What makes an album a gajillion-seller is a combination of factors so incoherent that it’s more-or-less impossible to list 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 means more people exposed to it means more people hearing it 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 part 2 this extensively-researched, closely-examined regarding of the biggest-selling records of all time1. Part 1 can be found here.
1 according to Wikipedia
Mariah Carey – Music Box
WHAT IT IS: Nineties pop music, which, as previously covered, sold a bunch.
WHY IT’S HERE: I wonder if it’s difficult for people to believe how hyperbolically popular Mariah Carey’s awful music was? She’s been a fixture of the “famous for being famous” circuit for such a long time at this point – more noteworthy in 2016 for her general inability to behave as a human than for her (admittedly impressive) voice. If it is, and any of you young people happen not to know, she sold so very, very many records. I suspect this is a testament to the ability of music videos to move units. She was a very videogenic singer.
AND…?: I mean, her music itself is terrible. It’s everything that was wrong with R&B in the nineties. It’s most of the things that were wrong with pop music full stop in the nineties. Also, if pop music hasn’t gotten any better in the last twenty-three years2, pop music production sure has. Music Box is even pretty terrible by the rubric of “Mariah Carey records”, mostly due to the fact that she sounds like she’s about to fall asleep for just about all of it.
THE BEST SONG: “Without You.” The best song on this album is a Badfinger cover. I honestly never thought I would ever have to write that sentence.
2 for whatever reason, the age of this album doesn’t send me into a paroxysm of contemplating my own mortality quite as much as the Celine Dion record from last time does.
Michael Jackson – Dangerous
WHAT IT IS: The follow-up to Bad3. See previously w/r/t Bad 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 Bad, in most terms that matter, including having a bunch of singles (although a smaller percentage than Bad), and also a bunch of videos and stuff.
AND…?: I mean, I hate to only have one thing to say about one of these records, but it’s a lot like Bad. Oh, the production is different, but that’s about it.
THE BEST SONG: Aw, hell, it’s “Black or White.” I’m only human.
3 this is the studio follow-up to Bad. There is at least one compilation in between the two (they’re four years apart), but this is the next actual album of material MJ recorded after Bad.
Various Artists – Dirty Dancing
WHAT IT IS: It’s the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing, a movie I have never seen.
WHY IT’S HERE: For the same reason soundtracks remain on here, and also because all of you have seen it, and that’s enough to sell a bunch of copies of your soundtrack album, provided it came out during the period of time when people were buying soundtrack albums.
AND…?: Well, for an album with a Blow Monkeys song on it, it’s better than I would’ve expected. It just sounds like older-skewing eighties radio music.
THE BEST SONG: “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”. Bill Medley could really sing. Nothing can take that away from him.
Celine Dion – Let’s Talk About Love
WHAT IT IS: Yet another Celine Dion record. This one is the follow-up to Falling Into You (see previous installment). One of the features of the worldwide bestsellers list is the fierce Canadian devotion to Canadian artists. Celine Dion is the highest-selling act Canada has ever produced, and Canadians buy Canadian stuff. I’m unsure if Canadian artists are more likely to sell in England due to their shared queen, but, y’know, it’s probably something worth looking into.
WHY IT’S HERE: Let’s Talk About Love has a kind of confluence happening, a perfect storm of record-sales-boom-years factors: it contains the hit from a super-duper-huge movie (“My Heart Will Go On”), the carryover from her previous megaselling record, the aforementioned Canadian thing, and a bunch of guest appearances from other super-famous singer types4 (the Bee Gees, Barbra Streisand, Luciano Pavaroti). I’m surprised it didn’t sell more, honestly.
AND…?: Oh, it’s still awful. I mean, there’s not really any way to save this. Unlike last time, the Jim Steinman song doesn’t even work. Oh, and former The Bodyguard songwriter Linda Thompson wrote a song for it also. I should write a book about her or something, this is still super weird.
THE BEST SONG: “Why Oh Why,” but that’s pretty thin gruel
4 and Diana King
The Beatles – 1
WHAT IT IS: A collection of The Beatles’ number 1 hits and thus a sort of de facto single-disc greatest hits5. It is also, due to where my Beatles phase fell biographically, the first Beatles album I ever owned.
WHY IT’S HERE: Repackaged or not, it’s still a Beatles disc with a bunch of songs you definitely know on it, and it was accompanied by a huge marketing campaign and all that.
AND…?: I mean, they’re good songs, and they’re easy to like, and it’s The Beatles. It’s weird what went to #1 and what didn’t, I suppose, but honestly, it’s as good as you’d think it is, for whatever value of “good” you think the Beatles are.
THE BEST SONG: “Ticket to Ride.” I unabashedly have a favorite Beatles song, and it’s unabashedly “Ticket to Ride”. But I would accept “Hey Jude”.
5 The Beatles other extant greatest hits discs are the red and blue collections, which are each double albums, and thus fetch double-album prices. Interestingly, because of the way the RIAA counts sales in the U.S.*, each of these makes the best-selling album list in the United States, but hasn’t sold enough to make it for the worldwide list.
* to wit, a double album counts as a double purchase, thus each copy bought counts double. This is the means by which The Weeknd got his first platinum record a couple of years ago – Trilogy was a triple album priced as a single album, and thus only sold just over 300,000, each of which counted triple.
Adele – 21
WHAT IT IS: It’s far and away6 the most recent record on the list. It’s anchored to “Rolling in the Deep,” which obtained a kind of public-space ubiquity that is functionally impossible in 2011 (despite the fact that it actually, y’know, happened).
WHY IT’S HERE: Adele is as close as it’s possible to a pop star that appeals to pretty much everybody that likes any particular stripe of pop music. She’s a classically good singer whose records are remarkably free of production dross or dumb sounds, and 21 is a strong collection of songs. “Someone Like You” and “Set Fire to the Rain” would have also been impressively gigantic singles if they weren’t dwarfed entirely (in sales and quality, frankly) by “Rolling in the Deep”.
AND…?: It’s a good record! It sounds good, the songs are good, it’s good. There’s very little about it not to like.
THE BEST SONG: “Rolling in the Deep,” for which not enough praise is heaped upon the backing vocalists.
6 by, like, a decade
The Beatles – Abbey Road
WHAT IT IS: The final Beatles album to be recorded7, and also the most inconsistent – “Here Comes the Sun” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” are on this album, and if that isn’t peaks and valleys then I don’t know how else to define it. This is a rare creature, in that it’s an album that was pretty much known ahead of time to be the band’s final trips into the studio.
WHY IT’S HERE: You know, I can’t really think of a thing that would elevate it in sales over, say, Revolver, but it’s here because it’s The Beatles, and because it has a bunch of hits on it. Although I will say whatever it is, I’m not immune to it, because it’s the album I listen to the most often in the present day. Except “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”.
AND…?: Paul McCartney’s suite that (mostly) ends the second side – “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” – would be enough to make it a great album even without “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”8 or the two George Harrison songs (“Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”). Obviously it’s pretty good.
THE BEST SONG: “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End”, or, if you need something that’s all on one track, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”.
7 the troubled Let it Be was recorded before it, but released after it.
8 perhaps the greatest deployment of the locked groove* ever released on vinyl.
* this, for you youngsters, is where the actual, physical groove of the record at the end of the song – the riff that’s repeated a bunch of times on the CD/mp3/however you listen to it – is constructed such that it resets the needle so that the riff repeats until you get up and physically remove the needle from the record. Its major contenders for “greatest” (and further examples) are side 4 of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, the end of “Providence” on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s F#A#infinity, and the end of “Expressway to Your Skull” on Sonic Youth’s Evol.
Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
WHAT IT IS: The MTV hitmaker era of Bruce Springsteen in its (I guess) best form. Stuffed full of songs that were worked as singles, most of which were attached to videos (at least two of which are even kind of memorable), it is also the first of a string of Bruce Springsteen studio albums that are…not great.
WHY IT’S HERE: Probably egregious misunderstandings of the title track? The aforementioned videos, surely, and a general gameness to play along with a new form of promotion and whatnot. It’s also as radio-friendly as anything he’d recorded to this point – even moreso than the far superior Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town that launched his rockstardom9 – and that probably helped.
AND…?: I really don’t like it as a record. It has some good songs – “Born in the USA,” “No Surrender” and “Downbound Train” – but mostly it’s just an overproduced mushpot of a record.
THE BEST SONG: “Downbound Train”
9 and considerably moreso than my actual favorite Bruce Springsteen record, Nebraska.
Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms
WHAT IT IS: Another album that was absolutely hugemongous when it came out that isn’t much thought of now – “Money for Nothin’”, “So Far Away” and “Walk of Life” are still on classic rock radio all the time, but it’s not like it comes up in many other contexts – and an ignominious end to a pretty good band.
WHY IT’S HERE: Well, as I keep saying, it used to be possible to market these things into existence. The Dire Straits had made a handful of records at the time of Brothers in Arms, and had some success, but this is their big, swing-for-the-fences attempt tocapitalize on that rock star brass ring. It was helped along by the highly-seen video for the cranky, Sting-deploying “Money for Nothin’”, which was probably enough in 1985 to sell several million copies on its back alone.
AND…?: It’s alright. The Dire Straits’ first, self-titled album is pretty much unimpeachable, but there’s diminishing returns over time10. It feels less like an outgrowth of the band, and more like an attempt to make a bunch of money out of a known quantity – it’s their last album before their first breakup, and it’s hard to imagine that the decision to make it sound like an overbaked 80s radio rock record is anything but financially motivated. That’s not to the album’s benefit. That said, it’s not bad. It’s just that not hearing it wouldn’t prevent you from living a full and joyous life.
THE BEST SONG: “Brothers in Arms,” which, tellingly, was written several years before the rest of the songs on the album, and feels like it’s actually the work of a band.
10 just compare “Sultans of Swing” with “Walk of Life” for an idea of just how different the two things are.
James Horner – Titanic: Music From the Motion Picture
WHAT IT IS: It is exactly what it says on the tin.
WHY IT’S HERE: Titanic really, really took over pop culture in a way that even being one of the highest-grossing movies of all time can’t really communicate. This is the score. It sold many millions of copies. It probably sold to people who already owned the Celine Dion album with “My Heart Will Go On” on it.
AND…?: James Horner is big business in the realm of film scores, which I always think is weird, because I pretty much never remember his film scores. I literally cannot imagine buying one as an album, and several of the movies he’s scored11 are movies I love or have loved deeply. It’s fine as film music, but listening to it in isolation doesn’t really do much. Of course this may be partly because it’s the score to a film I saw one time almost twenty years ago.
THE BEST SONG: Uh… “Rose”? Let’s say “Rose”.
11 To wit: Aliens, An American Tail, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and The Rocketeer.
Madonna – The Immaculate Collection
WHAT IT IS: Madonna’s “greatest” hits.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because Madonna sold a whole mess of records, and the songs everyone knows are in one place here.
AND…?: My opinions about Madonna notwithstanding, a collection of Madonna’s most radio-played singles is literally the one thing I could reasonably justify someone wanting to have, so I get it. It’s still terrible, but there’s no accounting for taste.
THE BEST SONG: “Like a Prayer”
Metallica – Metallica
WHAT IT IS: “The Black Album”. The album where Metallica started writing shorter, catchier songs. The biggest-selling heavy metal album of all time.
WHY IT’S HERE: The mid-to-late eighties (Metallica came out in 1991) were the period when heavy metal began its journey on the road to its current state of being an endlessly-fractured set of microgenres, each of which had specific rules about its presentation and conduct. Part of what happened, here, was that some of the heavy metal bands associated with Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip (and also New Jersey, but I don’t have an answer for why that happened) became very famous and the louder, more aggressive bands (the ones that would become responsible for speed metal/thrash metal12) became a refuge for people that wanted to listen to heavy music that didn’t involve a high degree of bullshit13, and that was actually heavy, and not just dumb music made by dumb people for dumb reasons14. Metallica was the best of these15, but were also, it turns out, the most willing to play the game. So they spent a few years converting themselves from the band that had to be talked out of naming their first record Fuck ‘Em All to being a band that converted their considerable chops – both in terms of playing and songwriting – into writing punchy songs with choruses and stuff, which in turn made them easier to seek out and get into, which snowballed into them selling a gajillion copies of this record after the videos got on MTV and stuff.
AND…?: It’s still pretty good. I liked this record a lot as a young person. I like it somewhat less now, but it’s still fine. It is, as is par for the course for the greatest selling records of all time, overproduced, but that’s probably to be expected. It’s not nearly as good as the Metallica records prior to it. It’s better than the Metallica records that came after it. I have a really boring set of opinions about this record. They’re pretty much the same as anyone else’s.
THE BEST SONG: “Wherever I May Roam”
12 See? This is why heavy metal is such a difficult thing to keep track of. NB also that the couple of sentences preceding this footnote contain no less than 4 points of contention for metal historians, and I’m not addressing them outright because there is literally no way to be correct here.
14 do you see the subtle editorializing there?
15 I am asserting here that Metallica were better than Exodus, Slayer and Megadeth, for context.