Well… it’s been a while, hasn’t it?
Back in 2013, I started counting down and reviewing the top 50 best-selling albums in the U.S., in the hopes of getting to the bottom of what exactly makes an album that America loves. Though, as you may have noticed, I haven’t done one of these since March of 2016. Which makes it all a bit fortuitous that my last entry in The People’s Albums referred to then-candidate Trump in its opening paragraph.
Obviously, a lot has changed since the Spring of 2016, and our perception of what exactly America is has also changed. This probably shouldn’t have impacted me talking about mega-selling albums from the past, but for some reason, it did. In each People’s Albums piece, I would declare (in plain terms) why America would go for a certain album. But in the wake of the 2016 election, I wasn’t in the mood at all to write about what America did or didn’t like and why. All I knew was that America sucked, and I didn’t want to think about that fact.
But now, two years later, I’m starting to feel like I have a bit more perspective on why America is the way it is. And why the tectonic shift in our perception of it happened when it did. I also still believe that there are transcendent pieces of pop culture that can unite the two warring Americas, if just for the duration of a pop song or two. Yes, even if you’re a small town girl living in a lonely world, or a city boy born and raised in South Detroit.
(Yes, I realize that was cheesy, but what do you expect? We’re about to talk about Journey for god’s sakes!)
Album: Greatest Hits
Release Date: November 15, 1988
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 15 million
Why Was This Popular?
Because America Won’t Stop Believin’
This is one album where I’d be curious to see exactly where the spikes in its popularity happened. Because sure, Journey was a pretty successful band in their time, but I have to assume much of the album’s success has to do with the undying popularity of the song “Don’t Stop Believin’”, and in particular the cultural ubiquity it has enjoyed since the mid-00’s. The song was a decent hit when it was released in 1981, but wasn’t even the band’s biggest hit overall (that distinction belongs to “Open Arms”, which reached #2 on the Billboard charts).
Yet, for whatever reason, “Don’t Stop Believin’” has become one of the few rock songs that I think you could make a case for replacing the national anthem. I believe the main reason for this overwhelming resurgence had to do with television. I recall the song being used on an episode of Family Guy when I was in high school, back when that show was going through a Journey-like resurgence in popularity. Then there was the song appearing on Glee, another very popular, probably overhyped Fox show. I’m sure the song was also sung a bunch on American Idol or something (thanks again, Fox). And then the song finally cemented a legendary place in the public consciousness by scoring the final 4 minutes of the greatest American television show ever made.
Notice how disparate the viewing audiences are for the four shows I just mentioned and you get the weirdly transcendent appeal of “Don’t Stop Believin’”. My theory as to why this song did become so popular when it did probably has to do with the slow death of the so-called “guilty pleasure” in music. I believe I once ranked Journey on a list of my favorite guilty pleasure bands many years ago, but I feel like that was back when there was such a thing as shame in regards to one’s own music tastes. Ever since the mid-’00s and the dawn of the internet offering a new kind of eclecticism, I think people have become less quick to judge “good” music from “bad” music. So, a song that has as many inherently cheesy trademarks as “Don’t Stop Believin’” has become much easier to embrace.
The same goes for the rest of Journey’s Greatest Hits. “Any Way You Want It” is one of the most deliciously cheesy of all cheesy ‘80s rock songs, while “Open Arms” indulges the absolute sappiest of Journey’s tendencies, albeit in a way that’s still oddly touching. Then you have songs like “Lights” or “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” that ride the line between corniness and being legitimately good mid-tempo rock songs. It’s this combination that points to why the band was so popular during their time – they appealed the sensitive souls who were into Journey’s ballads, and to the gruff hard rock guys that appreciated the guitar work of Neal Schon.
Did It Deserve To Be Popular?
Journey is a hard band to assess whether they deserved to be popular, because it’s like of course they’d be popular. They feel so much of a piece with the entire ‘80s music landscape, and where mainstream rock found itself during that decade. Though it’s hard to say exactly if that’s a good thing.
Even when I listen to the production on these songs, I can’t decide if the way they were recorded is good or not. It’s all very pristine and pretty for sure, but there’s also something about hearing a band that puts both piano and crunchy electric guitar so at the forefront, which I’m not sure should work. But perhaps it’s Steve Perry’s voice that makes it all work. It has both the slight gruffness that you’d expect from a rock singer, but he also has a vocal range that borders on operatic, which makes the band’s musical histrionics seem not so out-of-place.
If you’re also trying to make a case for Journey being a “good” band, I think you also have to look at the fact that they sounds so ‘80s, and yet they were early progenitors of the ‘80s sound. Most of the songs on Greatest Hits originates from the band’s 1978-1983 period, and so it’s clear that they were at the forefront of a newer, more keyboard-based sound that would seep into hard rock, for better or for worse.
Also, you could make the case that the band were pioneers of the power ballad. There are plenty of songs from the ‘70s that I think you could make the case for being “the first” power ballads. But I’m not sure there is any band that mixed rock and balladry quite as much as Journey, and in the process made the case that power ballads had a lot of potential to be Top 40 hits for bands who would ordinarily be more focused on the albums market.
So for those reasons, I kinda think that this album and Journey did deserve to be popular. If you’re going to listen to just one cheesy ‘80s rock band, I think it’s got to be Journey. You could also make the case for Hall & Oates, though they were always a little more pop and R&B than rock. Either way, I’ve listened to Greatest Hits albums by both of them, and their sustained popularity clearly speaks for itself. Also, again, the fact that Journey wrote one of the most enduring pop songs of all time certainly speaks to the fact that they were clearly doing something right.
Would I Pay Money For This?
I probably would. I’ve found that Greatest Hits albums are always good to have in your car, though I realize CD players in cars are becoming less abundant with each passing year. Regardless, this is just a great collection to have with you while speeding down the freeway, or just out for a night of shenanigans with your buddies. These songs are thoroughly fun to bop your head along with without thinking too much, even if one of the songs is probably playing at a bar somewhere in the world every moment of every day.
Next Time On The People’s Albums: We’ll breathe in the air and stare at the eclipse in Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon, which apparently made a lot of Money.
Note: You may have noticed a slight jump in the rankings of albums, which is due to the RIAA’s list of the best-selling albums in the U.S. having shifted in the time between I wrote the last entry in The People’s Albums.