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. Part 6 can be found here.
Shania Twain – The Woman in Me
WHAT IT IS:The first of the superstar Shania Twain records.
WHY IT’S HERE: This one’s follow-up, Come on Over, appeared several installments ago, and The Woman in Me set the table for that record: it’s basically the same, only just a little bit less. Less polished, less pop-oriented, but also somewhat (slightly) less terrible. Anyway, this was a big seller during the part of the country music boom that coincided with the lady pop singer boom.
AND…?: It is, it’s true, marginally less objectionable than Come On Over, although not in any way that’s easy to quantify or possible to list. It’s just kind of less bad all over. It’s still not at all good, though.
THE BEST SONG: “Any Man of Mine”.
Supertramp – Breakfast in America
WHAT IT IS: This one, I have to confess, brought me up short. It’s a Supertramp album, it’s true. And while Supertramp is a staple of classic rock radio, I would probably never have actually guessed that they sold enough to make this particular list. So what it is, I suppose, is the most genuinely surprising album here, at least in terms of “odds that I would have bet against it being here.” It did spawn an above-average number of radio staples 2, and some of them are quite huge. And Supertramp were extra-large at the time, having the then-rare quality of cross-Atlantic popularity – they were more popular in the U.S. than the U.K., but they were definitely plenty popular in the U.K.
WHY IT’S HERE: Down here at the bottom of the list 3, one of the things that it’s possible to be is an enormously popular band in and of your time 4, and basically nowhere else, and get here. There are dated, weirdly-specific records on this list all the way down, but down here in part 7, you can get there by being really huge for about eight months. So, actually, a record with a bunch of radio hits (as opposed to, say, two, see below) makes as much sense as anything else, but also demonstrates how much high-selling records used to sell.
AND…?: Aw, it’s not so bad. I have genuinely no connection to it as music (and never really do where Supertramp is concerned), but it’s not unpleasant to listen to, and I do like “Goodbye Stranger.”
THE BEST SONG: “Goodbye Stranger”
Tracy Chapman – Tracy Chapman
WHAT IT IS: The best-selling record by a person from Cleveland. Depending on how you choose to define “folk music,” it’s also quite possibly the best-selling folk record of all time 5.
WHY IT’S HERE: If Supertramp’s record is a testament to the power of a bunch of radio hits to move units, Tracy Chapman is a testament to the power, ten or so years later, of exactly one giant radio hit to move units, along with one other, minor, hit. This is, perhaps even more than the bigger albums above, sort of emblematic of what was so weird about record sales in the nineties: Tracy Chapman arrived, had a compelling story, a great voice and a willingness to work in the right channels, and mainstream success was something that was within her reach because of the ability of the record-selling industry to, well, sell records. It wouldn’t have worked for her at any other time in history 6.
AND…?: I like this album just fine. It actually had two other singles 7 that are, I feel, kind of unjustly forgotten, and works pretty well front to back. It’s surprisngly un-dated, given that the lyrics are based almost entirely on the Bush-era politics of its genesis – the production is unfussy and uncluttered, and Tracy Chapman’s voice really is a hell of a thing.
THE BEST SONG: “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution,” although I would be remiss if I didn’t link to Xiu Xiu’s gut-wrenching cover of “Fast Car”.
Usher – Confessions
WHAT IT IS: You know, there are not a lot of easy ways to explain Usher. He’s a giant pop star who’s sold millions of records and appeared in movies, and all sorts of the accoutrements of being a generally famous singer-dude, but he doesn’t really have a “thing,” other than that he’s got a really good voice and he can dance like crazy 8. Also this far down on the list I have said stuff about pop stars and, frankly, Usher is just one of ‘em. This is, honestly, probably how you’d also explain Supertramp, as well. With the additional note that Usher is the one of ‘em that owns part of the Cavaliers, and Supertramp is not.
WHY IT’S HERE: This record is another one that made it in sort of in the middle of the record-selling industry collapse, and part of it is because with Confessions Usher made a sort of perfect storm of record-selling magic: he wrote catchy, memorable songs, danced on tv all the time, and also provided the press with a huge, easy-to-grab hook for writing about it – namely that the song was about the falling-apart of his relationship with Chili from TLC, and also his inability to not have sex with, well, everyone I guess? I mean, it sure seems like everyone.
AND…?: Most people who appear on this list only appear once, and that’s fine. Sometimes there’s a strong case for calling the best-selling album by an artist their best, and that’s fine too. In the case of Confessions, however, it’s pretty undeniable: this is the best Usher record 9. It’s a surprisingly musically-varied (at least for a mid-aught’s R&B record) set of songs, and also for a record that sounds so indelibly rooted in its time and place, most of it holds up pretty well.
THE BEST SONG: The best song of Usher’s career, the thing that will allow him into Musical Heaven, the card he can play for the rest of his life that more-or-less guarantees that I will at least attempt to treat him with goodwill is, of course, the absolute masterpiece that is “Yeah!” 10. The exclamation point is part of the title, guys.
Various Artists – Flashdance: Original Soundtrack from the Motion Picture
WHAT IT IS: It’s a film soundtrack. Here at the end of this thing it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out new ways to explain why any given soundtrack did the deed, sales-wise. Honestly this is the last time I have to listen to a film soundtrack for this project and that fact alone is making me happy enough to almost like this garbage.
WHY IT’S HERE: This one had two big hits from it, and soundtracks were huge business, and, hell, why not add that it sounds like a parody of an eighties movie soundtrack 11 and also that it’s entirely possible that Michael Sembello bought, like, two million copies of this himself.
AND…?: I don’t want to belabor the point, but it’s terrible. Like, just awful. But it’s not even spectacularly bad – it’s just….bad. Boring, same-y, overproduced, overperformed terrible crap.
THE BEST SONG: Ummmmmmmm. Uh. The spaces between the songs are kind of nice. I noticed that one part of “Lady Lady Lady,” so I guess that’s the one? That one that has the part I kind of noticed a little bit, as far as I remember?
Whitney – Whitney
WHAT IT IS: Whitney’s second self-titled album 12\, and the source of most of her other enduring hits (i.e. the ones that weren’t on Whitney Houston, which appeared earlier in this series).
WHY IT’S HERE: for basically the same reason that Whitney Houston was here: the voice thing, the persona thing, the being a new and interesting face in pop music thing. She created the template that Mariah Carey would later come along to exploit 13, and this is sort of ground zero for that.
AND…?: Her music is still formless and pretty devoid of distinguishing features outside of her voice – listening to this record makes it apparent that the voice is the thing with Whitney. The songs are pretty dumb, and even her voice wasn’t a known quantity at this point, so she doesn’t get the same kind of impressive songwriting she would get subsequently.
THE BEST SONG: “So Emotional”
And that nearly wraps it up! I have examined, considered and listened to every single album on the list. I’ll dip back into this pool one more time, to rank these albums from best to worst, and then it’ll be on to considering other things and talking about them! Stay tuned!
- according to Wikipedia ↩
- although many of these songs are songs that I recognized from hearing them six thousand times, one of the things that remains true about Supertramp is they are capable of writing songs that I hear and internalize, and then do not in any way associate with the band Supertramp. Which is weird, to say the least. ↩
- with the caveat that the bottom of this list is really only the floor on the very upper-most echelon of record sales. ↩
- in fact, of the seven albums in this installment, one could make an argument for each of them – even if you wanted to establish a baseline based on the other items on the list – being extremely closely-tied to the time of its release. ↩
- by which I mean: if you define “folk music” in a way that excludes Simon & Garfunkel. I spent several minutes just now as I was writing this trying to decide if I thought they were actually folk music or just some sort of trad-pop holdover thing, and I really don’t know where I come down on it. They don’t feel like folk music to me, but I genuinely do not know if that’s because I’m noticing something else, or just because I’m weird. ↩
- maybe the late sixties, but compare to Richie Havens or Joni Mitchell (other socially conscious downer folkies that had massive success) , and note that they did not sell in these kinds of numbers at the time. ↩
- The pleasingly-punctutated “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution,” which is a better song than “Fast Car,” and “Baby Can I Hold You,” which is not a better song than “Fast Car” ↩
- this is also leaving aside his ears, which are very noticeable, because this site does not stoop to that kind of appearance-based nonsense. ↩
- more than that, I’m also comfortable saying that it is the only Usher record that’s any good as a record played end-to-end. ↩
- Even if “Yeah!” is actually a pretty-good Usher song wrapped around an all-time great Ludacris feature. This is evidenced by an odd quirk of radio-programming around the time of this song’s release: there used to be pop music stations (NB: they may still exist, I don’t know, I don’t listen to the radio anymore) that would cut the rappers out of pop songs when they appeared – for reasons I probably do not have to explain, except to say: yes, your worst suspicions about it are 1,000% true – and this song was only a solid B, rather than the A++ it is in its natural habitat. ↩
- genuinely if you told me that the soundtrack to Flashdance had been imagined in a board meeting somewhere where people decided to play a prank on the record-buying public by promising them an actual soundtrack and instead delivering a fake one that was indistinguishable from the real thing and that there was, as a result, a group of old people somewhere laughing that anyone ever listened to it, I would believe you. ↩
- admittedly her first self-titled album was her full name, this one’s just her first name. I suppose that’s totally different. ↩
- i.e. most talk is about the voice, if it isn’t furtive discussion of her body. Also even in her pre-drug days Whitney was kind of a weirdo, although she wasn’t anywhere near Mariah on that front. ↩