” Sort of.
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours
WHAT IT IS: The record everybody knows about the making of (a bunch of them divorced or broke up with the rest fo them, and also a tonne of drugs). As an anecdotal aside, my life has been full of people trying to convince me that this record is somehow underrated, despite literally selling 40 million copies. That annoys me almost as much as trying to listen to the goddamn thing.
WHY IT’S HERE: It has a tonne of hits (as many hits as drugs, really), and it has a super-easy-to-grab backstory, which makes it a cinch to remember, easy to write about, easy to talk about, and easy to dig into – people have always loved to be voyeurs into this kind of psychodrama, and have always been interested in the relationships of the rich and famous, and this record allowed them all to imagine it all playing out through the lyrics, which is a potent hook for buying it. And then, of course, it’s all over the radio all the time and peole just know it. Plus every tenth goddamn person thinks it’s underrated. 40 million copies. Underrated. Give me a break.
AND…?: Lindsey Buckingham was a really interesting guitar player. Mick Fleetwood was a good drummer. They should have been in a better band together. Some of this is fine (if bland), a lot of this is seventies California radio rock, and just isn’t worth the time it takes to hear to try to dig through it to see if there’s more good bits hiding down there. I also hate the way it physically sounds (like production-wise), but I’m willing to mark that down to my own idiosyncracies than anything to do with the record itself.
THE BEST SONG: Probably “Secondhand News,” but I might also argue for “The Chain”
Shania Twain – Come On Over
WHAT IT IS: The apex (in terms of popularity) of the country music boom in the nineties10, Come on Over is the hardest of these records to listen to (weird that the most difficult ones are all in a clot here).
WHY IT’S HERE: It sounds like the radio in the nineties, and is extraordinarily dated, but also, since nearly every fucking song was worked to radio as a single, and many of them were impossibly enormous crossover hits, an unholy number of people end up with this one. You full-on could not turn on a radio, anywhere, and not hear a frigging Shania Twain song eventually. It’s presence here, then, I think has something to do with both its ubiquity and its distinct evocation of a time and place – it sounds like the nineties, and signifies “country” in a way that other things don’t necessarily, while actually just being a shiny pop object with occasional twang. It’s worth comparing this to, say, Garth Brooks11, who didn’t sell as much (weirdly), but was a country singer who happened to get extremely popular. Shania Twain would have sung whatever was put in front of her, but she wound up singing country. And so she made a radio-friendly, hugely-of-the-moment record with her husband, who specialized in radio-friendly, hugely-of-the-moment records, and got exactly what they both wanted. Plus, seriously, these songs were everywhere. It was miserable.
AND…?: It was a terrible record then, and now it’s a terrible record that has aged poorly. Shania Twain is nothing more than a competent singer. These are not good songs. There are things that I hear, twenty years on, and think “oh that was cute,” but they are things that it’s possible to hear in other places.
THE BEST SONG: “Come On Over,” since I have to pick one. But rest assured you do not have to listen to it unless you’re doing some kind of blog piece about the best-selling records of all time.
10 which wasn’t a boom in buying as much as it was in reporting the sales that were already there – the country music “boom” was a result of the switch from self-reported totals from record stores to a point-of-sale scanning system that reported actual copies sold. It was discovered that people were buying way more country records than the stores were reporting, and thus there were new people to market to and new ways to market to them.
11 who doesn’t make this list, which is worldwide, but makes the best-selling albums of the US list twice for Double Live and No Fences, both of which are, on rough estimate, six thousand times better than Come On Over.
Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV
WHAT IT IS: Another good record, finally. Led Zeppelin IV is a legitimately great record that has, rightfully, become hugely popular and that everyone has heard. Proof that sometimes good things happen in this world, even to people who stole heavily from blues musicians and probably had sex with a bunch of underage girls. Even to pretty icky people, is what I’m saying here.
WHY IT’S HERE: Led Zeppelin’s rise came with the increased focus on FM radio12, which was instrumental in transferring the unit of musical importance from the single to the album. Albums were much more profitable to manufacture, but it was difficult initially to convince people to switch, so FM radio helped to encourage people to think of singles as kids’ stuff, and the album as the fully-formed unit of grown-up musical thought. Led Zeppelin were among the recipients of the effects of this push, to the point that they mostly didn’t bother with singles. Since IV (aka Zoso aka Four Symbols aka Technically This Record Doesn’t Have a Title) is the one you probably know all the songs from (except maybe “Four Sticks”), it’s the one you’re most likely to buy when you’re buying a Led Zeppelin record.
AND…?: It’s great. I mean, Led Zeppelin is one of those bands that earn the reputation they got, and IV, despite taking up too much real estate on the radio, is a great record.
THE BEST SONG: “When the Levee Breaks”
12 it’s worth noting here that it also came contrary to the concomitant rise of popular rock music criticism, which largely was set against Led Zeppelin. For the first forty or so years of rock music criticism, loud music wasn’t taken seriously until it was very old.
Michael Jackson – Bad
WHAT IT IS: The follow up to Thriller13. See above w/r/t Thriller and move it forward in time a couple of years. It’s the same, in most terms that matter.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because it’s the same as Thriller, in most terms that matter, including a whole ton of singles, and a bunch of videos and stuff.
AND…?: I mean, I hate to only have one thing to say here, but it’s a lot like Thriller. Oh, the production is slightly different (it’s four years later), but that’s about it.
13 well, the studio follow-up to Thriller. There are a bunch of compilations between the two (they’re four years apart), but this is the next actual album of material MJ recorded after Thriller.
Alanis Morisette – Jagged Little Pill
WHAT IT IS: Yet another record to get lumped in with Celine Dion (see below) or Shania Twain or The Bodyguard soundtrack – people bought a lot of records in the nineties, and this sure was one of ‘em.
WHY IT’S HERE: Marketing really did work in the nineties, guys. Remember when every couple of months one print magazine or the other did a “women in rock” issue? This was part of that. It really captured a moment. Such as it was.
AND…?: It’s fine. Of the records I compared it to a couple of sentences ago, it’s infinitely better than Come On Over or Falling Into You, and pretty clearly better than The Bodyguard soundtrack. Unique among the pop records on this list, it has some excellent drumming on it (that is mostly sidelined by the particularly cruel nineties radio production) courtesy Canadian Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins.
THE BEST SONG: Oh, it probably really is “You Oughta Know.” Why not?
Celine Dion – Falling Into You
WHAT IT IS: IT’S TWENTY YEARS OLD? Nothing on this list is making me feel as old as the fact that this album is twenty years old. I know there are older albums. This makes me feel old like those older albums don’t. It’s just not fair that time keeps marching inexorably forward.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because it has a bunch of radio hits. Hits that were on the radio twenty years ago, because I am old.
AND….?: Uh, it’s also pretty bad. If nothing else, it has the worst cover of “River Deep, Mountain High” ever recorded, which I guess means something historically.
THE BEST SONG: The Jim Steinman-penned “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”14
14 which actually has quite a history – it started out as the single from a girl band that Jim Steinman attempted to Svengali into popularity called Pandora’s Box. It was then covered by Celine Dion, who had an impossibly enormous hit with it. It would, eventually, be covered as a duet with Marion Raven on Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell III
The Beatles – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
WHAT IT IS: While it’s true that I don’t have the numbers in front of me, I would be willing to guess that this is the record that is most often called the best record ever made, or at least the best rock record ever made. It isn’t (it isn’t even the best Beatles record), but it sure gets a lot of credit for being so.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because when you call something the best record ever made enough, a bunch of people are going to buy it. Many millions of people, in fact.
AND…?: Oh, it’s fine. I’m not even not necessarily saying it’s not a great record. I’m just saying Revolver and Abbey Road and Let it Be are all better. Also Rubber Soul. And Help. And The White Album.
THE BEST SONG: “A Day in the Life”
The Eagles – Hotel California
WHAT IT IS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?y-JlmvtAHhnc
WHY IT’S HERE: Because we live in the darkest timeline, and not enough people agree with The Dude. The greatest hits record is one thing. This overbaked pile of nonsense is just unconscionable.
AND…?: [thirty minutes of vomiting noises]
THE BEST SONG: The first, like, seven seconds of “Life in the Fast Lane” is kind of neat. So, that.
That wraps it up for part 1. Tune in in the future (there’s an awards show and another thing before I get back to this) for the next handful of these records, provided I don’t actually lose my mind first!