How Did The Eagles' Greatest Hits Become the Best-Selling Album of the 20th Century?
By Nick Greene
It may not always seem like it, but most things in this world make sense. Occam has his razor, and what goes up must come down. Occasionally, however, a cosmic curve ball is thrown that makes you question just how logical our little universe really is. For example, the fact that the best-selling album in America in the 20th century was the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975.
Now, it’s not a bad album by any means. “Take It Easy” is a good song, as are “Desperado” and “One of These Nights.” But how has a run-of-the-mill best-of collection sold more than 29 million copies? How did it, in 1999, manage to surpass Michael Jackson’s Thriller—a moon-landing of an LP—as the best-selling album in American history? (Thriller would reclaim the top spot 10 years later, following Jackson’s death.)
The album's success was a mild surprise from the beginning. According to Rolling Stone, the band's record label, Asylum, had grown frustrated with how long the Eagles were taking to finish Hotel California and decided to crank out a compilation album in order to raise revenue in time for the end of the first fiscal quarter.
When Their Greatest Hits was released in 1976, “best of” albums were a relatively new phenomenon in rock and pop music. The album’s initial success prompted a trend piece in The New York Times, one that included primers on nine other new best-of compilations.
“It’s no wonder that record companies love to market these collections,” the Times’ Henry Edwards rationalized. “They cost almost nothing to produce; they sell with a minimum of advertising; and they are spared bad reviews by pop critics who, for the most part, ignore them.” (This didn’t prevent Edwards from slipping in some critical musings: “A genuine gift for melody coupled with vigorous playing and harmonizing occasionally enables the Eagles to overcome the vacuity of their recent hits.”) While Edwards understood why these albums were so beloved by labels, he couldn’t predict how fervently fans would eat them up.
Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 debuted at number four on the Billboard 200 album chart when it was released on February 17, 1976. Less than a month later, it reached number one and stayed in the top spot for five weeks before being usurped by Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive! Still, Their Greatest Hits kept selling. And selling. And selling.
"It was never the biggest thing ever," Carl Mello, the senior buyer for Boston-based record chain store Newbury Comics told Rolling Stone, "but each year it just sold tons and tons and tons."
Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 came out just 10 months before Hotel California, and the timing proved to be serendipitous. Songs from that massively popular later album obviously weren’t included on Their Greatest Hits and, as Rolling Stone’s Steve Knopper wrote, this “forced new Eagles fans to pick up both LPs on record-store runs for decades.”
The Eagles broke up in 1980, but their sound was perfectly suited for rock radio. (When Their Greatest Hits was released, the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau wrote in a bite-sized review that the 10 collected songs were “probably a must for those who've concluded [The Eagles] are geniuses by listening to the radio.”) This carried over to the classic rock format that came to dominate the airwaves and, as anyone who has ever listened to the radio in the last 40 years can attest, an Eagles song is never too far away. (If you share The Dude’s opinion of the Eagles, however, this isn’t necessarily a good thing.)
This steady churn resulted in the album going platinum 26 times by the fall of 1999. Its success meant that record labels no longer hesitated to put out best-of compilations at any point during an artist's career. The Eagles, naturally, are a great example of this: The band managed to put out seven original albums in total; fans looking to buy an Eagles best-of album have 10 different collections from which to choose.