Saturday, September 15, 2007

The R and A of the all time Top 10

Today has been a great day. No matter what happens, nothing can change that, for today I have discovered the RIAA list of best selling artists of all-time. Previously, I've seen lists for best selling albums of all time, I've seen lists of highest grossing movies of all time, but never before have I seen a list that objectively breaks down, by career, which artist or group has sold more than any others. I'm still taking time to process the data, and to that end, I've decided to test my theory, first proposed about a year ago, in the following post:

In short, I will examine each of the top 10 artists. I will first close my eyes and determine which song first comes to mind as the most quintessential representative of the artists commercial success, then assess whether it fits the criteria outlines above, namely whether the song, and by extension the artist, is accessible and relatable.

1. The Beatles, 170 million albums sold
Quintessential Song (Hereafter "QS"): "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."
While this particular track probably won't show up on many critics lists as one of the top all-time Beatles song, I would argue that it most encapsulates the Beatlemania era, without which they would not have sold 170 albums. Every Beatles song from inception to Rubber Soul was highly accessible and relatable. Even after they became more experimental, they still had a number of relatable and accessible songs. While "Tomorrow Never Knows" enjoys a healthy critical reception, "Hey Jude" with its simple message of "taking a sad song and making it better" and its incredibly accessible sing along chorus, is the one that has sold albums to the masses. In fact, my anecdotal experience, tells me that it is the greatest hits albums that moved the most units. When I was in high school, years after the Beatles hey-day lots of my classmates had the so-called "red" and "blue" CDs in their collection, but not so for "Revolver" or "Sgt. Peppers." "Beatles One" exploded onto the charts a few years later, absent great but inaccessible tracks such as "Within You Without You."

2. Elvis, 118.5 million
QS: "Jailhouse Rock"
I just wrote a post on Elvis a few weeks ago, so I won't go into detail here, but the argument in that post is relevant: Elvis's work is relatable and accessible.

3. Garth Brooks, 116 million
QS: the only one I know is "Friends in Low Places"
Country music today is all about relatibility and accessibility (hereafter ironically referred to as R&A). If anyone could have stepped outside of that paradigm and remained successful, it would be Garth Brooks. Chris Gaines anyone?

4. Led Zeppelin, 109.5 million
QS: "Stairway to Heaven"
Oh-oh. I'm not sure this works. Stairway is famously abstract. Their power ballads and puffed-up blues songs are certainly accessible, but I'm not sure how I can reconcile the relatibility factor to this band's oeuvre. On the other hand, they did have a lot of songs about love, and their more mystical songs tap into primitive archetypes. And it was the 1970s.

5. Eagles, 91 million
QS: "Hotel California"
All right, this is more like it. The Flying Burrito Brothers, a band that came out of the same crucible which spawned the Eagles, were ten times the band that the Eagles ever were, but they wouldn't be caught dead doing a song like "Tequila Sunrise," and therefore slipped into relative obscurity. The Eagles took the most accessible parts of rock, mixed them with the most relatable parts of country, and proceeded to sell 91 million lifeless records. "Hotel California" actually tips toward abstract, but then again, as noted above with Zeppelin, the 70s was probably the decade most open to abstraction as a part of life.

6. Billy Joel, 79.5 million
QS: "Piano Man"
Now we're really talking. A guy sitting at a piano and pouring his guts out about bad relationships, or in the case of "We Didn't Start the Fire" a history lesson that just requires the knowledge of the words in bold type without the higher level critical thinking skills. Speaking of "Piano Man," I ran across this gem which posits a scenario in which the song is taken to its literal conclusions.

7. Pink Floyd, 73.5 million
QS: Another Brick in the Wall Part 2
Ah, I know what you're thinking. But unlike Zeppelin, I'm not fazed at all by this band. Because it's "Dark Side" and "The Wall" that result in this chart placement. These are songs that, for all their Wizard of Oz sensibility, are actually about things like mean teachers and greedy businessmen. If "Arnold Layne" a Barrett-era Floyd song about a guy who stole women's underwear from clothesline, resulted in this band's popularity, we'd have a problem. But when it comes down to it, post-Barrett Floyd is another A&R band. And speaking of "Oz," for all the proto-stoner mentality of that film, the tagline "There's No Place Like Home" makes it, in the end, a comfortable R&A story.

8. Barbara Streisand, 71 million
uh, yeah

9. Elton John, 69.5 million
QS: "Rocket Man"
See Joel, Billy

10. AC/DC, 68 million
QS: "Shook Me All Night Long"
The secret of their success? No matter who was singing lead, they always had a clear and concise vocal track. How many metal bands could take a phrase like "Dirty deeds done dirt cheap" and make it into something fun to sing along too?

On the list, we've got examples of A&R rock, pop, country, metal, and whatever Barbara Streisand is. Zeppelin throws a curveball, but in the end, I think the theory is more validated than not.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


uh, yeah.

1:07 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home