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 3 this extensively-researched, closely-examined regarding of the biggest-selling records of all time 1. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here. Part 3 can be found here.
Linkin Park – Hybrid Theory
WHAT IT IS: The debut album by one of the last massively-popular rock bands to date. Sort of the dying commercial gasp of nu-metal.
WHY IT’S HERE: Hybrid Theory is, in many ways, the very apotheosis of post-alternative-radio nu-metal success: They were a rap-inflected 2 heavy metal band that had their own, distinct sound, at least superficially 3, and wrote songs that were worked to radio hard. And, as noted many, many times, that shit used to work.
AND…? You know, this is genuinely not as bad as all that. There are worse records that have sold more copies. It’s not anything I can imagine ever putting on of my own volition, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Interstingly, despite being in this band’s target audience, and even vaguely liking them at the time, I’ve never actually owned a copy of this album. I suppose I should be thankful for small favors.
THE BEST SONG: “Points of Authority”
Bob Marley & The Wailers – Legend
WHAT IT IS: There were actually a bunch of releases in the Legend series, and this is the one that’s stuck. Probably because it’s kind of the only Bob Marley best-of with any weight – there are many others, but this one stuck. It’s also interesting to consider that this is literally the only reggae album a lot of people have heard.
WHY IT’S HERE: Well, people seem to feel like they need to spend time listening to reggae, and this is the easiest way to do that. Plus, in the thirty-plus years since it was released, it’s become synonymous with dudes who smoke a lot of weed in college, as well as a whole sort of general hippie-ish vibe. Basically, it’s one of those records that brings with it a whole set of easy associations, and is unlikely to be dethroned as such any time soon.
AND…?: I mean, part of the reason it ascended to being the most prominent reggae album in the world, and being associated with the yadda yadda yadda, is that most of it is, genuinely, pretty great. Bob Marley was a great songwriter, but also an even better singer, and this set of recordings, doing a credible job of capturing he and his band making music, is pretty much beyond reproach.
THE BEST SONG: “Get Up, Stand Up”
Carole King – Tapestry
WHAT IT IS: Yet another surviving artifact from the period of California rock that is always the best example to point to when people claim that music was somehow better in this specific pocket of the past.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because Carole King has always been feted by the music industry, from her days writing songs with Gary Goffin 4 to her ascendancy as a sort of elder-stateswoman in music, all of which leads to her selling records because people know the songs and feel that she’s some sort of necessary part of a musically well-balanced diet. There’s also an aspect of the “woman flaying herself and confessing to all of her flaws in public” thing that is basically the worst part of a certain type of authenticity-obsessed classic-rock mindset that I’m not going to get into here except to say that this is pretty much ground zero for it.
AND… ?: I mean, Carole King certainly seems like a reasonable person and all that, but as a musician, she’s a sort of spruced up, highly commercial cut-rate Joni Mitchell. Or James Taylor. Or any other of a dozen people who worked hard and came by this honestly, rather than acquiescing to be force-marketed into existence and then treated like musical royalty.
THE BEST SONG: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” but generally when performed by somebody else.
Madonna – Like a Virgin
WHAT IT IS: My thoughts on Madonna are well-documented, certainly. Her greatest hits album was a few entries ago, and here we are with her best-selling album proper.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because Madonna was really hot, sang about doing (or not doing, as it were) sex stuff, had ubiquitous music videos, and took full advantage of familiarity bias.
AND…?: Well, it re-united the production team behind David Bowie’s in-every-way-superior Let’s Dance, which means it’s less objectionable than other Madonna records 5. That’s some comfort when I have to listen to two Madonna records in a row (spoiler alert!).
THE BEST SONG: “Into the Groove”, which wasn’t even on the original issue of the record. Seriously.
Madonna – True Blue
WHAT IT IS: The follow-up to Like a Virgin.
WHY IT’S HERE: All the same reasons as Like a Virgin, except this one also includes some highly-marketable fences-swinging “social issues” material, which, blergh.
AND…?: I think “blergh” about covers it.
THE BEST SONG: I have to say, I did not think I would ever find myself saying in any form that “Open Your Heart” was the best song on anything, in any capacity, but here I am saying: the best song on True Blue is “Open Your Heart.”
Mariah Carey – Daydream
WHAT IT IS: It is, unaccountably, another Mariah Carey album, because I am in hell. This is the follow-up to Music Box. This album is when she started having rappers on her remixes. It’s the last album of the “married to Tommy Mottola” years.
WHY IT’S HERE: I think if the last four (actually five, see below) albums have taught me nothing it’s: if you’re a pretty lady who’s willing to contribute to a sales-friendly personal narrative and go along with pretty much whatever, then you were able to have radio success right up until the late nineties or so.
AND…?: I mean, it’s really bad. But it’s not necessarily worse than Music Box, so I was prepared for it this time.
THE BEST SONG: “Fantasy,” but that’s only because I quite like “Genius of Love,” which it samples.
Norah Jones – Come Away With Me
WHAT IT IS: In a lot of ways, Norah Jones was sort of proto-Adele: an agreeable-enough singer whose marketing push emphasized “authenticity” 6 and the amiability of the singing lady.
WHY IT’S HERE: Well, the amiability is real, and also music-industry nepotism is almost always worth something, and here at the tail end of the period where people were buying a lot of records 7 it was worth quite a lot, if you paired it with a traditionalist style.
AND…?: I didn’t think very much of Come Away With Me when it came out, but I kind of liked it when I listened to it for this entry. Vocal jazz (which inflects much of the music here 8) isn’t really my bag, but she is a very good singer, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with it. It’s extremely likable music.
THE BEST SONG: “Cold, Cold Heart”. It would take a lot for there to be a better thing on many, many records than a well-sung Hank Williams song.
Phil Collins – No Jacket Required
WHAT IT IS: The exemplar of oatmeal-rock, a term I just made up to describe this album 9.
WHY IT’S HERE: I would love nothing more than the ascribe the popularity of Phil Collins’ godawful music to his own affability as a person. He seems great, doesn’t he? He’d be fun to hang out with. Maybe he’d have a bunch of cool stories about Genesis. But no, I think this actually sold in the low gazillions because people actually like listening to it, and it is completely beyond my ability to explain.
AND…?: Completely beyond my ability to explain. This sounds like mushy nothing. There’s no flavor, no texture, nothing. It’s just sound that was assembled in ways that sound vaguely like songs. Even the drumming – Phil Collins is, even uncharitably, a capable drummer – is trapped in gates and generally just sounds like it was assembled by a robot who didn’t know what music actually sounded like. There’s tones in sequence and little else.
THE BEST SONG: “Who Said I Would” is the shortest song on the album, and is therefore the best by dint of there being less of it than any other song.
Queen – Greatest Hits
WHAT IT IS: Glam rock’s greatest commercial achievement, and the soundtrack to about 50% of all bars and/or sporting events in the country at this very moment.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because everyone is, regardless of circumstance or personal inclination, familiar – deeply, intimately, unavoidably familiar – with at least half of the songs on this album, due in no small part to the handlers of the Queen legacy’s willingness to let them be used in every single ad campaign, film soundtrack, and other and sundry commercial use that could be conceived by mankind, and familiarity sells records better than literally anything else.
AND…?: My issues with Queen aren’t actually issues with the way their music sounds. It’s fine. The songs are fine. Some of them are funny, and that’s great. As instrumentalists, they’re all very good, and Freddy Mercury’s voice is one of those things that’s genuinely not overhyped even though it’s the most hyped thing in the world. But it’s only fine. It’s overproduced, most of the songs aren’t much more than catchy, well-performed novelties, and years of people explaining to me, at great length, the non-musical reasons for their musical greatness has ensured that I can’t listen to them without hearing literally dozens of people intoning things about the “The Show Must Go On” and astrophysics and flamboyance. So it’s not objectionable inherently, merely contextually.
THE BEST SONG: “Bicycle Race,” which was once expertly parodied in an episode of the unjustly-forgotten Savage Steve Holland masterpiece Eek! The Cat, and which therefore makes me think of Eek! The Cat, which is a thing I enjoy thinking about.
Simon & Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water
WHAT IT IS: The final Simon & Garfunkel record. It’s also the weirdest Simon & Garfunkel record, which may have something to do with the fact that Art Garfunkel was Shelley Longing 10, and trying to make movies and stuff.
WHY IT’S HERE: This is more extremely likable music, made by people (or at least person) who were (was) more than willing to play the game at every step. The sixties were a much less-established time for said game, so most of it really is on the merit of their music, which is very pleasant and easy to like.
AND…?: I actually have less strong opinions about Simon & Garfunkel than almost anyone else on this list. It’s just sort of wallpaper-y. It’s fine music – Paul Simon is a pretty good guitar player who can write the hell out of a melody, their voices are famously perfectly-paired, all the usual stuff you hear about them – but it’s hard to think of it as anything other than someone else’s music, and it’s hard to really notice most of it.
THE BEST SONG: “The Boxer.” It’s the exception to the wallpaper thing. After all, I’ve got two ears and a heart, haven’t I?
U2 – The Joshua Tree
WHAT IT IS: U2’s biggest album, and also the album that marks the end of their time as hyper-earnest post-punk dudes and begins their period of being megafamous weirdoes 11.
WHY IT’S HERE: They were a great band that played along to a great extent, and, as a result, got to sell a gazillion records. U2 were a sort of signpost that bands could build their fame (insofar as it’s possible for Joshua Tree-level sales to be “built” in any sense of the word) by simply selling more records every time you make a record. The usual stuff – radio play, videos, etc. – comes into play here, and it’s all as close to the by-the-numbers as megasellers can be.
AND…?: It’s a great record, pretty much wall-to-wall. It’s a great big record with great big production that only sounds a little dated because a bunch of records would go on to sound just like it. I unreservedly love The Joshua Tree.
THE BEST SONG: It’s a difficult choice, but I think it’s probably “With Or Without You”
Whitney Houston – Whitney Houston
WHY IT’S HERE: I find myself genuinely wondering what the, say, opinion on the street is of Whitney Houston. Most of my genuine musical existence has been rather after her real heyday – I was two when this album came out, and four when it’s follow-up came out. Hell, I was nine when The Bodyguard came out. So while this is all something that I technically lived through, I don’t really have a good grasp on what was actually going on there. Nevertheless, she had a huge, impressive voice, a reputation for singing live that persists, and, in the pre-drug-weirdness days, was a genuinely interesting combination of complete pop-star head case and amiable-seeming normal person. All of which probably had something to do with sales I guess? Sometimes these things are really hard to explain, I think.
AND…?: This is the first time I have ever listened to a Whitney Houston album from beginning to end, and I have to say: aside from her voice, there’s very little to distinguish this from any other pop record made in 1985. Whatever it was that Whitney was selling on the back of, it’s not apparent from listening to the record.
THE BEST SONG: “How Will I Know”
- according to Wikipedia ↩
- Mike Shinoda is certainly rapping, and they had a dj, which seemed to be obligatory in the year 2000, but there’s really very little else going on that’s rap-related, and most of the things you probably remember about Linkin Park are more likely to be their other vocalist anyway. ↩
- This is, honestly, something I haven’t talked about much in this series, because it doesn’t come up as often as you think, but sometimes the aid to sales is that people can remember which band is which, especially if they have a name that’s specifically chosen and designed to sound familiar (i.e The name “Linkin Park” was chosen because, surmised the members of the band, lots of cities have a Lincoln Park, so it will seem familiar and, I suppose, vaguely like they could be from around there) to the buying public ↩
- They wrote much of Tapestry together, but also the truly abysmal “Locomotion”, the execrable “Some Kind of Wonderful” and, of course, the entirely unforgivable and genuinely evil “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” ↩
- it also means, on a technicality, that Madonna is one of those people whose best-selling record is also her best quality-wise. So yaaaaay. I guess. ↩
- SEE: lots of elsewhere for my feelings about musical “authenticity” ↩
- or, perhaps, depending on how you draw the line, the very beginning of the period where people weren’t buying a lot of records anymore ↩
- in fact, it was released on Blue Note records, which was mostly home to archival releases to classic jazz performers, and Norah Jones’ work since then has been much jazzier. ↩
- you think that’s cheating, but guess what? It’s not. So there. ↩
- well, given that this happened in 1970 and Shelley Long left Cheers for her similarly-unillustrious film career in 1987, but sometimes the originator isn’t the strongest example, you know? ↩
- a period that includes much that is interesting, if spotty, and ends with their actual greatest album, Achtung Baby. ↩
- The soundtrack to The Bodyguard appeared earlier on the list, but that had a bunch of other people on it. ↩
- the second is technically just called Whitney, and you’ll hear about it in a future installment. ↩