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.
1 according to Wikipedia
Nirvana – Nevermind
WHAT IT IS: I mean, sort of ground zero for your correspondent, as well as for a lot of people who are really into loud music and are about my age, give or take a few years2. The one with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on it.
WHY IT’S HERE: Well, I think the fact that it was ubiquitous is the cause of the aforementioned ground zero condition, not the result. It had an easy-to-publish story3, it’s since developed some tragic circumstances, it was associated with a music video back when that worked. Generally it’s a case of marketing working for record sales in the nineties, really.
AND…?: It’s still pretty great. I mean, it’s hampered by some truly awful nineties production4, but it holds up well.
THE BEST SONG: I suppose I can, with some distance, appreciate that it might be “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but my go-to answer here has, for a very long time, been “Drain You”.
2 that is to say, people that discovered the joys of loud music in the aftermath of Kurt Cobain’s death, and also the rise of scrunge as a pop music style.
3 to sum up: it was easy to market as being the culmination of the set of independent labels and venues, and the “breaking through” into the mainstream of the mentality. It’s kind of what the book Our Band Could Be Your Life is about (or at least is framed as being about).
4 probably the fault of the mixer, nineties button-tweaker Andy Wallace.
Pink Floyd – The Wall
WHAT IT IS: I, as I may have mentioned in this space before, love Pink Floyd. I do not just love Pink Floyd in the contrarian “Syd-only” sense that a bunch of other record-nerd types do. I do not love only their mainstream work like high-end audio enthusiasts do. I love every record they made while Roger Waters was part of the band. Every single one of them. The Wall, their penultimate RW-featuring5 record, is a pretty great record.
WHY IT’S HERE: Pink Floyd were, somehow, as wildly popular as they were studiously weird (and tremendously insular). The Wall isn’t a rock opera in the sense that all the songs are related and they kind of go together in a story, it’s a rock opera in the sense that it’s a fucking opera told with fucking rock songs. Thus, most of the songs on the record don’t actually function as songs – they’re weird little interludes or spoken things that knit the songs together. All of which is to say, if you’re standing in front of the bin and you’ve got your choice of The Wall, and, like, Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of the Moon, I don’t know why you’re choosing The Wall. Probably the movie has something to do with it. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this project, it’s that people really like soundtracks to movies.
AND…?: It’s great. Less great than other Pink Floyd records, but much better than many of the other records on this list. It’s an album that’s hard to go back to for the aforementioned problem of not actually having that many songs on it. It’s overwrought, production-wise (a problem they had starting in about 1975, when they started trying to repeat the – admittedly impressive – sound of Dark Side of the Moon), but the songs and performances are there and they make it through ok.
THE BEST SONG: “Comfortably Numb,” with a special shout out to side 3 (or the first six songs of the second disc, or the run of songs that begins with “Hey You” and ends with “Comfortably Numb”, depending on the medium upon which you’re hearing it) for being one of the greatest runs of material Pink Floyd ever committed to tape..
5 it is fair to say here that while I think The Final Cut is fine, it is the one I’m least likely to reach for of all of them, and it’s not really a patch on their first 11 (11!) records. OK, it’s a patch on More. I mean, I’m not a total weirdo here.
Santana – Supernatural
WHAT IT IS: The album that re-oriented Carlos Santana’s place in the musical world from guitar-wizard world-music importer to avuncular pop-star collaborator. This is the first of the albums made with what would become his M.O. for awhile – a bunch of current radio folks sing songs that he plays guitar on.
WHY IT’S HERE: At the tail-end of the record-selling industry’s ability to market things into existence, the public loved a good “old rocker person makes vital new album” narrative6. And also people really loved Rob Thomas. That’s another of the things on this list that is going to be really hard to explain to future people, but there it is. People really loved Rob Thomas, and “Smooth” was so far beyond just normal “impossible to avoid” that it’s staggering to think of a song taking up that kind of muso-cultural space.
AND…?: I will cop to liking parts of it at the time, and on re-listen it’s…not as bad as it could be? It seems really dated, but harmlessly, almost adorably so. Like it’s comforting that this seems so much like a part of the past. The Lauryn Hill song is pretty good. The Everlast song is alright. Stretches of some of it is fine. It is, genuinely, no worse than any other Santana album, really7. At least as far as I can tell.
THE BEST SONG: “Do You Like the Way”, which features Lauryn Hill and Cee-Lo Green.
6 this sort of, to an extent, still happens, but at the time of Supernatural it was a goddamned winning lottery ticket.
7 if this seems like faint praise, that may be because I don’t really have a handle on how I feel about Carlos Santana* – I think I like him as a player, but I’ve genuinely never been compelled to listen to much of his music. I’ve seen Woodstock a bunch of times, and that’s about it.
* perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the first time he’s come up in this space.
Guns n Roses – Appetite for Destruction
WHAT IT IS: The blah blah blah debut album by the blah blah blah band that was going to blah hard rock blahever.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because Guns n Roses were the pinnacle of a bunch of record-selling industry stuff that clearly needed to bubble over, and got the full force of the marketing wing of major labels, MTV, and radio behind them. It is a cautionary tale about how much power over people’s opinions the record selling industry used to have8, and also it’s proof that people in 1987 were happy to listen to unremittingly terrible music.
AND…?: If it’s not apparent, I’m not a fan of Guns n Roses. There is something about them that rubs me exactly the wrong way, even leaving aside that it’s a band made up entirely of dildos. The posing isn’t what bothers me, the dumb swaggery fake-Aerosmith rawkin’ isn’t what bothers me. It’s that it’s assembled entirely out of components that, in other contexts, can represent things I like about bands that here are configured entirely and exactly wrongly. I’ve tried – and really, I’ve tried quite a bit harder than I probably should have – to figure out how to like this record, and I have come up empty. So empty, in fact, that I’m not seve sure why I tried so hard to like it in the first place.
THE BEST SONG: I kind of like the guitar part at the beginning of “Sweet child O’Mine”9, so I guess it’s got to be that one.
8 What’s interesting, twenty-odd years later, is to look at the path that Geffen records tried really hard to take with GNR – putting out a record on a fake “indie” label* (which was actually owned by Geffen) then “signing” them and pushing their single as if it were a sort of revolution in the underground crashing into the mainstream. What makes it noteworthy is that the thing they (that is, Geffen records specifically) tried to manufacture and fake their way through literally happened four years later with Nirvana, who actually started on an indie, and actually represented a band from the underground becoming successful in the mainstream
* this was a surprisingly common practice at the time, despite the fact that it makes precisely zero sense on its face – anybody who cared who was on an indie and who wasn’t would know that the label was fake, and anybody that didn’t know probably didn’t care. The fact that it didn’t work doesn’t make me any less confused why they thought it would in the first place.
9 kind of. Like, extremely kind of.
ABBA – Gold: Greatest Hits
WHAT IT IS: It’s ABBA’s greatest hits, but what I think is of interest here is that this has been issued several times, and keeps getting longer over time. So probably what is counted here on this list is the 1992 single-disc version, but there’s also a 2002 double-disc version, and the one that came out a couple of years ago that has three discs. I also wonder if each replaces the other as a catalog item – i.e. if you really only need one disc of ABBA songs can you go back and buy the single-disc version?
WHY IT’S HERE: ABBA had a bunch of hits, they’re all here in one place. They were couples that broke up, which is apparently catnip to people buying records from the seventies. It’s garnered a reputation of being a set of high-quality songs and productions, which always helps sell stuff. I mean, there’s a reason that this record came out ten years after their breakup and sold relatively slowly – people really needed to be convinced to buy ABBA records after they stopped being an actively going concern.
AND…?: There are a lot of people willing to praise this record for things like “songwriting craftsmanship” and stuff, but I don’t know. I’ve never been able to hear any of that. It sounds like a pop record from the seventies. Parts of it are ok. Most of it is forgettable. It all sounds pretty bad.
THE BEST SONG: Well, “Fernando” is the song Alan Partridge named his son after, so why not go with that?
Bon Jovi – Slippery When Wet
WHAT IT IS: You know, as we get further down, into albums that “only” sold 28 million copies10, this really does become more of an accident11 of time and place. Slippery When Wet is the one with “Livin’ On a Prayer” and “Wanted Dead or Alive” on it.
WHY IT’S HERE: I mean, the aforementioned two songs clearly make it a big seller among karaoke enthusiasts. Bon Jovi were huge for some pretty easy-to-spot reasons, and they had huge hits when that mattered and led to record sales. They managed to do the same thing Van Halen had done, which was to take superficial part of their hard rock/heavy metal influences and pop them up even further, which was still a pretty great way to move some units in 1986.
AND…?: It’s not good, precisely. The hits are fine, as far as such things go, but the whole thing is very much a time capsule of 1986, and that sort of detracts from the final product a bit.
THE BEST SONG: “Livin’ on a Prayer”
10 as opposed to, y’know, 50 million for Back in Black
11 I’m inclined to believe accident because the whole thing – the idea of monster success records in the 1980s especially – is target shooting with a shotgun: you’re going to hit a bullseye with something, it just won’t be with very much of what you’re shooting. So it’s intentionally trying to get the huge hits, but it’s a fluke of public opinion that made them that way.
The Spice Girls – Spice
WHAT IT IS: The first Spice Girls album, and thus the one that, for whatever else, launched the return of the not-really-R&B-ish vocal group12 to pop music.
WHY IT’S HERE: The Spice Girls were very easy to market, and marketed they were. Units were moved. A movie was made. Lots of videos. This one was as precision-manufactured as it’s possible for a musical product to be.
AND…?: It is interesting to note that Spice sold basically the same number of copies as Slippery When Wet, and came out exactly ten years later, primarily because, in a lot of ways, they’re capitalizing on very similar things; while Bon Jovi were aping and amiably watering down Springsteenian Jerseyisms, the Spice Girls were doing a pantomime version of Britpop’s Britishisms, and spray-painting it all with a sort of nigh-feminism that, taken with everything else (and especially the outfits) is tremendously dating. Oh, and the songs are terrible. Like, really terrible. But that always seemed like it was beside the point anyway.
THE BEST SONG: “Wannabe”
12 interrupting the rein of the actually-R&B vocal group that had, to that point, been performing highly on the pop charts.
Various Artists – Grease: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
WHAT IT IS: It’s the time! It’s the place! It’s the motion! It’s the way we’re feeling!
WHY IT’S HERE: Because it’s the soundtrack to the movie musical that has literally become synonymous with “musical” for, at this point, a couple generations of people, and has, thus, earned an enormous amount of cultural capital.
AND…?: It’s one of those things that, every time I hear something from it, isn’t as bad as I remember it being, but it’s a Broadway-abetted pastiche of fifties radio pop, and is thus still pretty terrible.
THE BEST SONG: “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”
Britney Spears – …Baby One More Time
WHAT IT IS: It’s funny to consider the origins of Britney Spears, who is one of those pop stars that it’s easy to forget has normal human origins. She went from untouchably famous to untouchably crazy to semi-comeback to Vegas circuit in such a fashion that, even when she was clearly deeply flawed, she never actually seemed human. Anyway, this is the first album, the one that put her on the map, the one that started the whole thing, and ushered in the other major wave of pop music performers in the late nineties13.
WHY IT’S HERE: All those reasons, plus a deeply cynical attitude toward her music video presence, and a public persona that leaned heavily on not-actually-lurid, not-actually-prurient information. She was a one-woman, American version of the Spice Girls, but even the short couple of years between the introduction of the SG’s and that of Britney, was long enough to jettison even the veneer of social consciousness, and just be, y’know, not-lurid and not-prurient14. And that led to record sales in the nineties, which seems like more and more of a non-sequitur every time I type it. But there wasn’t another way to experience the music, and the familiarity of the video (i.e. the schoolgirl outfit, the basketball, the hallway dancing, et al) led people to remember the music, which led to sales for basic psychological marketing reasons that I’ve probably already gone into a bunch of times.
AND…?: It really needed the videos to put it over, frankly. The music wouldn’t have done it by itself. It’s hugely-forgettable. It’s also funny to note that the features (Mikey Bassie and Don Phillip) are completely inexplicable, because nobody remembers who these people are, or why they would be on this record in the first place.
THE BEST SONG: “(You Drive Me) Crazy”, which would go on to lend its title and presence to a Melissa Joan Hart romantic comedy. Peak 1999, everybody!
13 i.e. the ones that weren’t ushered in by the Spice Girls, see previously
14 a presentation which would be watered-down Madonna, if Britney had ever seemed to have any actual agency over her career. That’s the difference: Madonna was, at least, exploiting her actual self, whereas Britney was placed on stage by someone else. It’s actually a reason to heave a big sigh if you think about it for too long.