Top albums list may surprise

Music

August 07, 2006|By MICHAEL BOOTH | MICHAEL BOOTH,THE DENVER POST

Quick, who's got the best-selling music album of all time?

The Beatles, right? The White Album, no doubt, or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, or one of the hits collections.

No? Hmmm. Gotta be Elvis, then.

Wait, wait, don't say it. It must be the Stones.

U2? The Police? Who was bigger than any of those?

The Eagles and their little pop masterpieces, that's who. The "top this" distinction of the most copies of one album title ever sold in the United States - 29 million and counting - belongs to The Eagles: Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975.

And that compilation doesn't even contain "Hotel California," an iconic song from that era of rock history. No, it's 29 million copies of the "Tequila Sunrise" sound during 30 years of sales, the hits album featuring the carefully honed soft rock of "Peaceful Easy Feeling" and "Lyin' Eyes."

The collective rock wisdom of America finds it hard to take it easy on this sore point. Yes, the Eagles perfected a California vibe that soothed the nation in the mid-1970s.

"That's just insane," spluttered Paul Green, founder of the School of Rock Music in Philadelphia. "That must have been a lot of people buying it for a penny from that record club in TV Guide," he said with a laugh. "Being a philosophy graduate, I'd have to call that an `argument ad populum.' It's ponderous, to say the least."

"That's just not right," echoed Steve Waksman, a professor of music at Smith College in Massachusetts and a longtime rock music collector. Acknowledging himself to be a purist when it comes to albums, Waksman argues that hits collections don't deserve to be on top of the sales list, which was compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America - better to purchase Hotel California from 1976, with its grittier vision of success and a consistent sound reflecting the band's creative peak.

"Still, there's no shame in owning it," Waksman said, perhaps realizing 29 million people make a good-sized lynch mob. "To me, it's always more interesting to think about why people like something, rather than dismiss it out of hand."

So what exactly is it about 1971-1975 that propelled it slowly but surely past Michael Jackson's Thriller (27 million, No. 2 all-time), Led Zeppelin IV (23 million, No. 3), Pink Floyd's The Wall (23 million, No. 4) and AC/DC's Back in Black (21 million, No. 5)?

Why are the Beatles, who have sold more from their complete album catalog than any other act in history, stuck at No. 9 on the single-album list with The Beatles?

Why does Elvis not show up until No. 117, with his Christmas album, for crying out loud?

How did the My Bodyguard soundtrack wind up at No. 12?

And will any current artist ever climb those heights to take the Eagles to the limit?

The Eagles sold 18 million copies of the hits album in the first 18 months after release, in February 1976. Not all the songs were huge radio hits, a fact industry observers call the "huh?" factor. "Peaceful Easy Feeling" peaked at No. 22 on the Billboard chart, "Take It Easy" at No. 12, "Witchy Woman" at No. 9.

Don Henley has an answer. "I think it's a deceptively simple equation: Well-crafted, well-played songs with memorable melodies and decent lyrics," said the ex-Eagle, who has enjoyed a huge solo career.

Many rock industry observers believe the Eagles, Jackson, Led Zeppelin and the others at the top of the list are safe from future assaults by contemporary artists. Albums simply aren't selling in the mass volumes of the previous three decades; these days, the No. 1 album in a given year usually sells 5 million or 6 million copies.

To see the list, visit riaa.com/gp/bestsellers/topalbums.asp.

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