Culture

Best-selling CDs

Culture | The top five best-selling pop catalog albums according to Billboard magazine, May 1

Issue: "Abortion: All the rage," May 8, 2004

1. THE VERY BEST OF PRINCE

Prince

35 weeks on chart

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Style

The combustible rock, funk, psychedelia, and pop mix that might have resulted had Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, and Sly Stone inhabited the same body.

Objectionable material

The many sexual allusions, both explicit (e.g., "Gett Off") and implicit (e.g., "Little Red Corvette").

Worldview

Sex is a many-splendored thing; sexiness is next to godliness; blessed are the orgiastic; clothing is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Overall quality

Form high, content (often) low.

2. 1

The Beatles

179 weeks on chart

Style

The most popular, catchy, and influential rock 'n' roll of all time.

Objectionable material

"The Ballad of John and Yoko" if John Lennon is taking Christ's name in vain; none if he's only spoofing his notorious "The Beatles are bigger than Jesus" comment.

Worldview

We can work it out because all you need is love, so let's come together and let it be.

Overall quality

Bigger than Elvis.

3. O BROTHER ...

Various artists

157 weeks on chart

Style

A Grammy-laden, generation-spanning, folk, country, gospel tour de force.

Worldview

Songs of genuine quality, like wine, get better with age; there's no such thing as a wall of separation between church and roots music; Triple-A radio: the airwaves' last hope for a truly colorblind, sex-blind, age-blind format.

Overall quality

Still selling after all these years, making it the Saturday Night Live or Grease

(South Pacific?) of predominantly acoustic Americana.

4. LEGEND

Bob Marley and the Wailers

759 weeks on chart

Style

The most popular, catchy, and influential reggae of all time.

Objectionable material

An unsentimental understanding of this music's Rastafarian underpinnings is advised.

Worldview

Explicitly: that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are worth getting up, standing up, and fighting for; implicitly: that smoking marijuana is a sacrament and that slain Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie is the Messiah.

Overall quality

Buoyant, catchy, determined, joyful.

5. NO PADS, NO HELMETS ...

Simple Plan

72 weeks on chart

Style

Punk for the underachieving high-school male.

Objectionable material

The bachelor-party booklet photos; casual crudities ("Addicted," "My Alien," "I'm Just a Kid").

Worldview

"Last night I had to study for this test. / I forgot. Man, I'm dead, / and now my brain is bursting out of my head. / I can't think. I can't breathe / once again.... God must hate me."

Overall quality

Aims for puerile-catchy, hits puerile-annoying.

In the spotlight

It's doubtful that Prince will ever win the total-sales battle with his toughest competitor, Michael Jackson (Thriller, the second-biggest-selling album of all time, remains comfortably ahead of everything else except the Eagles' Their Greatest Hits), but the current success of The Very Best of Prince (Warner Bros.) suggests that Prince may be winning the popularity war.

A short summary: After emerging simultaneously in the late '70s (Prince from obscurity, Mr. Jackson from teen idol-hood), they spent the '80s electrifying radio and MTV with a string of hits that would turn out to be black pop's last significant pre-rap run. For people who speak no English, Prince remains a legitimate thriller, his sheer virtuosic exuberance the pop-musical equivalent of a 40-point performance by Kobe Bryant. For many English speakers, however, Prince's obsession with sex will connect him to Messrs. Jackson and Bryant in ways that no amount of sales or pleasure can eclipse.

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