When You Could Rock in the Free World

If there is one cultural component of the 80s that has suffered more unilateral derision than any other, it’s music. Okay, a case could be made for fashion, but the playing field is uneven; those who considered themselves fashionistas are decidedly outnumbered by music lovers. And those who woke up in the 90s and realized their Cameo fade wasn’t as bitchin’ as they thought quickly disassociated themselves from previous musical inclinations with denial, denouncement, and ridicule.

“Hey, you remember that band Extreme? What a bunch of candies!”

“Um, yeah; you were just listening to Pornograffitti for, like, three months straight.”

Despite what anyone would like to forget, the decade did make a rather significant contribution to the recording arts and sciences: the two best-selling albums of all time were released in the 80s.

The average contemporary music fan either knows or could easily deduce that Michael Jackson’s Thriller is the best-selling album of all time. And more than a few are under the impression it’s the runaway leader. The race, however, might be closer than you think. Although so many people own it, AC/DC’s Back in Black isn’t widely recognized for being as hot on the heels of Jackson’s 1983 smash hit as it arguably is. Thriller is still ahead, but the gap’s disparity is questionable. Claims of Thriller sales in excess of 100 million copies are uncorroborated; the Guinness Book of World Records puts the number at 51 million, while figures for back Back in Black total about 50 million.*

Both albums are undisputed classics, having countless times been praised, commemorated, reissued, analyzed, and imitated. Yet while these lauded opuses share a common bond of success, their critical comparison is lacking. And originally that was the intent of this post – which is the better album: Thriller or Back in Black?

In short time, however, the incompatibilities of this battle became obvious. Both albums serve polarized functions. What one album does, the other doesn’t. The few similarities are superficial. Nonetheless, they’re worth noting:


Back in Black:

Highly anticipated follow-up to career-changing 1979 breakthrough LP (Highway to Hell).

Produced by a renowned studio genius (Robert John “Mutt” Lange).



Highly anticipated follow-up to career-changing 1979 breakthrough LP (Off the Wall).

Produced by a renowned studio genius (Quincy Jones).

And that’s pretty much where the similarities end. The differences, though, range from the obvious to the interesting. Obviously, these are two distinct artists from unique backgrounds. Jackson was a child prodigy and American product of 50s and 60s do-wop, soul, and R&B. He incorporated elements of disco, motown, and rock music to create his signature, dance-friendly style of pop. Later albums would develop an edgier pop-rock sound, but Thriller was favorably R&B.

On the other side of the world, AC/DC found its genesis at the hands of guitarists Malcolm and Angus Young, two Scottish brothers who immigrated with their family to Australia in the 60s. The Brothers Young were almost exclusively inspired through the blues and rock idioms, but they’re tastes were not as contemporary as their Jimi-Hendrix-and-Led-Zeppelin-loving peers. The Youngs cut their teeth on Chuck Berry and the boogie-woogie rockers of the 50s. Thus, AC/DC’s sound developed an elemental timelessness few associative acts have successfully captured. Back in Black is often praised for not only aptly showcasing AC/DC’s raw fundamental appeal, but also exhibiting remarkably balanced production and sound engineering. Simply, it is one of the best aural experiences in recorded music.

That these two masterpieces were released only two years apart and have gone on to dominate album sales in their nearly 30-plus year lives is telling of the era that welcomed their releases. There will never be another album that will reach either level of success. The recording industry has adapted to the digital age, and the single has replaced the album as the preferred musical delivery device. The fervor that once accompanied the album – a book of songs that detailed 40-60 minute narratives – is gone. The 80s were the apex of the album’s popularity. And that Back in Black and Thriller are so different might suggest they sated two distinct palates. There’s no point in arguing which album is “better.” People who bought Back in Black were not as likely to buy Thriller, and vice versa.

But one thing is certain: that’s a lot of album sales for a decade that produced “terrible” music.

*Defining worldwide albums sales is not an exact science. Various recording industries record sales by copy or disc differently. General estimates for Thriller put total sales around 51-65 million. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon supposedly has sold close to 50 million copies, but Back in Black has a distinct advantage in established RIAA sales.