December always brings out the end-of-the-year retrospectives and top ten “best of” lists. This year has inspired decade recaps, and, inevitably, debates as to which albums best encapsulate the spirit of the 2000s thus far. Recently Nielsen Soundscan released its list of the top-selling albums of the decade, which includes very familiar names (‘NSYNC, Britney Spears, Eminem) and a newcomer who earned critical and commercial success (Norah Jones). So who ranks as number one—Beyonce? Jay Z? Usher?
No need to recheck your calendars—The Beatles are the biggest selling act of the past decade. According to Soundscan, the 2000 hits compilation 1 sold a staggering 11,499,000 copies; the runner up, ‘NSYNC’s No Strings Attached, moved 11,112,000 units. 1 also set a record for the fastest-selling album ever, with 3.6 million copies sold in its first week, and 12 million units sold in the third week (see CNN’s 2000 report). No wonder Rolling Stone named The Beatles the “World’s Hottest Band” on its March 1, 2001 cover, even at a time when Spears, ‘NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, and other bubblegum pop acts were ubiquitous.
These figures continue to astound—after all, the material (27 number one hits) was already available in various forms. Many fans probably owned the songs on vinyl, tape, or the original 1987 CDs. In addition, the band broke up almost 40 years ago; why is there continued interest?
Perhaps the convenience factor played a major part in sales. Casual fans who simply wanted the major hits could purchase one CD instead of the entire catalogue. To this day, fans cannot buy individual tracks from iTunes or other online music stores. In addition, back in 2000 and 2001, some of my friends purchased 1 to play for their kids. After hearing the songs, their children would sing along in the car or at home; therefore 1 successfully introduced the Beatles’ legendary music to younger generations.
But what do Soundscan’s figures say about our current musical landscape? After all, we’re still experiencing extended Beatlemania with the recent, much-hyped releases of the remastered catalogue and the Rock Band video game. Surely sociologists could research why the Beatles continually pervade popular culture. Perhaps, though, the answer is simple: the music’s timelessness.
Instead of sounding dated, The Beatles’ messages still resonate today. Many of their songs dealt with two universal themes—love and peace. Everyone can relate to songs that tell of first true romance (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”), love lost (“Yesterday”) and possible reconciliation (“We Can Work It Out”) and commitment (“Something”). Love of a different sort figures into “All You Need Is Love”—that of respect for fellow human beings. Even love for a mother (“Let It Be”) and a son (“Hey Jude”) are addressed. In addition, other songs inspire listeners to just enjoy good, old-fashioned rock, such as “Get Back” and “Lady Madonna.” Not all of their songs dealt with cheerful topics—“Eleanor Rigby” eloquently addresses loneliness, while “Help” suggests desperation and depressions. However, these emotions all comprise the human experience.
Of course, the bottom line is that The Beatles made fantastic, groundbreaking music. Today their songs remain fresh both sonically and lyrically. While degrading current music hardly encourages further artistic development, few can argue that anyone has matched The Beatles’ skill for addressing universal themes. Judging from Soundscan’s figures, listeners still crave music that speaks to them, that articulates emotions that are difficult to express in words alone. It’s about listening to George Harrison’s, John Lennon’s, Paul McCartney’s, and Ringo Starr’s music and lyrics, nodding and saying “I know what they’re talking about. I’ve felt that way.” The 1 album’s ranking as the biggest-selling album of the decade proves that good music fulfills this role in society, and perhaps exemplifies the old adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same.