In The Best Sellers, I’m reviewing the best selling albums in the United States from every year since 1956. With this column, I’ll be examining the music that Americans have made popular over the years analyzing the musical and societal trends that influence what people want to listen to.
1975: Elton John’s Greatest Hits
Today on Billboard’s 200 album charts, it’s common to see new releases debut at #1 to the point where artists throw fits when they don’t. But up until 1975, no album managed that feat not because there weren’t any exciting releases but simply because it wasn’t possible. For the first few decades of the chart’s history, data was manually collected by Billboard calling record stores for their sales figures, a method that easily opened itself to manipulation and inaccuracies. This meant things moved much slower in reporting an album’s popularity so even big albums couldn’t debut on top or even in the Top 10.
Things got easier after Billboard implemented Nielsen SoundScan technology in 1991 which digitized the charts allowing for much more accurate sales data and more instant tracking of an album’s popularity which has only grown in the era of streaming. Before 1991, six albums from five artists managed to ring the bell on top in its first week, all from established stars at the height of their hit-making powers. Going from the most recent, there was Michael Jackson’s Bad, Whitney Houston’s Whitney, Bruce Springsteen’s Live/1975-85, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life, and then there are the first two albums that debuted on top by the same artist, one who in 1975 could only afford to achieve this feat.
1975 is arguably the year in which Elton John was at his biggest. After having the biggest album of 1974 with Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, John was all too quick to capitalize on its success continuing his hectic schedule. In April 1975, he put out another ambitious project, his autobiographical concept album Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, and it sold more than a million copies in its first few days helping to make it the first album ever to debut on the top of Billboard’s 200 chart. Just six months later, he did it again with the follow-up Rock of the Westies, an album that’s less remembered but in the moment it didn’t matter. Elton John was it.
Yet the album that represented Elton John the greatest on 1975’s best-sellers list wasn’t any of those but instead a greatest hits compilation of his then half-decade career up to that point.
Really all of that is scratching the surface of the enormous impact Elton John had on music in 1975. A modern comparison I can think of for this type of imperial dominance is Drake in 2018, an artist who can put out whatever they want almost guaranteeing a hit regardless of the quality. That dominance is spread to other artists who attach themselves to the artist’s hit-making coattails. All that is present with Elton John. Within 1975 alone, he began the year at #1 with an unnecessary cover of the Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and ended it with “Island Girl,” a song that’s aged so badly that John himself doesn’t perform it anymore. He used his fame to revitalize the career of Neil Sedaka, the early ‘60s Brill Building hitmaker, signing him to his label Rocket Records getting bigger than ever with the two of them even collaborating on the #1 hit “Bad Blood.” Nothing could stop John in 1975.
Upon its release in November 1974, Greatest Hits must have seemed like an afterthought, a way for the record label to cheaply capitalize on John’s fame. Going by its disorganized tracklist, I have a hard time believing anyone involved was thinking much about it. Yet it didn’t matter to the public. Greatest Hits was another monster seller spending ten weeks at the top of the Billboard 200 chart straddling late 1974 into early 1975. It wound up selling over 17 million copies in the US and over 24 million copies worldwide. It sold so much that Greatest Hits is currently John’s best-selling album in the US and second best-selling album worldwide with the RIAA currently listing the album at #17 on its best-selling albums of all-time list.
Greatest Hits is an album that gives you exactly what the title implies, the greatest hits of Elton John. It hits all the notes you’d expect from an album like this. Almost all of the songs here were big hits for John during the first five years from the soft tender ballads “Your Song” and “Daniel” to the hard rockers like “Crocodile Rock” and “Saturday’s Night Alright For Fighting” as well as the stately grandness of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me.” If you’re someone looking for a basic introduction to Elton John’s music than Greatest Hits will do just fine. The album exists for the same reasons The Weeknd’s latest greatest hits album The Highlights exists, a way for artists to satisfy fans and capitalize on their imperial phase. Aside from that, there’s no other reason for this album to exist.
In a way, while the songs on Greatest Hits are still undoubtedly some of John’s most remembered songs, it’s also an album very of its time in terms of what was considered his big hits. Notably, the album doesn’t contain such early ‘70s staples as “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon.” Those omissions are understandable since they weren’t big hits upon initial release despite being viewed as classics now. “Border Song” might be the less greatest hit of Greatest Hits considering it only peaked at #92 on the Billboard Hot 100 but did serve as John’s international breakthrough so it probably made sense to put it on the album to remind people of the first song they might have heard from him.
Despite its massive success at the time, you’ll have a hard time finding Greatest Hits today as it is no longer in print or even available to download or stream. Presumably, it’s because John’s team has released four subsequent greatest hits collections in the years since adding in more of John’s signature songs making the original Greatest Hits seem obsolete by comparison. Its cover showing Elton John giving his best thinker pose while decked out in a bright white suit and hat with his signature glasses beside his piano has arguably become more iconic than the album it advertised.
With how forgotten Greatest Hits has become, its success is interesting to look at though I’m not exactly surprised. People were really into Elton John. I get that. Plus, greatest hits albums often make for a nice musical souvenir of an artist’s work allowing you to hear all their hits in one place without having to hear each song on its respective album. Elton John wasn’t the only artist who benefitted from a greatest hits collection in 1975 as John Denver’s Greatest Hits, originally released in 1973, netted him his best-selling album ever selling so much by 1975 that it wound up right behind Elton John’s Greatest Hits as the year’s second best-selling album. And a year later, the Eagles’ greatest hits release Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) which became a big enough seller that it’s now the biggest selling album of all time in America according to the RIAA. Never underestimate the power of the greatest hits album.
While the subsequent greatest hits albums do a better job at showcasing Elton John’s variety of hits, Greatest Hits arguably represents his true peak as an artist. After a year like 1975 and a streak of seven number one albums, no one would expect John to ever repeat this but his star would fall pretty sharply soon after when he famously came out as bisexual to Rolling Stone in 1976 causing major controversy at a time when many didn’t talk openly about that stuff. Soon after, his sales dropped and faded into the background. He’d come back in the ‘80s scoring more hits, net one of the best-selling singles of all time when he rewrote “Candle In The Wind” as a tribute to Princess Diana, turn his life into a successful biopic musical, and is currently in the midst of a long farewell tour currently on hold like all concerts due to the pandemic.
Elton John would persevere in the years ahead including his collaboration on the soundtrack to The Lion King which will eventually appear in this column. But in terms of the charts, nothing will represent his peak popularity better than a half-decade collection of his greatest hits that doesn’t exist anymore.
Honorable mention: The #3 seller of 1975, Earth Wind & Fire’s That’s The Way Of The World, has the kind of backstory you probably didn’t realize despite its popularity. It’s a soundtrack to a forgotten Harvey Keitel movie of the same name about the music business with Earth, Wind & Fire playing themselves. The band wound up releasing it as their own album realizing the movie was a flop making them into the legends we know them as today providing a good taste of their clean and professional style of R&B and funk mixed with jazz, soul, and African music.
Next time: Peter Frampton comes alive with Frampton Comes Alive, an out of nowhere success that reluctantly turned Frampton into a sex symbol while showcasing the peak of live albums as a popular medium in ‘70s rock music