This Week’s Theme: Bestsellers
On the surface, this week’s theme seems simple. It should be an objective exercise to determine the bestselling albums of all time. I assumed that a little bit of research would yield a list of the bestselling albums and then I would simply select songs from those albums and curate a playlist. What I discovered instead is that there is no definitive list of the bestselling albums. Even the Wikipedia list I used for most of these selections, a list of all albums that have sold at least 20 million copies, presents difficulties. Should you use claimed sales or certified sales? Are there other sources of sales numbers that were not considered in creating this list? It is a list drawn from 213 sources and counting, so already the objectivity of the list must be called into question. Additionally, the Faux Show is an eclectic mix of music across many genres, but some genre bestsellers are not easily determined, even with a fair amount of internet research. For example, I have still not found a reasonable answer to the question “What is the bestselling blues album?” In the end, I used what seemed to be accurate information and went with it. Let’s just call it close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades.
Welcome to Radio Faux Show Volume Two, Number Six.
First things first – click a link to start listening and then come back to read about this week’s songs.
It was only after determining the albums I would use that I started to realize the much more interesting topic of discussion for this week’s show. That is, what makes something a bestseller? Looking through the Wikipedia list, for example, I immediately noticed that there are interesting biases and trends that impact record sales. These include socioeconomic status, streaming, record sharing, age of the record, and others. I’m going to focus on a few , although I feel that future Faux Shows could be based on these common themes.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), socioeconomic status is the social standing or class of an individual or group. It is often measured as a combination of education, income, and occupation. Examinations of socioeconomic status often reveal inequities in access to resources, plus issues related to privilege, power, and control.
The first thing I noticed when reviewing the entire list of 81 artists on the Wikipedia list is that it sure is white. And male. And old. There are obviously some albums by black artists on the list, but in total there are only 16 (19.8%). As a comparison, there are almost 50 (61.7%) albums by white rock/pop artists. The percentage of black artists is actually a higher percentage than the overall makeup of the country, which has been around 11-12% since the ‘60s, but of the 16 albums by black artists, 5 of them are by Michael Jackson, 3 by Whitney Houston, and 2 by Mariah Carey. In other words, they are fairly conservative pop albums by black artists. While white artists like AC/DC, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Nirvana, Linkin Park (!), and Metallica are able to have genre-based bestsellers, black artists are mostly listed when making conventional pop music. Black rappers like Jay-Z and Kanye West have yet to sell enough copies of a single album to make the top tier. Even more telling, rap music only accounts for three albums (four if you count Lauryn Hill), none of them are near the top of the list, and two of them are by a white artist (Eminem).
So, why this bias? I would love to be able to give some definitive answer, but I don’t think that is an easy question to answer. My gut feeling, though, is that the answer is obvious. Sales data is based on exactly that – sales. That means that the bestseller list is based on people spending money. Two of the main factors of socioeconomic status in the US are race and income. It doesn’t take much to draw the conclusion that if socioeconomic status impacts record sales, then white men are going to drive those sales if white men account for the majority of the income produced in the country. That would certainly explain why The Eagles have two albums in the Top 10 bestselling album list, and the first and only black rap artist is The Fugees at Number 57.
What makes an album a bestseller?
To be a bestseller, an album must be sold. Until the 21st century, that is how music was obtained. If someone in the ‘70s wanted to listen to Rumours by Fleetwood Mac (and boy oh boy did people want to listen to Rumours by Fleetwood Mac in the ’70s) they would have to buy the album. Obviously, that is not the case anymore. There are now multiple ways to obtain music, and purchasing that music is not necessarily the most common. Personally, I have not purchased a new album in at least six years, but I listen to new music all of the time. Even if people still listen to music by paying for streaming services, just as many, if not more, listen for free via YouTube and free versions of Spotify, Amazon Music, BandCamp, etc.
This is one of the reasons I chose this theme – curiosity about the impact of modern day streaming and digital sales on overall albums sales. Unfortunately, I have not come away with a complete understanding of that impact. Clearly, the old methods of determining these metrics have not caught up with our 21st century methods of listening to music.
Another question I asked myself is “How do you define the popularity of an album?” This question could be asked for a variety of media such as books, films, and tv shows. In all cases, it seems that there isn’t a reliable measure for defining the popularity of any of these. Using sales is one method, but does it really indicate something’s popularity? For music, I’ve bought records that I’ve listened to only once (or less) and others that I still listen to decades later, but the number of times something is listened to is impossible to measure. In addition, sales data does not take into account anyone else listening to an album with me, or listening after borrowing the album, or being forced to listen simply because they live with me. Throw in YouTube streaming, mix-tapes, digital-sharing, and any other method of listening that isn’t tabulated as sales and it is clear that you can’t really define the popularity of an album in any definitive way. Using the Wikipedia list as an example, I think it is doubtful that the soundtrack to Grease (#11 on the list) is as popular now as Justin Bieber, Drake, Bruno Mars, or Lady Gaga, but these 21st century artists may never live in a world where their popularity can overtake the massive sales of the Grease soundtrack in the late ‘70s.
Does any of this matter in the long run?
Obviously, the answer to that question is no. This entire theme is an artificial construct I used out of curiosity. I never envisioned I would even ask these questions, much less attempt to answer them. I just wanted to create a playlist that represented a cross-section of what people listen to the most. I am pretty sure that very few people would look at this list and see all of their favorite albums listed, but they probably will see at least one. In the end that is what I find most interesting with this list. Even with all of the biases present, there is most likely something on the Wikipedia list, and on this week’s Faux Show, that each person can probably enjoy. I will end by saying that this is by far my least favorite Faux Show playlist to listen to, although it has a few of my favorite artists mixed in. If nothing else, it shows that everyone is allowed to have their own personal tastes, whether at the individual level or as large subgroups of an entire population. The goal of the superstar artist is to tap into as many of those individuals and subgroups as possible. Michael Jackson certainly understood that, and this list is Exhibit A.
Happy Birthday (February 6)
Aaron Burr was an American Revolution era politician. He was the third Vice President of the United States, serving under Thomas Jefferson. While Vice President, he shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. This led to the Broadway musical Hamilton.
Bob Marley is a very famous reggae artist.
Axl Rose is the lead singer of Guns ‘n’ Roses.
Babe Ruth was a baseball player and American hero. He hit a lot of home runs. He is still pretty famous.
Thurl Ravenscroft was an unbelievably prolific singer, actor, and voice actor. He was the voice of Tony The Tiger (Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes) for over fifty years. He sang “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch” in the original Dr. Seuss special. He was also brought in to voice many of the original Disneyland rides. He provides voices for the Haunted Mansion, Country Bear Jamboree, Mark Twain Riverboat, Disneyland Railroad, Enchanted Tiki Room, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Before Johnny Depp introduced the world to Jack Sparrow, everyone’s favorite Pirates of the Caribbean was the Disney ride. Ravenscroft’s most eclectic work for the park was the different versions he recorded of the “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life For Me)” song heard throughout the ride. He sings the song as multiple pirates, a drunk, and a dog.
Artist of the Week: None of Them
These are some of the bestselling, most popular musicians in recording history. Let’s not give them an even bigger head by making them Artist of the Week.
AC/DC “Back In Black” (#37 2/7/81)
Beatles “Hey Jude” (#1 for 9 weeks; 9/14/68)
Bee Gees “How Deep Is Your Love” (#1 10/8/77)
Dave Brubeck Quartet “Take Five” (#25 9/25/61)
The Eagles “Take It Easy” (#12 6/24/72) and “Life In The Fast Lane” (#11 5/28/77)
Fleetwood Mac “You Make Loving Fun” (#9 10/29/77)
Whitney Houston “Queen of the Night” (#36 2/19/94)
Elton John “Candle In The Wind 1997” (#1 for 14 weeks; 10/11/97)
Elvis Presley “Heartbreak Hotel” (#1 for 8 weeks; 3/10/56): This is his first hit.
Shania Twain “You’re Still The One” (#2 2/21/98)
Two for “Two”day
Adele “Lovesong” and “Oh My God”
The Eagles “Life in the Fast Lane” and “Take It Easy”
Thurl Ravenscroft “Accordion Player” and “Drinking Pirate” from Pirates of the Caribbean exhibit
Adele “Oh My God”
Instead of including a straightforward list of the 20 or 30 bestselling albums, I attempted to add some variety by selecting bestsellers in some less obvious categories than overall sales. As best as I can tell, these are the bestselling artists and albums in the categories I selected.
Top 10 Bestselling Albums
Here are the Top 10 bestselling albums, based on claimed sales data.
- Thriller by Michael Jackson: 70 million sold
- Back in Black by AC/DC: 50 million sold
- The Bodyguard Soundtrack by Whitney Houston: 45 million sold
- Greatest Hits (1971-75) by The Eagles: 44 million sold
- Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd: 44 million sold
- Bat Out Of Hell by Meat Loaf: 44 million sold
- Hotel California by The Eagles: 42 million sold
- Saturday Night Fever Soundtrack by The Bee Gees: 40 million sold
- Rumours by Fleetwood Mac: 40 million sold
- Come On Over by Shania Twain: 40 million sold
This one may be a no-brainer, but here are the three bestselling artists based on total number of records sold.
- The Beatles (289 million): Their top three selling albums are Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road, and the hits collection 1.
- Michael Jackson (246 million): He has the #1 bestselling album of all time (Thriller) and three albums in the Top 20 (Thriller – #1, Bad – #13, Dangerous – #15).
- Elvis Presley (229 million): He only has 1 album on the Wikipedia list (Elvis’ Christmas Album at #70), but he sure did sell a lot of records.
Bestselling Physical Single: “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby
I didn’t include this one in the show for obvious reasons, but it deserves special attention. Not only is it a holiday single, but it has sold almost twice as many copies (50 million) as the second bestselling single.
Runner-up: “Candle In The Wind 1997” by Elton John
Elton John’s remake of his classic ’70s hit was recorded in memoriam to Princess Diana after her tragic death. For that reason, people bought it up like McDonald’s hamburgers (33 million). It isn’t as good as the original, but for many it still has an emotional impact.
Bestselling Digital Single: “Spotlight” by Xiao Zhan
Xiao Zhan is a Chinese actor and vocalist. According to Chinese data, his song “Spotlight” racked up over 54 million downloads. Unfortunately, he became embroiled in a controversy over some fan fiction and homophobia and ended up requiring re-education from his government. This song is connected to the tv drama that led to this controversy and appears to have been removed from streaming platforms.
“Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X is the most streamed song with almost three billion streams.
“Baby Shark” by Pinkfong is the most viewed YouTube video of any kind, not just music, with over ten billion views. It is the first video to hit ten billion views on YouTube.
Bestselling Jazz Single: “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck Quartet
This is the jazz tune that everyone knows. It is over sixty years old, but it is still the jazz tune that jazz fans play for their non-jazz friends to show them that they actually do like jazz. The tune was written by Paul Desmond and the recording features Brubeck (piano), Desmond (alto sax), Gene Wright (bass), and Joe Morello (drums). This song hit #25 on the Top 40 in 1961, two years after its original release. Jazz songs don’t usually do that, then or now.
Various Other Bestselling Albums
Bestselling Jazz Album: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis
This is one of those rare instances where the bestselling album is also the most important album. Kind of Blue is arguably the greatest jazz album ever recorded and its influence on all music, not just jazz, is inarguable. The sextet of Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley (saxophones), Bill Evans (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Jimmy Cobb (drums) is possibly the greatest sextet in jazz history. Every track is a highlight and it is still amazing to listen to over sixty years later.
Number sold: Over four million – incredible for a jazz recording.
Bestselling Album of the 21st Century: 21 by Adele
Bestselling Album of 2021: 30 by Adele
If you have to guess which of the most popular 21st century artists will be listed next to Elvis, Michael, and The Beatles in fifty years, there are several obvious choices. These include Kanye West, Drake, Justin Beiber, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, and Katy Perry. My guess is that it will be Adele. She is nowhere near as prolific as some of these other artists, but that may actually increase her sales and popularity. When Adele releases a new album, it is an international event. She has a voice that seems timeless and a talent that will easily last into her sixties and beyond. At this point, she is the only 21st century artist with an album in the Top 20 of the Bestsellers list (21), and her latest album (30) sold more than any other album last year, even though it wasn’t released until the end of November.
Bestselling Comedy Album: What The Hell Happened To Me? by Adam Sandler
It is possible that there are better-selling comedy albums than this one, but this is the bestseller during the SoundScan era that began in 1991. This is the album with the “Chanukah Song” on it, along with some other comedy songs and bits. I don’t think most people would select this as their favorite comedy album, but that is why selling a comedy album is difficult – people have different ideas of what is funny. This one certainly isn’t my favorite, but I can see why so many people bought it. We tend to forget that Adam Sandler was once the most successful actor in comedy films during the ’90s.
I’m not sure you can calculate the number of records sold for a Classical composer, but it seems like a good bet would be on Mozart, with Beethoven a close second. If nothing else, Mozart has had the most films and tv shows made in homage to his work.
Special Note: Enrico Caruso was the first artist to sell over a million copies of a record. His 1902 recording of Pagliacci’s “Vesti la giubba” set the stage for all of the rest of these bestselling artists.
Classical Album: Romanza by Andrea Bocelli
Although this is an album that compiles two previous Bocelli recordings, it is the one that made him an international superstar. Released in 1997, it is the bestselling album by an Italian artist with over twenty million sold. If you consider it classical music, it is also the bestseller in that category as well.
Soundtrack: The Bodyguard Soundtrack by Whitney Houston is the third bestselling album, with 45 million sales. This is the album with her version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”
Greatest Hits: Greatest Hits (1971-75) by The Eagles is the fourth bestselling album, with 44 million sales. This collection contains all of their hits from before the album Hotel California. Amazingly, the album Hotel California is also in the Top 10. People really love The Eagles.
Live: Double Live by Garth Brooks is the bestselling live album. I wonder what Peter Frampton has to say about that?
Bestsellers in Several Genres
Rock/Pop/R&B: Thriller by Michael Jackson and Back in Black by AC/DC are the Number 1 and Number 2 bestselling albums. Most people could guess Thriller is Number 1, but the AC/DC album is an amazing accomplishment for a band who doesn’t share many of the common traits of these sorts of albums. They don’t produce many hits, their singer screams as much as sings, their lyrics are often offensive, and they are from Australia. On the other hand, AC/DC write the best riffs of any rock band in history and their appeal with white males can’t be denied, as evidenced by this ranking. Unlike many of the albums on the Wikipedia list, I love both of these and have listened to them regularly since their releases over forty years ago.
Metal: Metallica by Metallica is Number 21 on the Wikipedia list. This is the album with “Enter Sandman” and the record that forever moved the band away from amazing metal epics and into shorter metal pop songs. It is still thrash metal, but I love their first four albums so much that I still only listen to those instead of this one.
Rap: The Eminem Show by Eminem has sold 27 million copies, making it one of the bestselling albums of the 21st century. It is the Number 1 bestselling rap album, beating out Number 2 (The Score by Fugees) by over 5 million sales.
Country: Come On Over by Shania Twain is the bestselling Country album, and it isn’t even close. With 40 million sales, this is the Number Ten bestselling album of all time. The only other Country album with at least 20 million sales is another Shania Twain album. In other words, there are a lot of extremely popular Country artists, such as Garth Brooks, Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, and legends like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, but only Shania has the crossover appeal to sell tens of millions of copies of a single album.
Reggae: By far the bestselling reggae album is the compilation Legend by Bob Marley. This makes perfect sense to anyone who learned about reggae in the ’80s through this album. I am now a huge fan of reggae and listen to many different artists and styles, but it all started with Marley’s “I Shot The Sherriff,” “Buffalo Soldier,” and “Three Little Birds.” While most reggae albums struggle to sell 100,000 copies, this record has sold over 25 million.
Latin: Dreaming of You by Selena is the album that made her an international superstar just after her tragic death. One could argue that Supernatural by Santana, Number 31 on the Wikipedia list with 30 million sales, is the bestselling Latin album, but I think this one is a truer example of Latin pop music while the Santana album is rock/pop by a Latino rock and roll star. This record sold 5 million copies, including setting records for most first day sales by a female artist and debuting as the Number 1 album on the Billboard charts.
Blues: After several online searches, I couldn’t find a defensible answer to what is the bestselling blues album. Instead, I decided to include “Crazy Blues” by Mamie Smith. The apocryphal story is that this is the first blues single to sell a million copies. Some even claim that after its release in 1920 it sold one million copies in just one month. The truth is probably that it sold closer to 100,000 copies, but either way it is acknowledged to be the first significant blues hit record. Because of its massive and unexpected popularity, this song is the record that created a new format called race records. Basically, this is the point at which record labels realized there is a huge market for music by black artists to be bought by a black audience. Once that realization was made, the recording industry was never the same. It is incredible to think that this record was the start of the future of modern music, which culminated in the bestselling album of all time being recorded by a black artist (Thriller) over sixty years later. We all owe Mamie Smith an extreme debt of gratitude for her long-forgotten place in music history over a century ago.
Thanks for listening (and reading)!
|1||Mamie Smith||Crazy Blues|
|2||Elvis Presley||Heartbreak Hotel|
|3||AC/DC||Back In Black|
|4||Guns ‘n’ Roses||Mr. Brownstone|
|5||The Eagles||Life In The Fast Lane|
|6||The Eagles||Take It Easy|
|7||Shania Twain||You’re Still The One|
|8||Whitney Houston||Queen of the Night|
|9||Michael Jackson||Baby Be Mine|
|10||Bee Gees||How Deep Is Your Love|
|11||Bob Marley||Could You Be Loved|
|12||Fleetwood Mac||You Make Loving Fun|
|14||Adam Sandler||Dip Doodle|
|15||Pink Floyd||Breathe (In the Air)|
|16||Elton John||Candle In The Wind 1997|
|17||Dave Brubeck Quartet||Take Five|
|18||Miles Davis||Blue In Green|
|20||Adele||Oh My God|
|21||The Beatles||Hey Jude|
|22||Meat Loaf||All Revved Up With No Place To Go|
|23||Yo Yo Ma||Sonata for Bassoon and Cello in B-Flat Major: III Rondo Allegro|
|24||Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman||Time To Say Goodbye|
|25||Enrico Caruso||Vesti la giubba|
|26||Selena||Dreaming Of You|
|27||Babe Ruth||Babe Speaks|
|28||Thurl Ravenscroft||Accordion Player|
|29||Thurl Ravenscroft||Drinking Pirate|
|30||Metallica||Holier Than Thou|
|32||Lin-Manuel Miranda||Aaron Burr, Sir|
|33||Lil Nas X||Old Town Road (Remix)|
|34||Garth Brooks||Papa Loved Mama (Live)|
|NOTE: Garth Brooks does not allow his music to stream on Spotify|