What are the top-selling albums of the 1970s?


UPDATED UPDATE: Yeah, sorry, the slideshow is gone, but a PDF version of it is linked to above.

Original post below for archival purposes.


I knew I wanted to do this as part of the Musicology sessions I’ve been running at school (it’s a Wednesday afternoon “enrichment” activity), but I also knew I’d have trouble tracking down any kind of accurate data.

The 1970s was the best decade for the album format. The 50s and 60s had more of a focus on the single; from the 80s, the CD format interfered with creative judgements, leading to “albums” that were far too long. The Van Halen album on this list, for example, is just 35 minutes long, which is about right, I think.

One Amazon.co.uk customer created a list of top-selling albums of the 1970s, which was the starting point for this presentation. The figures given, however, are questionable for various reasons (not the least of which is the lack of any sort of accurate sales metric before the 1990s). One of the problems is that the RIAA counted each individual vinyl record as a unit, so double albums count double. This explains the presence of a number of double albums in the top 15.

I then went on to look at the critics’ lists of top 10 albums, and fortunately RankApple had already done the hard work of amalgamating six such lists into a top 20 (from which I drew the Top 10).

But the problem with critics’ lists is that they tend to come from that rarified world of music journalism, where the over-familiar and the too-popular is often dismissed in favour of the merely influential or obscure. The presence of Trout Mask Replica in such lists is evidence enough. Roy was also passionate in his condemnation of London Calling, which ended up at #1. London Calling? Personally, I couldn’t stand The Clash (or any of that punk rock), and though I could see that The Clash had drawn on a variety of influences, I found the double album deeply dull.  I’ll let Roy have the last word on London Calling:

‘London Calling’ is a big pile of steaming shit in my opinion, talked up by a posse of bespectacled Yank poseurs who couldn’t possibly “get” the English context. The Clash are the most overrated wank in the history of anything. It’s all opinions, innit?
So that does for the critics #1 album. Then there was the #2. Yeah, Exile on Main Street is good, and it’s certainly in my list of top 3 Stones albums, but is it really so much better than Sticky Fingers from the previous year? Look at the track listing of both albums, and then think about the experience of listening to a double album. *Yawn*. So Sticky Fingers is better, tighter, packed full of classic tracks, and doesn’t outstay its welcome. As for Exile’s high position, what? Really? Exile on Main Street actually better than Born to Run? Like London Calling, it drew on a lot of influences, but then so did Meat Loaf‘s Bat Out of Hell.
So then I did another list, based on albums I think have stood the test of time, and included selections that were on Roy’s list as well as my own. The top 5 is all mine, though. My choice of #1 is deeply personal but based on a conviction that (a) it’s packed full of hits and (b) sounds fantastic and (c) sounds as good today as it ever did, and (d) was influential on record production going forward.


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