Here’s Why Thriller Still Has the Eagles’ Greatest Hits Beat

Sigh…OK. The Eagles’ THEIR GREATEST HITS (1971–1975) [1976] is now the best-selling album in United States history, beating out Michael Jackson’s THRILLER (1982). This is a strange development, mostly because THRILLER is the better album. Now, look, I get it: the Eagles are great. They were huge. People love them. But a greatest hits album cannot match the genius of THRILLER, an original recording. It also seems weird that an album more than 40 years old suddenly took the top spot. But as the Recording Industry Association of America announced, THEIR GREATEST HITS is 38-times platinum, meaning 38 million copies have been sold; THRILLER is 33-times platinum, per a 2017 reevaluation by the RIAA.

Of course, the measure of a “copy” sold has been reworked in the days of streaming. The RIAA now takes streaming hits into account, calculating a formula in 2016 that set 1,500 audio/video streams of a portion of an album equal to ten track sales and, therefore, equal to one album sale. It’s pretty incredible insight to just how little impact a stream of a song has on an artist or record label’s bottom line. And of course, this measurement is only applied to legitimate channels like iTunes, Spotify, or official YouTube Music streams. But then, piracy has been a music industry concern for a while. In any event, this new policy, besides continued digital sales that have been around for even longer and a demonstrable increase in chatter about the Eagles in younger people (at least as far as I can tell), can account for this coup.

Even still, it seems pretty crazy that THEIR GREATEST HITS (1971–1975) is, in some measurement, more popular than THRILLER. The latter is much more of a cultural phenomenon, one still often talked about today. I mean, nothing from HOTEL CALIFORNIA (1976) is even on the greatest hits album! And that’s the true Eagles masterpiece! But then, it’s acknowledged as the third best-selling album in the U.S. at 26 million copies sold. The continued success of the Eagles is certainly baffling to me; I think their cultural impact is relegated to a more specific time and generation than Michael Jackson’s. But with renewed touring, maybe that great ’70s rock act is making an unprecedented comeback.

In any event, I don’t know if it’s even appropriate to compare THEIR GREATEST HITS and THRILLER. As I said, one is, well, a greatest hits compilation and the other is an original LP. I think this specific greatest hits album had a certain, larger impact than many others due to its release in the midst of Eagle-fever. But then, there is a parallel in Jackson’s success. Just one year before THRILLER, perhaps peak “Jackson-fever,” ONE DAY IN YOUR LIFE (1981) chronicled his best tracks so far. So I don’t know why THEIR GREATEST HITS really sustained the energy it did, although I knew of its reputation as a huge seller before it took this top spot.

I understand the Eagles album is the single best-selling record release, period. But is it fair to compare re-releases and compilations to the impact of an initial, original release? In my book, one full of “actualies,” caveats, and distinctions, THRILLER is still the best-selling original album of all time. The impact of that delineation, to me, means more than the success of a greatest hits album. THRILLER, as a unique, built-from-ground-up creation, is still the reigning champ of music releases…just not where the RIAA is concerned. But I guess their input is warranted. At least the rest of the world is still on my side: THRILLER is still number one on that list. THEIR GREATEST HITS (1971–1975) better not catch up to it there too…