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 5 of 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. Part 4 can be found
Backstreet Boys – Backstreet Boys/Backstreet’s Back
WHAT IT IS: The Backstreet Boys’ American debut 2, and ground zero for the Lou Perlman boy-band machine’s meteoric success.
WHY IT’S HERE: It may be difficult to believe, given that precisely one person from the boy-band era is still famous for his current activities (rather than retroactively), but the Backstreet Boys were fucking huge. They were practically a cult (see below), and they sold through the roof back when pop music moved huge numbers of albums.
AND…?: Like many mechanical pop records, it’s pretty awful. Surprisingly, there is a cover of P.M. Dawn’s “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” which is weird not for its form, but because it exists at all. This album also features a lone song written by a lone Backstreet Boy (Brian Littrell, who, to his credit, has moved seamlessly into the CCM scene, wrote “That’s What She Said”) 3 which comports itself well by not actually being the worst song on the album. It also features a song written and produced by ACLOTBSAOAT mainstay Mutt Lange, which, y’know, might actually be the worst song on the album.
THE BEST SONG: “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” which comes near (if not right at) the beginning of the chart reign of Max “every pop song ever” Martin.
Backstreet Boys – Millenium
WHAT IT IS: It’s the follow-up to Backstreet Boys, and the second part of the pop diptych that is the pinnacle of boy-band-dom, at least sales-wise.
WHY IT’S HERE: In the previous section, I mentioned that Backstreet Boys fandom was cult-like, and as evidence I offer the following: this album and its predecessor sold functionally identical numbers of units, two years apart. The fact that their sales drop far enough off that they will not appear again in this project also speaks to the brief life of their popularity.
AND…?: It’s exactly like Backstreet Boys. It has more songs written by Brian Littrell (although none by him solo), and another song written by Mutt Lange. Also some other Boys write parts of it, and all of those songs are tremendously forgettable.
THE BEST SONG: The best song on Millenium is also the best Backstreet Boys song, and the best song of the entire boy band bubble: “I Want it That Way”.
Ace of Base – Happy Nation/The Sign
WHAT IT IS: The debut album by the other mega-selling Scandinavian pop act. What is interesting about Ace of Base is how little there actually is to say here: they were created, they sold an absolute tonne of copies of one record, they continued to exist for about a decade, they never came near that kind of success again, and they then they stopped. As a result, they exemplify a very specific time in pop music when they’re played, despite not really sounding very much like anything else that was contemporaneous.
WHY IT’S HERE: It’s sort of the best-case scenario for a mechanical pop record – it came out, there are seven singles from it (two of which achieved a kind of cultural penetration that is completely insane), it was played on the radio constantly. There were probably music videos, but I have no memory of them 4. This album is sort of the exemplar of what the music industry used to be able to do when they mobilized behind something, as are a lot of the pop records here from the nineties record-sales boom.
AND…?: One of the reasons that it is so temporally-bound is that it really doesn’t sound like other pop records very much, but this is one of those cases where “different from the regular stuff” is not the same as “worth hearing.” They were inspired to make the record they made by the sounds of a reggae band working in the same studio, but it’s sort of reggae after a traumatic head injury. It is very not good.
THE BEST SONG: For whatever it’s worth, the best song is “All That She Wants,” but I can’t say it’s actually worth hearing.
TLC – CrazySexyCool
WHAT IT IS: It’s sort of a turning point for R&B – it started the merging between R&B and hip-hop that continues to inform both genres 5.
WHY IT’S HERE: Timing, mostly. Sean Combs (then Puff Daddy) was on the ascendency, and his fingerprints are all over this record, and this was when his fingerprints were worth a few million sold 6. But really, it’s a cross-genre record (actually it’s a cross radio-format record, but y’know) that does right by both genres (radio formats). Plus double the radio formats means double the stations, which means double the plays and, of course, in 1994 that worked.
AND…?: It holds up awfully well. Its breath-of-fresh-air originality has been lost somewhat as the actual sound of the record has been so thoroughly subsumed into the bedrock of pop music since, but the songs still work, and the production (which is, admittedly, extremely dated) doesn’t actually cause too much problem.
THE BEST SONG: I mean, it’s probably actually “Waterfalls.” But I would also argue in favor of “Red Light Special” 7.
Cyndi Lauper – She’s So Unusual
WHAT IT IS: Cyndi Lauper is such a delightful and life-affirming presence on planet Earth that I try as hard as I can to forget that she started out as a recording artist. This is the one Cyndi Lauper album that has survived in the collective memory.
WHY IT’S HERE: There is always going to be some stock in novelty when it comes to purveryors of pop music. Cyndi Lauper’s voice is a unique instrument, to say the least, and that made it easier to remember her songs. She also benefitted from the early-ish days of MTV 8, and in general from the aformentioned delightful, life-affirming thing.
AND…?: Oh, the record is completely unlistenable. But she’s just great, so let’s all agree not to tell her.
THE BEST SONG: “Time After Time,” I suppose. She’s performed it on television and things and I haven’t hated it. The album version is a fucking war crime, though.
Oasis – What’s the Story (Morning Glory)
WHAT IT IS: the most popular outcropping of Britpop, and the most popular surviving relic of the Cool Britannia part of the 90s that isn’t the Spice Girls album Spice.
WHY IT’S HERE: Back at the write-up for the roughly-contemporaneous 9 Spice in part 3, I suggested that the Spice Girls’ out-of-control popularity was due to their ability to mechanize and commodify the sort of thing that the Britpop bands were doing to build it into a pop-music audience. In the mid-nineties rock music was still capable of really selling records, and those impulses that the Spice Girls so monetized were borne, largely, of the enormous popular response to this album in particular, despite it being the second-best Oasis record and, eighth best britpop album 10 in general.
AND…?: I mean, it isn’t as good as the records in FN10, but it’s still pretty gosh-darned awesome. If there’s anything to be said for big, dumb sing-along rock music, it’s probably said effectively and enjoyably on What’s the Story (Morning Glory).
THE BEST SONG: “Champagne Supernova.” Sometimes there are surprises, and sometimes there aren’t.
Bon Jovi – Cross Road
WHAT IT IS: Bon Jovi’s first greatest hits album.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because Bon Jovi sold a bunch of records, and had a number of hits, and that had dried up by 1994, so it was time to release them in one place and re-monetize them.
AND…?: Bon Jovi remain a specific emblem of their time and place, and no amount of rewriting their best song (“Livin’ on a Prayer” appears here both in its original form and as “Prayer ‘94”) can change that. It’s still not very good, but it’s better than any of their regular albums because at least the production changes every couple of songs so it’s not as witheringly same-y.
THE BEST SONG: “Livin’ on a Prayer,” which you may also remember was the best song on Slippery When Wet. Is it possible that I only like one Bon Jovi song? I submit to you: yes, yes it is. It’s entirely possible.
Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP
WHAT IT IS: The biggest-selling rap album of all time 11
WHY IT’S HERE: Even a simple explanation of what The Marshall Mathers LP is, and what it meant, is extraordinarily complicated, but I’ll try to hit the high points in as succinct a manner as possible. By the late nineties, rap was a major part of the mainstream (exactly when it became so is a matter for historians to debate, and is mentioned here only to point out just exactly how quickly this becomes a tricky thing to discuss in any kind of detail), and one of the fuels that was combusted to get it there was its ability to annoy and/or shock old people. Eminem did that efficiently and, important and germaine to his sales here, was white, and thus equipped to make inroads with a relatively-new hip-hop audience that found a rapper they were easily capable of identifying with. The identity politics of his fame itself aside, The Marshall Mathers LP also has the distinction of being, at least for stretches, a phenomenal display of talent, and, while flawed (see below), a fantastic piece of music in general, which has given it a staying power that contemporaneous hip-hop records haven’t necessarily had.
AND…?: It’s not perfect – it’s too long in two different senses. First, it has skits, which is an abomination that the youths of today have blissfully no experience with except in an archival sense. Second, even without the skits, it’s still too many songs. A trimmed-up forty-minute version of the record would be an unqualified masterpiece. As it is, it’s a fountainhead for a bunch of modern rappers, so I suppose “mere” influence stands in for the parts of it that didn’t age very well (or, honestly, didn’t work super-well even at the time).
THE BEST SONG: “Stan,” probably. Although a special mention must be made of “Kim,” which is simultaneously one of the most toxic, noxious songs ever recorded, and also an impressive channeling of genuine anger into what are, with the benefit of hindsight, just some particularly ugly horrorcore lyrics.
Adele – 25
WHAT IT IS: It is the most recent record on the list by years 12. It is currently on the radio. It just won some grammys, like, a few days ago. What I’m saying is; you totally already know this record and don’t need me to give it any context.
WHY IT’S HERE: Adele is the closest thing to a universally-liked performer we’ve got, and her audience skews older than other massively-popular acts, so her records still sell in the old way.
AND…?: There’s nothing wrong with 25. Adele has a great voice, some of the melodies themselves are pretty incredible. 21 was notable for sounding like nothing else in the pop music sphere, and 25 actually moves closer to a more normalized kind of production, which is not necessarily to its detriment. It’ll probably move up on 21 over time, as the latter is six years old and only has five million more copies sold.
THE BEST SONG: “Hello”.
Boston – Boston
WHAT IT IS: IT’S MORE THAN A FEEEEELIIIIIIIIIIN’. Also it’s a record made in Tom Scholz’s basement that a lot of people like to talk about the sound of. I don’t really understand why. I mean, I guess it doesn’t sound necessarily like it was made in a basement 13? Anyway. Big in the seventies. Etc.
WHY IT’S HERE: If nothing else, it’s sort of the birth of the “Corporate Rock” genre, which, y’know, is a tough thing to be held responsible for, even if it’s kind of deserved. It is also responsible for both a major legend about its genesis 14 and a top-flight classic-rock-radio hit, both of which are pretty easy ways to catapult yourself into the upper echelons of sales.
AND…?: There are worse albums. I mentioned that it forms part of the genesis of Corporate Rock, and it sounds like that, but also it came across that sound naturally. For better or worse, Boston is the sound of a band being a band, and with that comes the creative vision and whatever else that is being fulfilled here. I can’t imagine pulling it out in any kind of regular rotation, but it’s not as bad as I feared.
THE BEST SONG: I unabashedly and forever love “More Than a Feeling” a great deal, and I do not care who knows it. It is the best song at a walk on this record.
Britney Spears – Oops!…I Did It Again
WHAT IT IS: The second Britney Spears album 15, thus the carefully focus-marketed and constructed sequel to her debut.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because Britney was big business in 1999, and people showed up to buy this thing in droves. 1999 was a big year for record sales on the back of the then-booming pop albums market, and this one is the clear recipients of that time’s largesse.
AND…?: This is a thin, joyless album. Back when I wrote about …Baby One More Time I wrote that the music really needed her music video presence to go over, and Oops!…I Did It Again doesn’t really even have much of that going for it. A little more time to develop may have helped the record some, as in addition to sounding like an assembly-line chop-job it also sounds kind of rushed, but honestly, there have been long breaks between her records since this one and it hasn’t actually helped. I don’t think there was ever much to be done here, musically speaking. It does, however, bring this installment nicely full circle – “Don’t Let Me Be the Last to Know” is produced and written by Mutt Lange 16, which means that part 5 begins and ends with me cursing Mutt Lange’s name and wishing for his bloody dismemberment.
THE BEST SONG: It’s probably “Lucky,” which is jaunty and has kind of a nice bridge, but honestly, this is all pretty same-y and uninteresting.
- According to Wikipedia ↩
- the reason that it has two titles, in fact, is because their British debut came out a year earlier and was also called Backstreet Boys, so the second record – which is not entirely separate from the first anyway, in case there wasn’t enough general confusion – is retitled Backstreet’s Back in Great Britain. ↩
- The reader is left to imagine the depths of my disappointment that this title is not, in fact, a punchline. ↩
- although, in all fairness to them, I was nine, and never really cared much for their music anyway. ↩
- calling anything the first is difficult, especially when you’re talking about that kind of genre-melding, so NB that the merge itself was already happening, it’s just that CrazySexyCool is an obvious point you can use to say “this is where this was definitely happening”. Partly, admittedly, because it sold a gajillion copies. ↩
- the past is a different country ↩
- which is especially surprising because I don’t usually take to Babyface at all ↩
- the “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” video cleaned up at the 1984 VMAs, for example ↩
- the two records are less than a year apart, with Oasis’ coming out first. ↩
- in addition to Definitely Maybe as mentioned, it’s behind Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife and 13, Pulp’s Different Class and This is Hardcore, and the Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible ↩
- there are hip-hop inflected elements to TLC’s CrazySexyCool, and Left Eye did some rapping, but it’s not a rap album. Similar things can be said about Usher’s Confessions, which will appear in the future. This is also, obviously, not counting things like Mariah Carey’s Daydream or Santana’s Supernatural, which include performances by rappers but are not, in any meaningful sense, rap albums. ↩
- specifically since 21, the Adele album that precedes it. ↩
- leaving aside that, specifically, the Jesus Lizard’s Goat, one of the best-sounding rock records of all time, was also recorded in a basement and also manages not to sound like a dated mess. I’m saying that the basement coin is overspent, y’know? ↩
- to wit, Tom Scholz recorded the album in his basement against the wishes of the label, so one of his bandmates had to run interference so they could pretend the album was being recorded in a more established studio on the West coast. ↩
- and also the second Britney Spears album to have an ellipsis in the title. ↩
- which is co-written by his wife and fellow criminal-against-good-music Shania Twain, about whom see previous installments. ↩