Beatles Still the Biggest Rock Band in the World?

beatlesU2 can make the claim. Some time back, it was a slugfest between Guns N’ Roses and Metallica (with Nirvana waiting in the wings). Led Zeppelin and the Who were once certainly in the conversation, but that was before I was even born. How about Pearl Jam? The label could certainly be slapped on the enormous resurgence of Green Day. British acts like Coldplay and Snow Patrol are creeping their way into the conversation. And, of course, no one’s going to thumb his or her nose at the Rolling Stones after some forty-five years. But who is the biggest rock band in the world right now? If you base it solely on record sales in the last decade, the answer is pretty clear: the Beatles. That’s right, the Fab Four. A group that’s been defunct now for nearly forty years and has lost half of its lineup to the Grim Reaper. How is that possible?

If this question were asked in the late 60s, there would be no other answer. Even with the aforementioned Stones and Who hitting their strides, there still wasn’t a reasonable debate. Sure, you could say you liked one of those two more than the Beatles, but no group commanded the attention of the world more than four guys from Liverpool. But this is 2009, a long haul from the 60s. So I must be out of my mind, right? Well, consider this: the Beatles were the best selling rock band of the 00s (second highest of any act). Yep, they sold more records than any other rock band in America. You could blame this on the fact that mainstream modern rock is pretty lousy across the board or that the record sales industry has so drastically changed since the advent of the mp3 and file downloading that it’s unfeasible to get an accurate view of absolute popularity, but the numbers don’t lie. The Beatles have outsold nearly everyone during this decade, and don’t show signs of slowing down. They were even the fifth best-selling act during the 90s. Clearly, they can’t be stopped.

eminemThe only artist to outsell the Beatles during the 00s is, not too surprisingly, Eminem. And there will be no argument from me over which act gets more attention today. The Beatles’ outrageous antics of drug songs, “embracing” the hated Soviets and claiming they were more popular than one Jesus Christ are hysterically tame compared to the media-baiting stunts that Marshall Mathers is up to. And I’m pretty sure that concert sales are going to lean slightly in Eminem’s favor. I mean, I haven’t paid to see the Beatles perform live since, well, ever. They never seem to play shows around me for some reason. But in all seriousness, the fact that they disbanded and don’t do shows is really the only ammunition against the “biggest rock band” theory. Ask the average pedestrian if they’ve heard of the Beatles. If anyone says no, they’re just pulling your leg. You won’t get the same proliferation of ayes with any of the other big selling acts of this decade. Not even close. Even a couple of Canadians can have a little fun with their undeniably astounding reputation, as seen below.

All of this returns to sales numbers, which is the very raison d’être for this discussion. They’re not just the best selling popular music act in history—they continue to sell at a nearly untouchable rate. They’ve sold more than a billion records internationally. A billion. Only Elvis even comes close.

johnnycashAnother interesting trend in the big sellers of the 00s is how nostalgia for classics helped others as well. Johnny Cash made the Top 20. And while Metallica is still releasing new music, their biggest seller during the decade was their self-titled album from 1991. The same goes for Celine Dion, whose two biggest sellers were a greatest hits collection and Let’s Talk About Love, both from the 90s. Oh, and if you’re still not sold on the claim for the Beatles, consider this: the rock acts to come closest to the Beatles’ sales during this time are Linkin Park and Creed. Not likely to be immortalized on the shores of Lake Erie in the near future. And the most common answer today, U2, didn’t even make the Top 20.

The biggest sellers in the US since 2000 are listed below, including mention of the album that sold best during the period. The figures come from Nielsen/SoundScan and are rounded to the nearest hundred thousand records sold.

1. Eminem (31.1 million) – The Marshall Mathers LP (10.1 million)
2. The Beatles (27.6 million) – 1 (11.4 million)
3. Tim McGraw (24.3 million) – Greatest Hits (6 million)
4. Toby Keith (24.2 million) – Shock’n Y’All (4.4 million)
5. Britney Spears (23 million) – Oops!...I Did It Again (9.2 million)
6. Kenny Chesney (21.4 million) – When the Sun Goes Down (4.1 million)
7. Nelly (21.2 million) – Country Grammar (8.5 million)
8. Linkin Park (21.1 million) – Hybrid Theory (9.6 million)
9. Creed (20.4 million) – Human Clay (9.5 million)
10. Jay-Z (19.4 million) – The Black Album (3.3 million)
11. Nickelback (19.2 million) – All the Right Reasons (7.2 million)
12. Josh Groban (19.1 million) – Closer (5.7 million)
13. Rascal Flatts (18.9 million) – Feels Like Today (5.1 million)
14. Metallica (18.5 million) – Metallica (3.7 million)
15. Alan Jackson (18.5 million) – Drive (3.5 million)
16. NSYNC (18.4 million) – No Strings Attached (11.1 million)
17. Dixie Chicks (18.3 million) – Home (6 million)
18. Johnny Cash (17.9 million) – 16 Greatest Hits (2.8 million)
19. Kid Rock (17.6 million) – Cocky (5 million)
20. Celine Dion (17.6 million) – All the Way…A Decade of Song (5 million)

beatles2But, no, the title of “biggest rock band in the world” can’t honestly be applied to the Beatles. There is no definitive answer, but it has to be placed on a group that’s still touring the world and releasing new music. And since worldwide figures are nearly impossible to gauge, the numbers come solely from the US, which, despite what some jingoists may think, is not the whole world. But no act will ever be better known or more widely loved, and the fact that they’re still shifting units like almost no one else is a staggering achievement.

Now, can anyone explain most of the other acts in the Top 20? Who is buying that junk?

Matt Medlock


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