Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" tops the 4 million mark in paid downloads this week. That's remarkable for a song that was first released in 1981, when Ronald Reagan was in the first year of his presidency and Barack Obama was barely out of his teens. No other song that was first released before 2000 has topped the 3 million mark in paid downloads, much less 4 million.
It seemed like a good time to check in on the oldies that are selling best in the digital era. (For the purposes of this column, I define an oldie as any song that was first released prior to January 2000.) I first posted a list like this in August 2008 (here's a link to that column). At the time, I was only able to go 10-deep. That was the number of oldies that appeared on Nielsen/SoundScan's running list of the top 200 songs with the most paid downloads.
Nielsen/SoundScan has since introduced separate top 200 lists in a wide variety of genres. By drawing from all of these tallies, I was able to expand my list of oldies from 10 to 40 (now, that's what I call a list!)
These 40 songs are the oldies that have, in a very real sense, best stood the test of time. It doesn't matter how many weeks a song was #1, or how many Grammys it won, if, decades later, it ceases to command attention. These songs still have provable drawing power.
Michael Jackson has five of the top 40 oldies with the most paid downloads, more than any other artist. That's not a surprise, but you may be surprised by the artist in second place, with three of the top 40 oldies: Queen. Three other bands, Bon Jovi, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Guns N' Roses, each have two of the top 40 oldies.
Looking at it by album, three of the songs are from Jackson's 1982 blockbuster Thriller. Two each are from Queen's News Of The World, Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet and Guns N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction.
Taking it by decade, 13 of the songs are from the 1990s, 12 are from the '80s, 10 are from the '70s and five are from the '60s.
Rock dominates the list. By my classification, 24 of the 40 songs are rock or pop/rock. Eight are pop. Four are R&B. Two each are country and hip-hop. The bottom line: Old rock songs simply have a longer life than songs of other genres.
Ten of these songs reached #1 on Billboard's weekly Hot 100 chart, but that means that 30 of them didn't. And get this: The song from the 1960s with the most paid downloads, Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl," peaked at #10 on the weekly sales chart. The song from the 1970s with the most paid downloads, Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," peaked at #8. The 1980s leader, Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," peaked at #9. The 1990s champ, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"/ "What A Wonderful World," never cracked the Hot 100. The lesson: Being a #1 hit is nice, but it's not the be-all and end-all.
Here are the 40 songs released before January 2000 that have rung up the most paid downloads, according to Nielsen/SoundScan. The number after the title is the song's total number of paid downloads, as of this week. (The count includes all versions of the song by that artist, but it doesn't include versions by any other artist.)
1. Journey, "Don't Stop Believin,'" 4,013,000. This invigorating arena-rock anthem was featured in the final episode of The Sopranos and in the first episode of Glee. The song reached #9 in December 1981. It was featured on the band's #1 album Escape.
2. Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole, "Over The Rainbow"/"What A Wonderful World," 2,563,000. The Hawaiian singer and ukulele player recorded this medley, which couples Judy Garland's 1939 classic with Louis Armstrong's 1967 gem, in 1993. Four years later, he died of respiratory failure at age 38. (See #26.)
3. Michael Jackson, "Thriller," 2,432,000. This Halloween perennial was the seventh top 10 hit from Jackson's Thriller album. No previous album had spawned more than four top 10 hits. "Thriller," which features a spooky voice-over by actor Vincent Price, reached #4 in March 1984.
4. Survivor, "Eye Of The Tiger," 2,351,000. Sylvester Stallone featured this pumped-up track in Rocky III. The smash was #1 for six weeks in July and August 1982 and won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal. It was Survivor's only #1 hit and propelled their Eye Of The Tiger album to #2.
5. Bon Jovi, "Livin' On A Prayer," 2,230,000. Bon Jovi followed the #1 hit "You Give Love A Bad Name" with this arena-rock anthem, which became an even bigger hit. The song spent four weeks at #1 in February and March 1987. It was from the band's #1 album Slippery When Wet.
6. Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Sweet Home Alabama," 2,172,000. This Southern rock classic, which reached #8 in October 1974, was Lynyrd Skynyrd's only top 10 hit. It was featured on the band's sophomore album, Second Helping. Kid Rock lifted from the song for his 2008 hit "All Night Long."
7. Queen, "Bohemian Rhapsody," 2,161,000. Queen's epic appeared on the 1975 album A Night At The Opera. It made the top 10 twice: in April 1976, when it became the band's first top 10 hit, and again in 1992, when it was featured in Wayne's World. The Freddie Mercury song peaked at #2 in May 1992, six months after Mercury became the first major rock star to die from AIDS.
8. Guns N' Roses, "Sweet Child O' Mine," 2,087,000. This rock classic was the biggest hit from the band's chart-topping 1987 debut album Appetite For Destruction. The single reached #1 in September 1988. (A 1999 cover version by Sheryl Crow won a Grammy, but the original wasn't even nominated. How crazy is that?)
9. Michael Jackson, "Billie Jean," 1,964,000. This classic spent seven weeks at #1 in March and April 1983, the longest run for any Jackson single to that point. This is the R&B oldie with the most paid downloads (I classify "Thriller" as pop). "Billie Jean" won two Grammys: Best New Rhythm & Blues Song and Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male.
10. Queen, "We Will Rock You," 1,960,000. This Brian May song appeared on the band's 1977 album News Of The World as the lead-in to Freddie Mercury's "We Are The Champions." The latter song was the hit single. The two-song sequence finally made the Hot 100 in 1992. Warrant covered "We Will Rock You" in 1992.
11. Guns N' Roses, "Welcome To The Jungle," 1,821,000. This song, the follow-up to "Sweet Child O' Mine," reached #7 in December 1988. Both were featured on the blockbuster album Appetite For Destruction.
12. Green Day, "Time Of Your Life (Good Riddance)," 1,794,000. The bittersweet song from the band's 1997 album Nimrod wasn't released as a single, but it hit #11 on the Hot 100 Airplay chart. It helped pave the way for the band's subsequent success with the rock ballads "Boulevard Of Broken Dreams" and "Wake Me Up When September Ends."
13. Ozzy Osbourne, "Crazy Train," 1,750,000. This track from Osbourne's solo debut album, Blizzard Of Ozz, bubbled under the Hot 100 in July 1981. The former Black Sabbath front-man didn't crack the chart (as a solo artist) until 1986, when he scored with "Shot In The Dark."
14. Eagles, "Hotel California," 1,741,000. The richly textured recording hit #1 in May 1977. It was the title track from the band's fifth studio album. It later became the first rock track to win a Grammy for Record of the Year.
15. Bon Jovi, "Wanted Dead Or Alive," 1,701,000. This was the third single from the band's Slippery When Wet Album. Surprisingly, it has sold more downloads than the chart-topping lead-off single, "You Give Love A Bad Name" (1,081,000). "Wanted Dead Or Alive" reached #7 in June 1987.
16. Michael Jackson, "Beat It," 1,649,000. This genre-bending smash logged three weeks at #1 in April and May 1983. It won two Grammys: Record of the Year and Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male. This is the third of three hits from Thriller on this list.
17. Goo Goo Dolls, "Iris," 1,634,000. This track from the City Of Angels soundtrack topped the Hot 100 Airplay chart for four months in 1998, though it was never released as a single. It also received Grammy nominations for Record and Song of the Year. It was also featured on the band's album Dizzy Up The Girl.
18. Metallica, "Enter Sandman," 1,600,000. This song was featured on the Metallica album, which is the best-selling album of the Nielsen/SoundScan era (with sales of 15,586,000 copies). The album won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance With Vocal. "Enter Sandman," which hit #16 in October 1991, was the band's first top 20 hit.
19. Mariah Carey, "All I Want For Christmas Is You," 1,586,000. This zesty song from Carey's Merry Christmas album has been a holiday perennial since 1994. It's the best-selling Christmas song of the digital era.
20. The Verve, "Bitter Sweet Symphony," 1,536,000. This hit samples an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones' 1965 hit "The Last Time." It originated on The Verve's 1997 album Urban Hymns. The song reached #12 in April 1998. It was the band's only chart hit.
21. Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Free Bird," 1,492,000. Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant co-wrote this song as a tribute to Duane Allman, who died in a motorcycle crash in 1971. It appeared on Lynyrd Skynyrd's 1973 debut album. The song peaked at #19 in January 1975. A live version went top 40 in January 1977. Van Zant and other band members died in a plane crash later that year.
22. Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," 1,483,000. Nirvana's first and biggest hit reached #6 in February 1992. It was the band's only top 10 hit. It was featured on the generation-defining #1 album Nevermind.
23. Oasis, "Wonderwall," 1,462,000. This song hit #8 in March 1996. It was the band's only top 10 hit. The song originated on the band's 1995 album (What's The Story) Morning Glory?
24. Van Morrison, "Brown Eyed Girl," 1,365,000. This 1967 smash has sold more downloads than any other song released in the 1960s. It was Morrison's first and most famous hit. The song reached #10 in September 1967. It was featured on his album Blowin' Your Mind!
25. Michael Jackson, "Man In The Mirror," 1,358,000. The Andrae Crouch Choir, The Winans and Siedah Garrett provided backing vocals on this gospel-edged ballad, which was #1 for two weeks in March and April 1988. It was the fourth #1 hit from Bad. It received a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year. (It shoulda won.)
26. Louis Armstrong, "What A Wonderful World," 1,335,000. Armstrong introduced this lovely ballad in October 1967. It was an easy listening hit at the time, but it didn't crack the Hot 100 until 1988, when it was featured in the Robin Williams movie Good Morning, Vietnam. (It peaked at #32 in April 1988.)
27. Michael Jackson, "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough," 1,309,000. This superb single served notice that Jackson wasn't a kid anymore. It was the first single from Off The Wall, his first album as an adult. The song reached #1 in October 1979. It also brought Jackson his first Grammy, for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Male.
28. Charlie Daniels Band, "The Devil Went Down To Georgia," 1,303,000. This is the country oldie with the most paid downloads. It hit #3 in September 1979 and won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. The song, featured on Million Mile Reflections, was Daniels' biggest hit.
29. Jeff Buckley, "Hallelujah," 1,261,000. Buckley included this Leonard Cohen song on his 1995 album, Grace. The song didn't crack the Hot 100, but it has since become a classic. Buckley drowned two years later at age 30. (He was just two years older at the time of his death than his father, Tim Buckley, who died of an overdose at age 28.)
30. Boston, "More Than A Feeling," 1,249,000. This classic from Boston's 1976 debut album all but defined AOR (album-oriented rock). The song, which reached #5 in December 1976, was Boston's first chart hit. Boston was nominated for a Grammy as Best New Artist, but lost to Starland Vocal Band. (Really.)
31. Queen, "We Are The Champions," 1,243,000. This grand and theatrical song, written by the grand and theatrical Freddie Mercury, reached #4 in February 1978. The song, which was featured on News Of The World, was Queen's first top five hit.
32. The Who, "Baba O'Riley," 1,233,000. Millions know this rock classic as the theme song from CSI: NY. The song originated on The Who's 1971 album Who's Next. It wasn't released as a single, but it has sold more downloads than either of the album's hit singles, "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Behind Blue Eyes."
33. Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Under The Bridge," 1,232,000. This moody song from the band's 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik reached #2 in June 1992. It was the band's first top 40 hit and it remains the band's biggest hit to date.
34. Johnny Cash, "Ring Of Fire," 1,214,000. This country smash hit #17 in July 1963. It powered his 1963 compilation Ring Of Fire (The Best Of Johnny Cash), which rode The Billboard 200 for more than a year.
35. Vanilla Ice, "Ice Ice Baby," 1,202,000. Ice's debut smash, from his #1 album To The Extreme, reached #1 in November 1990. It's the hip-hop oldie with the most paid downloads. The bass line was lifted from "Under Pressure," a 1981 collabo by Queen and David Bowie, which has sold nearly as many downloads (1,167,000).
36. Etta James, "At Last," 1,200,000. Glenn Miller & His Orchestra introduced this classic ballad in 1942. James took it to #47 in February 1961. She had nine higher-charting hits, but none as enduring as this. The song was featured on her album At Last! Beyonce sang it in Cadillac Records (and at President Obama's inaugural gala).
37. Neil Diamond, "Sweet Caroline (Good Times Never Seemed So Good)," 1,197,000. Diamond's catchy sing-along smash reached #4 in August 1969. It was his highest-charting hit of the '60s. Bobby Womack covered the song in 1972.
38. Aerosmith, "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing," 1,195,000. This power ballad from Armageddon logged four weeks at #1 in September 1998. It was the band's only #1 hit. The Diane Warren song was a Grammy and Oscar contender for Song of the Year. Mark Chesnutt had a hit country version in 1999.
39. Phil Collins, "In The Air Tonight," 1,188,000. This striking ballad, from Collins' 1981 solo debut album Face Value, hit #19 in August 1981. The song had a resurgence in 1984 after it was featured in an episode of Miami Vice.
40. MC Hammer, "U Can't Touch This," 1,167,000. Hammer's signature hit took its melody from Rick James' 1981 classic "Super Freak (Part I)." It reached #8 in June 1990 and won Grammys for Best Rap Solo Performance and Best Rhythm & Blues Song. It was the first and most famous hit from the #1 album Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em.
Here are other songs that just missed the list and their current totals: Kansas' "Carry On Wayward Son" (1,161,000), Guns N' Roses' "Paradise City" (1,160,000), Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust" (1,156,000) Edwin McCain's "I'll Be" (1,147,000) and Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel" (1,143,000).
Train's "Drops Of Jupiter" originated as the B side of "Meet Virginia" in October 1999, but it didn't become a smash in own right until 2001, so I'm not counting it as a '90s song. It has sold 1,519,000 copies, which would have put it at #21 on the list.
P.S. What did we do for hard information before 1991, when Nielsen/SoundScan set up shop? I was there, and it's hard to remember now. I'm glad they came along. (I wish they had been with us all the way back to "Alexander's Ragtime Band.")