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 6 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 here. Part 5 can be found here.
Eric Clapton – Unplugged
WHAT IT IS: The best selling Unplugged album 2, and also the best-selling Eric Clapton album, which is a weird circumstance of record sales that just boggles the mind to contemplate from the vantage point of the sales graveyard of 2017.
WHY IT’S HERE: Well, Unplugged was big business in 1993. Eric Clapton’s is credited with being the first Unplugged episode released as an album 3, and part of this is because, for better or worse, he altered his songs to suit the environment 4, including the execrable “Tears in Heaven” (which had previously been a single that had been released to the sensible response of complete obscurity) and, of course, the strummy, chummy campfire version of “Layla.” A couple of to-this-day huge hits, a comeback story for a high-ranking classic rock figure, plus a pabulic, completely frictionless presentation – those of you who have been following along know this is the recipe for an all-time huge seller.
AND…?: Eric Clapton’s music in general ranges from still-ok to badly-dated, and huge whacks of it are “you had to be there” stuff. In the case of Unplugged I was there, such as it is (albeit as a child), and it is admirable that he aged his songs up, and that’s about it. As a listening experience, it’s godawful.
THE BEST SONG: “Hey Hey”, a Big Bill Broonzy song that started out a solo acoustic blues, which helps somewhat 5
Def Leppard – Hysteria
WHAT IT IS: It seems weird to think of Hysteria, one of the biggest-selling albums in history, as the follow-up to anything, but it is. It is very much the follow up to Pyromania. It’s the one with “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” The two things that are interesting at all about it are that it was the record they made after their drummer lost his arm, and that, at sixty-two minutes long, it’s one of the longest single-LP vinyl records ever made 6. So there you have it.
WHY IT’S HERE: Pyromania launched Def Leppard into the upper-echelon of rock-stardom, and played no small part in creating the sound of radio rock going into the second half of the eighties. Some of this is to be blamed on the band, and some of it on ACLATBSAOAT mainstay (and general scourge of human decency) Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who at that point had made his career on defining the course of radio rock music for about five years or so. Also it’s the one with “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” which means that in addition to classic rock stations and general nostalgia, it’s also responsible for at least 12% of all karaoke performances.
AND…?: I feel that an important story regards the chosen producer of the album. For awhile (the album took a number of years to record), Mutt Lange wasn’t going to do it, so the band tapped Jim Steinman. Jim Steinman thought it would be a good idea to record the band as they actually sounded, and create a document of the songs as they were played by the band, and the band said “no thx”. Mutt Lange subsequently returned to the fold, and the gated-drum overtweaked nightmare that became Hysteria was saved. The point of this anecdote is: Def Leppard thought that Jim Steinman would underproduce them. That’s the mindset that went into this album, and that’s what it sounds like. It sounds like the sonic embodiment of overproduction.
THE BEST SONG: “Armageddon It,” because the title is the answer to the question “Are you gettin’ it?” and, frankly, I am unable to think of anything in the history of recorded music that could possibly be dumber than that, so it should hold some sort of title as a result.
George Michael – Faith
WHAT IT IS: The debut solo album by a bona fide pop music genius.
WHY IT’S HERE: Faith was the first album by a white artist ever to top Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart, and, as touched upon in the Eminem write-up previously, that sort of thing is a pretty useful key to unlocking huge numbers of sales. George Michael’s sales were also, in fine pop star tradition, leveraged by his videos. Dude was a real hunk.
AND…?: Oh, you know, it’s still a pop album. There are moments of genuine brilliance here (“Faith,” “Kissing a Fool,” “I Want Your Sex”), but they come with a great deal of filler, and this is prevented from being George Michaels’ best album by also being the source of his worst single, “Father Figure.” Blech.
THE BEST SONG: “Kissing a Fool”
Green Day – Dookie
WHAT IT IS: The highest-selling punk album of any description 7. They are sort of the Van Halen of nineties radio rock – a lot of unbelievably shitty music followed them, but at least Green Day (or Van Halen) got there as an actual band doing actual stuff, so it seems not as bad 8 as it would be when it was ripped off wholesale later in the decade.
WHY IT’S HERE: The record-selling industry had, for a few years of the nineties, a real ability to turn bands that had built up their own following by going out and being bands into commodities, and Green Day was perhaps the most directly benefited by this ability of any band at the time. They wrote extremely likable, catchy rock songs that were pretty easy to produce into radio hits, which they then were. Pretty open and shut.
AND…?: They’re fine. There’s nothing particularly to hate here, and I quite liked it as a kid (I especially liked the song “Basketcase”), and heard it a lot growing up, and so it can be somewhat hard to divorce from its context. Which, I suppose, is also either a cause or a symptom of its general gajillion-selling status.
THE BEST SONG: “Having a Blast,” which was written in and about Cleveland, an early foothold for the band commercially.
Lionel Richie – Can’t Slow Down
WHAT IT IS: It’s a Lionel Richie album. Specifically it’s the one with “All Night Long” and “Hello” on it. So the all-ballads one.
WHY IT’S HERE: As this project winds down 9, it’s fair to say that some of these albums have been surprising. There have been a lot of albums that achieved a kind of cultural ubiquity that aren’t here, and some albums that are here that seem like leftover relics of a very specific point in time. None of them – and I mean absolutely, positively none of them – are as hard for me to explain the popularity of as Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down. I have no idea what happened here. I mean, I can tell you that, historically, the singles were real monsters, and that it received the full marketing push of the then-flagging Motown Records. I can tell you that it worked. I can tell you that Lionel Richie is like an American Phil Collins 10, only without as much charisma or compositional skill. I cannot tell you why that is a thing that people wanted.
AND…?: I mean, it’s not the worst album that appears in these pieces. It’s not even particularly bad, such as it is. It’s bad enough, and it sounds dated in the way that a lot of these records sound dated, but the songs pretty much fall out of my head as soon as they enter. Which makes me wonder how anyone remembered them long enough to go out and buy the goddamn thing, and that’s without even trying to address the issue of how they stayed awake through it.
THE BEST SONG: “Hello,” because at least it has that one part that’s kind of memorable and Lionel Richie’s voice sounds good on it (a thing that cannot be said for every song on the album)
Michael Jackson – HIStory: Past, Present and Future Book 1
WHAT IT IS: The studio follow-up to Dangerous 11. See previously w/r/t Dangerous and move it forward a couple of years. It’s the same, in most terms that matter.
WHY IT’S HERE: Because it’s the same as Dangerous, in most terms that matter, including having a bunch of singles (about the same percentage as Dangerous), and also a bunch of videos and stuff.
AND…?: I mean, I hate to only have one thing to say about these records, but it’s a lot like Dangerous. Oh, the production is different, but that’s about it.
THE BEST SONG: “Scream”
Michael Jackson – Off the Wall
WHAT IT IS: The first Michael Jackson album released on Epic, the label he would stay on until he died. It was also the first of his major blockbuster solo records 12. This is sort of the birth of the Post-Jackson-5 Pop Star phase of Michael Jackson’s existence, and you can sort of see it as a blueprint that he would follow until the end – it’s the template he would use for Thriller and thus every subsequent record 13, and also a lot of pop records in general.
WHY IT’S HERE: Well, mostly for the reasons listed above, and because Michael Jackson set the template for mega-selling popstar, and he started setting it here, but he didn’t work out all of the kinks until his next solo album, Thriller, so this one is way down here. I mean, relatively speaking.
AND:…? it’s an interesting case in that the eighties and their digitally-assisted productions had only kind of started to arrive, so a lot of what you see here, while heavily produced and synth-assisted, is still played rather than assembled, which makes it probably my favorite Michael Jackson solo album.
THE BEST SONG: “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough.”
Prince & The Revolution – Purple Rain
WHAT IT IS: The soundtrack to Prince’s first 14 movie. Also, yet another soundtrack on this list.
WHY IT’S HERE: People love soundtracks, and also people love Prince. At this point, the movie was made because he was massively popular and also critically respected, and could seemingly do no wrong. The movie proved that there were some things that he could do wrong, but it did a hell of a job promoting the record.
AND…?: To be clear, the thing that the movie proved Prince couldn’t do was act. This record is one of the very rarest of animals – an album that is as well-liked as it is legitimately great.
THE BEST SONG: Probably the title track. But maybe also “When Doves Cry”.
- according to Wikipedia ↩
- so, for those of you who are somehow very young or didn’t remember or something, Unplugged was a show where chart-topping types came on and played acoustic (or mostly acoustic) sets on television. It went off, inexplicably, like gangbusters. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, and most of them are a kind of curiousity, and very little else. A couple of years ago, Miley Cyrus did one, and I wrote about it – and some more about Unplugged in general – here. ↩
- Paul McCartney released his as Unplugged (The Official Bootleg), and the reader is left on their own to figure out which of those words to take seriously. So Eric Clapton doesn’t have the weakest claim, is what I’m saying here. ↩
- a lot of Unplugged performers didn’t, really, instead just running through the songs like normal, only with acoustic instruments. That’s why so relatively few of them are remembered specifically. ↩
although “Malted Milk” is a Robert Johnson song, so is of similar origins, and is not at all helped by being performed by Eric Clapton
- Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell II somehow squeezed seventy-five minutes into its grooves. I cannot even imagine what a nightmare it sounds like, or why anyone would even try, but it’s also a special case, since by the time of its release vinyl LPs were between their period of biggest popularity and their period of resurgence, so the fact that any exist at all is kind of a curiosity. In any event, if you’ve ever tried to listen to anything that closely-packed onto the album, let me know how it went. ↩
- this space is not concerned with arguments vis-a-vis “authenticity” as concerns punk as a genre marker. Pop-punk is still, in genre terms, punk, and Dookie is, as far as genre is concerned, a pop-punk album. Any of you inclined to argue are welcome to eat my whole entire butt. ↩
- because I was 11 years old when Dookie came out, I enjoy Green Day an order of magnitude more than Van Halen or Def Leppard, but if I was a different age or whatever I’m reasonably certain this would be different. It’s not like I pull any of them out to listen to of my own volition anyway. ↩
- there is, after this, two more installments I think. One in which I pick up the last few records and one in which I say some things about the set of them as a whole (and probably rank them in terms of quality). ↩
- both men spent time in much, much better bands (both men were, in fact, the drummers for those bands). Both men were seemingly concerned primarily with communicating the emotional state of “maudlin”. Both men seem like just great guys – really, Lionel Richie, if you should happen to read this, you seem like you’re just fantastic, and I’ve neer heard otherwise, but your music, dude. – who can’t seem to get past making braindead treacle music. ↩
- did you forget I was doing this? Don’t worry, this is the last time. Also usually in this footnote I have to mention that there was a best-of between this one and the last one, but this time I don’t have to do that because there wasn’t. Just a cold, silent four-year gap. ↩
- although it was his fifth solo album, and there was also, of course, a best-of. Because lord amighty did MJ have a lot of best-ofs. ↩
- as meta-noted by every single Michael Jackson record except this one and Thriller having the same write-up text. ↩
- But not only. Rainbow Bridge – never forget. ↩