Art vs chart and the ways of commercialism and creativity is a debate with no end and very little middle-ground space for ponderance. For every Frank Zappa who asserted: “Art is moving closer to commercialism and never the twain shall meet,” there is an Andy Warhol who opines: “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
The records on the all-time global best sellers list are inherent oddities. They are artefacts that have surpassed usual levels of popularity and entered a weird phase of becoming a cultural phenomenon. More so than reflecting tastes, they seem to me to reflect a mental anomaly that commercial strategists, psychologists and anthropologists alike should study in-depth.
The list below is by no means a collection of the greatest records of all time, far from it, in fact. It neither reflects defining albums, ground-breaking cultural changes or zeniths that we all cherish, but it does represent the moments where the masses were eager to flutter their cash in order to be part of something. That is interesting enough in of itself, and when you dive into the albums the commercial history of music only gets more curious. Thus, we’ve delved into them and separated the worthy greats from the lucky lotto winners. Enjoy…
Ranking the 10 biggest selling albums of all time:
10. Thriller – Michael Jackson
In the great missed point of so-called cancel culture, the reason Thriller resides at the bottom of the list is that, to put it simply, there are plenty of great works out there worth celebrating without the dower association of the crimes linked to Michael Jackson—crimes so reprehensible that any notion of empathy or separating the art from the artist or usual measures of mercy are rendered beyond reconciliation.
After all, art is indelibly linked to the artist in an inherent sense and with so many great artists of virtue whose works have commercially suffered through a lack of fortune alone, the benefit of increasingly socially conscious critique is that integrity is now rewarded.
9. Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) – Eagles
There seems something so disappointing about greatest hits records occupying such a swathe of the best-selling albums charts. Many of the best LPs out there can almost be read like a book and cutting them up is like a compilation of an author’s best chapters. Sure, they’d be fine to read, and lord knows I’m a sucker for a playlist, but there is something special, almost spiritually rewarding about an album that reads from front to back and as the needle finally pulls off the grooves it offers the listener that same last page book slammed shut joy.
As for the Eagles’ output, well, it has been much-maligned by hipsters in recent times and sometimes amid their often-kitsch back catalogue that seems justified. However, there is no doubting this collection captures their best period and some moments are undoubtedly golden.
8. Come on Over – Shania Twain
It might not be my cup of tea or many people’s outside of the whopping 40+ million who bought it, but even for those of us who turn our noses up, there are tracks throughout that conjure up memories. The beauty of pop culture is how it transcends our daily lives. In other words, if ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman’ doesn’t summon something from your psyche then the chances are, you weren’t born until after the new millennium.
Aside from that, Twain also managed to break free from usual country tropes which is perhaps why the record also proved popular beyond America. With sass and rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities in the mix, Twain offered up a sexy twist to country with an unerring sense of charisma. It was highly commercial, but that wry smile it was delivered with pushes it beyond any cynicism.
7. The Bodyguard: Original Soundtrack Album – Whitney Houston
The Bodyguard is perhaps the most peculiar entry on the list given that you simply wouldn’t expect a film soundtrack to rank so highly, but it would seem in 1992 everyone went cock-a-hoop for the accompaniment to Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston’s heroic killer evading antics. Much like the film, it’s more explosively cheesy than the initial whiff from a bag of Cheeto’s and carries all the subtlety of a policeman’s knock.
However, Houston hits notes that threaten to blast satellites out of orbit and she does it with the sort of control that conspiracy theorists could only fantasise about. Musically it didn’t pull up any trees, but Houston’s vocal volley certainly coaxed the birds from their branches. What’s more, they even chucked the original rafter rattler himself, Joe Cocker, in the mix for good measure.
6. Hotel California – Eagles
There are parts of Asia where you can’t move for this song, which seems to be somewhat of a cultural mystery? What exactly the title track is about is another mystery? And the greatest mystery of all, one that never seems to go away and lingers on for eternity, is whether it is any good? Is it given a hard time by hipsters? Or is it so middle of the road that it’s merely still awaiting a rare three-wheeled car to come along and finally kill it off?
Well, perhaps its destiny is to forever remain a soft rock oddity. It’s one of the most divisive albums of all time, but it’s even divisive in an odd way. If you adhere to the notion that the best art should be polarising then Hotel California is friend and foe to your argument in equal measure—you’d be hard pushed to persuade anyone that it’s high art, but then again with over 30 million certified copies sold it is certainly doing something for a lot of people.
It would seem that for every Dude who yells, “Man, come on, I had a rough night and I hate the f–kin Eagles,” there is a Bob Dylan reporting that they wrote one of the greatest songs of all time; and never the twain shall meet.
5. The Dark Side of the Moon – Pink Floyd
No doubt the Floyd-heads out there will fume, but I’m happy to assert that Pink Floyd are no longer compatible with modern life. For instance, ‘Time’ – perhaps the best track on this record – asserts the human need not to squander the seconds that life gives you, but in an act of irony that seems to have been lost somewhere along the line, you have to sit through two minutes and 27 seconds of an unlistenable cacophony of ticking before you can enjoy that argument.
While prog purists might argue that all that filler adds atmosphere to the record, the Ramones came along a year later and made their statement with such humour and brevity that it blew The Dark Side of the Moon out of the water. The fact the Ramones only fetched 5000 sales in their first year and Dark Side is an enormous commercial success seems to run contrary to that point, but I think you seem more of punk in the legacy of popular culture than you do of prog at this oddly stilted stage.
All that being said, there are moments of brilliance in this album and a modern edit without quite so much studio bullshit might see it rendered superbly admirable, but the maestro-like musicianship and poetic flashes are heavily hamstrung along the way with a dose of overblown pretence.
4. Bat Out of Hell – Meatloaf
The crux of this best-selling list is that people like camp things. Bat Out of Hell is an album that knows what it’s about and it screams that message home in an almost ridiculous attack on the senses. Meatloaf’s utter insistence to constantly offer up nothing other than the height of sonic drama throughout is an act of frenzied persistence rivalled only by a caffeinated dog trying to catch its own tail.
Perhaps if I had been reflecting on this album a year ago, when the bristling frontman was still with us, then glaringly gaudy elements (basically all of it) might have been open for denigration. However, it is not an act of posthumous sympathy to now cherish them, it’s simply that his sad passing and the tales and retrospect that came along with it reminded us all to see to fun beneath the frenzy. Say what you like about the album, it couldn’t care less and that much was true before it was even released, in fact, that seems to have been its benevolent intent.
After all, Meatloaf was far from your typical commercial star and yet he assailed the industry in a shocking display of insistent individualism. Such uncompromising mayhem proves anything but boring to listen to.
3. Back in Black – AC/DC
Just as the final song screeches home, “Rock ‘n’ roll ain’t no riddle man.” For their seventh album AC/DC continued to adhere to the Spinal Tap sacred formula of rock: do it loud and “make a big thing out of it”. The band embraced the laughable side of everything about Spinal Tap style rock ‘n’ roll and brashly celebrated the humorous hubris of rocking for the sake of it.
It might not be for everyone, and it wasn’t necessarily a boundary breaker, but there’s a generation of youngsters who have been roused to pick up a guitar thanks to its youthful adrenalised draw. The album now exists as a paradigm of ‘classic rock’ with tracks like ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ and ‘Back in Black’ still continually butchered by uncles at weddings the world over. Crass? Most definitely, but it never really seemed to care too much for criticism anyhow and as such its weekend exultation vibe has sustained.
There is something unimpeachable about ignorance and fortunately this record upholds the harmless fun side of that universal truth and we get to bask in the blistering bliss of it.
2. Saturday Night Fever – Bee Gees (Various Artists)
The sort of folks who can’t find the fun in Saturday Night Fever are the ones at the party who let a false sense of dignity get in the way of a good time and refuse to partake in anything that might prise a laugh. The record is a gilded snatch of dancefloor thrills without any notion of a hangover lingering anywhere in the fine-tooth combed stereo mix. In fact, the gaudy glow of this sonic disco ball keeps any darkness out of sight and out of mind.
Beyond that, it also brought the proto-punk medium of emerging disco to the masses in the same way that Elvis Presley became the commercial face of rock ‘n’ roll. However, rather than seemingly appropriating a marginalised progressive genre, it approached the disco movement with a sense of sincerity that shouldn’t be lost because of how commercial the record has since become. It didn’t push the boundaries of disco, but it certainly helped to establish them, and boy oh boy has anyone even attempted that falsetto since?
1. Rumours – Fleetwood Mac
Taking the top spot is one of the few, if not the only album on the list that continues to gather commercial success at an eye-opening rate. In 2021 it was the third best selling vinyl of the year once more as Stevie Nicks’ exploits continue to bring the record to new generations. As critics have pointed out, the album might not induce a personal response or barnstorm new horizons (admittedly it never did) but commercially viable alternative music is a realm that must be occupied by someone and thankfully nobody has ever done that better than on the pop-rock perfection of Rumours.
Laden with more opulent hooks than the Alnwick Fishing Tackle Museum and a rollicking rhythm section, the tracks bound along life’s long and winding road transfiguring the potholes on memory lane into triumphs so vitalised that you’re almost glad life is tragic for the sake of saving us from boredom. Ultimately, this is the true conquest of Rumours.
The message of the album proves fitting today too, it is one of defiance. Despite the garbage fire of circumstance that the group were working through, Rumours exudes more fervent joie de vivre than an orgiastic melee of seagulls surrounding a dropped kebab with double garlic sauce in the Bigg Market on a Friday night. The record encapsulates everything that was happening with a daring sincerity that doesn’t even seem to care that its breakup texts are being broadcast — all the wrung-out heartache, the comic silver-lining of soap opera lives, the vying musicianship, opulent excesses and all the inherent jubilation that they were, in their own berserk way, getting through it together. In short, the record is somehow a total mad expression of love — everything coalesces to make not only one of the greatest best-sellers but one of the greatest records ever, period.
If we were all in music for the maestros or the avant-garde groundbreakers then this best selling list would be occupied by a mix of Beethoven and scientific field recordings of the bees rendered orchestral. However, pop culture tells us tales that make sense of life and the backstory madness wavering in the welter of this record is palpable throughout, it dips and weaves through solemn ditties to thunderous f–k you’s and it has never lost that breath of fresh air that it exhales like a hurricane since 1977. In fact, in that time it has done what the best commercial art achieves, it has timelessly transcended into our dismal daily lives adding so much colour that you can’t imagine the world without it and I, for one, am glad of that.