Pink Floyd's The Dark Side Of The Moon is one of the most phenomenal hits in the history of the music business. The album, which helped define the classic rock radio format, has sold more than 8 million copies since Nielsen/SoundScan began tracking U.S. music sales. It's #32 on the company's running list of the best-selling albums in its history.
Those facts are impressive just on the surface. Now, here's the incredible part: The album was released in March 1973. Nielsen/SoundScan began operations in May 1991. That 8 million sales figure doesn't count the album's first 18 years of sales.
Dark Side isn't the only vintage album that has kept on selling in the modern era. Sixteen of the top 200 albums on Nielsen/SoundScan's running list of the best-selling albums in its history were already "catalog" titles (at least two years old) when the company set up shop. These albums were released in the era of vinyl LPs and cassette tapes, continued to sell strongly on CD and are still popular as we move into the digital download era.
Rock dominates the list. Nine of the 16 albums are rock or hard rock, and that doesn't count greatest hits albums by James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett and the Steve Miller Band, which I'm classifying as pop. The list also includes a reggae collection by Bob Marley & the Wailers and Beastie Boys' genre-bending debut album.
Nine of the 16 albums are greatest hits sets or compilations. The list also includes a movie soundtrack and an original cast album.
Here's a complete list of the 16 albums, released before May 1989, that have sold the most copies since May 1991. The number at the end of each entry is where the album ranks on Nielsen/SoundScan's running list of its 200 best-selling albums.
1. Bob Marley & the Wailers, Legend, 9,707,000. There was little reason to think that this 1984 compilation would become a blockbuster. Marley, who had died of cancer three years earlier, had not been a huge record seller in the U.S. Just two of his albums had reached the top 40. And only one of his singles had cracked the Hot 100. But several of his songs were well-known, including "Stir It Up" and "I Shot The Sheriff," which had been big hits for Johnny Nash and Eric Clapton, respectively. The album peaked at a mediocre #54, but has never stopped selling. Top 200 ranking: #18.
2. Pink Floyd, The Dark Side Of The Moon, 8,512,000. Pink Floyd had never so much as cracked the top 40 on the Billboard chart when this album was released in 1973. The album shot to #1 and was a fixture on the chart for 741 weeks, which set a record for longevity that still stands. The album features the top 20 hit "Money," which was the band's first Hot 100 single. The album was all but shut out at the Grammys (it received just one nomination-for Best Engineered Recording, Non-Classical), but it has since been voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Top 200 ranking: #32.
3. James Taylor, Greatest Hits, 6,631,000. This 1976 album collects Taylor's classics for Warner Bros. Records, including the top 10 hits "Fire And Rain," "You've Got A Friend" and a remake of Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)." The album peaked at #23, a sub-par showing for Taylor at the time, proving that peak positions don't tell the whole story. Top 200 ranking: #69.
4. Jimmy Buffett, Songs You Know By Heart-Jimmy Buffett's Greatest Hit(s), 6,240,000. The wonderfully self-deprecating subtitle refers to the fact that Buffett has only had one top 10 hit, 1977's "Margaritaville." That probably explains why this 1985 album hardly set the charts on fire: It peaked at #100, his worst showing since 1974. But the album has been a steady catalog seller. The album title worked so well that Buffett's 2008 collection of live performance clips was titled Scenes You Know By Heart: The DVD. Top 200 ranking: #78.
5. Journey, Greatest Hits, 6,009,000. This 1988 compilation features the band's six top 10 singles, half of which were drawn from its 1981 album Escape. One of those songs is the arena-rock anthem "Don't Stop Believin'," which has sold more downloads than any other oldie in history. The album reached #10, becoming the band's sixth top 10 album in a row. Top 200 ranking: #85.
6. Soundtrack, Grease, 5,755,000. Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta headline this 1978 soundtrack, which logged 12 weeks at #1. The movie was based on the Broadway musical of the same name, which opened in February 1972. The double-disk soundtrack spawned four top five singles, three of which were written for the movie: "You're The One That I Want," the Oscar-nominated "Hopelessly Devoted To You" and "Grease" (recorded by Frankie Valli). Top 200 ranking: #100.
7. Beastie Boys, Licensed To Ill, 5,291,000. The trio combined elements of rap, punk and alternative on this ground-breaking release. The 1986 album logged seven weeks at #1 in early 1987 and spawned two hits, "Brass Monkey" and the top 10 party anthem, "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)." This is one of two debut albums on this list. Top 200 ranking: #122.
8. Eagles, Eagles/Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, 5,270,000. Eagles took an 18-month break between the release of One Of These Nights in June 1975 and Hotel California in December 1976. To fill the gap, they put out this greatest hits set. It not only filled the gap, it became the best-selling album of all time in the U.S., according to the RIAA. The album, which includes such hits as "Take It Easy" and "Lyin' Eyes," logged five weeks at #1 in 1976. Eagles followed Their Greatest Hits with their greatest hit, the Grammy-winning "Hotel California." Top 200 ranking: #124.
9. Steve Miller Band, Greatest Hits 1974-78, 5,200,000. Steve Miller Band was one of the hottest pop radio acts of the '70s. This album includes their first four top 10 hits, "The Joker," "Rock'n Me," "Fly Like An Eagle" and "Jet Airliner"-but not its biggest hit, 1982's "Abracadabra." The album peaked at #18, a comedown from the group's three previous sets, The Joker, Fly Like An Eagle and Book Of Dreams (all of which had made the top three). But over the long haul, it has sold more copies than those three albums combined. Top 200 ranking: #127.
10. Metallica, ...And Justice For All, 5,164,000. This double-disk release was Metallica's first top 10 album, reaching #6 in 1988. It spawned the hit "One," which became both the band's first Hot 100 hit and its first Grammy winner (for Best Metal Performance). This is the highest-ranking hard rock album on this list. Top 200 ranking: #129.
11. Aerosmith, Aerosmith's Greatest Hits, 5,106,000. This 1980 compilation features the band's early hits for Columbia Records, including the top 10 smashes "Dream On" and "Walk This Way." Aerosmith moved to Geffen Records in 1985 and assembled an even longer string of hits. The band moved back to Columbia in 1997, where it scored its only #1 smash, "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing." Top 200 ranking: #134.
12. Creedence Clearwater Revival, Chronicle (The 20 Greatest Hits), 5,029,000. This album collects all 20 of the band's Hot 100 hits, from "Suzie Q. (Part One)" in 1968 to a remake of the Marvin Gaye smash "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" in 1976. CCR had released Creedence Gold in 1972 and More Creedence Gold in 1973, but it was only when all the hits came together on this 1976 package that the band had a perennial best-seller. Top 200 ranking: #139.
13. Original Cast Album, The Phantom Of The Opera, 4,920,000. Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman headline this release from the original London cast of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Charles Hart musical. The two-CD set, featuring such contemporary standards as "All I Ask Of You" and "Music Of The Night," was released in 1987. A single CD of highlights was released in 1990. The movie soundtrack, with Gerard Butler and Emmy Rossum, was issued in 2004. Top 200 ranking: #146.
14. Guns N' Roses, Appetite For Destruction, 4,815,000. This 1987 album, which logged five weeks at #1 in 1988, spawned three top 10 hits, "Sweet Child O' Mine," "Welcome To The Jungle" and "Paradise City." It's one of only two debut albums on this list, along with Beastie Boys' Licensed To Ill. Top 200 ranking: #153.
15. Eric Clapton, Time Pieces/The Best Of Eric Clapton, 4,518,000. This 1982 collection features such top 10 hits as "Layla" (credited to Derek And The Dominos), "I Shot The Sheriff," "Lay Down Sally" and "Promises." Clapton would go on to record more big hits in the '90s, including a pair of Grammy winners, "Tears In Heaven" and "Change The World." Top 200 ranking: #189.
16. Metallica, Master Of Puppets, 4,414,000. This 1986 album was the band's first release for Elektra Records, its home to this day. The Los Angeles-based band had previously recorded for tiny Megaforce Records. Metallica is the only act with two releases (this album and the follow-up, ...And Justice For All) on the list. Top 200 ranking: #195.
Many of these albums are still going strong. Just in the past 12 months, the Marley compilation has sold 492,000 copies, more than any other album on the list. Runners-up are the Pink Floyd opus, which has sold 322,000 copies in the same period, and the Creedence collection, which has sold 307,000.
Two other vintage albums--AC/DC's Back In Black and Pink Floyd's The Wall--have sold enough copies since 1991 to make this list, but they ran afoul of Nielsen/SoundScan rules. When ownership of an album shifts from one record label to another, the tracking company starts a new count. Neither of these rock classics quite makes the top 200 cut-off using just one label tally, but both make it with ease if you combine the two main label counts. Back In Black, released in 1980, has sold 6,203,000 copies since 1991, which would put it in fifth place on this list. The Wall, a double-album released in 1979, has sold 5,381,000 copies in the same period, which would put it in eighth place. I would have just combined the tallies myself, but these albums aren't on the official Nielsen/SoundScan list, which is what I go by. For the record, I think they should be. (Thanks to my friend David Scherer of Warner Bros. Records for reminding me of this Nielsen/SoundScan quirk.)