The Top Selling Albums of 1979: End of an Era

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Sometimes the best things come in the simplest packages. A September 1, 1979 industry ad for Led Zeppelin’s In Through the Out Door

Some of the names making headlines in 1979… Mob boss Carmine Galante. John Wayne. The Shah of Iran. Etan Patz. Sid Vicious. Willie Stargell. Pope John Paul II.

Recordings made by some of the biggest classic rock artists of the era were side-by-side with popular disco releases on the list of top-selling albums in the U.S. as a decade came to a close. So the chart, compiled by the former music industry trade magazine, Record World, features albums by Donna Summer and Chic alongside those by such rock favorites as Van Halen, ELO, Led Zeppelin, the Cars and Eagles, among the year’s Top 30 sellers.

Here are highlights, in descending order:

Rickie Lee Jones was just 24 when she released her self-titled debut album of story songs like “Weasel and the White Boys Cool” and “Danny’s All-Star Joint,” that March. The cover photo of the beret-clad, singer-songwriter combined with the fact that she was dating Tom Waits, made her the coolest chick on the planet. Her appearance on Saturday Night Live just one month after the LP’s release cemented that status and helped propel the unlikely single, “Chuck E.’s in Love,” all the way to #3 on the pop chart.

It’s too easy to forget just how big Foreigner was from 1977 until 1984 with multi-Platinum albums and seven Top 5 singles. For Head Games, they teamed for the first (and only) time with producer Roy Thomas Baker. The Sept. ’79 release landed right in the middle of that streak of five huge albums.

Related: The inside story of Foreigner’s debut album

This ad for Van Halen II appeared in the March 31, 1979 issue of Record World. “Few records happened faster”

The brainchild of producer-musicians Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the dance band Chic instantly captured the flavor of the disco scene in the late ’70s. Their second album, 1978’s C’est Chic, delivered “Le Freak,” the enormous single that many still associate with the height of the disco era. The song is based on their experience when the pair were denied admission to Studio 54 due to a snafu on the guest list. Rodgers says the bouncer told them to “F**k off” and that morphed into the key phrase, “Freak out,” for the song.

No sophomore slump for Van Halen. After they burst on the scene with their 1978 self-titled debut – as their label noted in an industry ad – “few records happened faster” – the band returned with Van Halen II, and a hit single, “Dance the Night Away.” And after earning opening slots for Black Sabbath and Journey for their first album, they quickly graduated to headlining status, selling out arenas worldwide throughout ’79.

Related: Our Album Rewind of Van Halen’s first LP

Another band that was in the midst of a serious roll was Styx, which in 1979 released their third of four straight multi-platinum albums. Cornerstone reached #2 on the sales chart thanks to the enormous success of the power ballad, “Babe,” the group’s sole #1 single.

Here’s what’s most surprising about Off the Wall, Michael Jackson‘s first collaboration with producer Quincy Jones: Though the album yielded two #1 hits (“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You”) and two others that went Top 10, the LP never reached #1, peaking instead at #3.

Dire Straits‘ self-titled debut is a testament to the artist development efforts of Warner Bros. Records. Released in October ’78, the label built a buzz about the band and it began earning significant FM airplay, led by New York’s WNEW-FM. By January the album had charted and the unique song, “Sultans of Swing,” was in full, er, swing at rock stations. By February, “Sultans” debuted on the singles chart to become an unlikely pop success.

Related: More on “Sultans of Swing”‘s unlikely success

Another year, another album, and even more radio friendly pop songs. Such was the case of ELO during their significant run. And 1979’s Discovery was no exception. The LP featured two more Top 10 hits, “Shine a Little Love” and “Don’t Bring Me Down,” from the maestro, Jeff Lynne.

Related: ELO’s “Don’t Bring Me Down… Bruce!”

One year after the Cars sped into our consciousness with such radio-friendly tunes as “Just What I Needed” and “My Best Friend’s Girl” from their debut album, they returned with Candy-O and even more hook-filled songs. All these years later, who doesn’t enjoy listening to Benjamin Orr’s vocal on the Ric Ocasek-penned “Let’s Go,” or gazing at that Vargas girl on the album cover?

How does a band top Hotel California? The short answer is: you can’t. But Eagles certainly made a significant attempt on The Long Run, their first without founding member, Randy Meisner. “Heartache Tonight” became the group’s fifth (and final) #1 single and “I Can’t Tell You Why,” with lead vocals by Timothy B. Schmit, marked his recording debut with the band.

Related: Our inside story on the making-of The Long Run

When Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi created the Blues Brothers as an SNL sketch in 1978, Atlantic Records seized upon the opportunity to record a live album, Briefcase Full of Blues, of classic covers that went #1 and ultimately sold 3.5 million copies. Jake and Elwood Blues became pop stars as well, with their remakes of “Soul Man” and “Rubber Biscuit.” It didn’t hurt that their band featured such studio greats as Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn, of Booker T. and the M.G.’s.

Two years after their previous studio album, Bad Company were back with Desolation Angels. Thanks largely to the enormous success of the hit, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy,” it returned BadCo to the top of the charts.

An ad for this album appeared in the June 16, 1979 issue of Record World

Billy Joel had broken through in 1977 with The Stranger which just missed the top, peaking at #2. This time, with Side One’s radio-friendly tunes “My Life,” “Big Shot” and “Honesty,” the Piano Man earned his first of four #1 albums. It was an instant success. The Oct. ’78 release hit the top the following month and stayed there for six weeks, with significant sales continuing in ’79.

The Knack‘s debut, Get The Knack, was an out-of-the-box hit, driven by the song “My Sharona.” The single was released in June and shot to #1 on Aug. 11, holding the top slot for six weeks, eventually becoming the biggest single of the year.

The first three studio albums from Cheap Trick were just modest successes. But when their Japanese label issued Live at Budokan in October 1978, imports began to flood the U.S. The American division of CBS Records saw no profit from them and decided to release it as well. Smart move. The album delivered the band’s first significant pop success with “I Want You to Want Me.”

Related: We spoke to the label exec who signed Cheap Trick, about those early years

Rod Stewart had no lack of success with his early solo efforts via Mercury Records. (And there are many who contend that these represented his best work.) But when he left the label in the mid-’70s for Warner Bros., who could argue with consecutive chart peaks of 9-2-2-1? The latter was for Blondes Have More Fun, released in November 1978, which includes the mega-hit, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy.”

Related: Links to 100s of current classic rock tours

If you knew that “What a Fool Believes” was co-written by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, raise your hand. The #1 smash would go on to win three Grammy Awards including Record of the Year. Its success delivered the first #1 album – Minute By Minute – to the Doobie Brothers.

Led Zeppelin‘s In Through the Out Door was released in a plain package, made to look like a brown paper bag. It exploded out-of-the-box, entering the Record World sales chart at #1 on Sept. 8, just the second time in the magazine’s history that that had occurred. (The previous occasion was Elton John’s Captain Fantastic album.) It stayed there for another seven weeks, when it was finally displaced by the Eagles’ The Long Run.

Part of a 4-page ad for Breakfast in America in the March 31, 1979 issue of Record World

Following on the heels of their enormous resurgence, thanks to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, while also surviving the debacle that was the Sgt. Pepper’s movie, the Bee Gees earned their sole U.S. #1 studio album with Spirits Having Flown. The LP delivered no less than three #1 pop hits: “Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy” and “Love You Inside Out.”

Donna Summer ruled the discos and the radio in ’79 with a pair of #1 singles (“Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff”) and a third (“Dim All the Lights”) that reached #2. The trio propelled her Bad Girls 2-LP set to the top for weeks, making it the year’s overall #2 seller.

Few could have predicted what happened to Supertramp in 1979. Two years after the band’s previous effort had reached #16, breakfast was served in America. A&M Records knew what they had on their hands and laid the groundwork at radio and retail, placing an attention-getting four-page ad in Record World on March 31 for what ultimately became the year’s surprise overall #1 album. While none of its three singles were enormous pop hits, Breakfast in America was a juggernaut at album radio.

Related: Our Album Rewind of Breakfast in America

[Some readers wonder why Pink Floyd’s massive The Wall album, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes, to name two big titles from ’79, aren’t on the list. They were released in the fourth quarter and thus didn’t accumulate enough sales in this calendar year to qualify among the year’s biggest. You’ll find them on the 1980 list.]

30. Greatest Hits – Barry Manilow (Arista)
29. Rickie Lee Jones (Warner Bros.)
28. Teddy – Teddy Pendergrass (Phila Intl.)
27. Cruisin‘ – Village People (Casablanca)
26. Head Games – Foreigner (Atlantic)
25. C’est Chic – Chic (Atlantic)
24. Van Halen II – Van Halen (Warner Bros.)
23. Greatest Hits Vol. II – Barbra Streisand (Columbia)
22. The Gambler – Kenny Rogers (United Artists)
21. We Are Family – Sister Sledge (Cotillion)
20. Cornerstone – Styx (A&M)
19. Off the Wall – Michael Jackson (Epic)
18. Dire Straits (Warner Bros.)
17. Discovery – ELO (Jet)
16. Candy-O – The Cars (Elektra)
15. The Long Run – Eagles (Asylum)
14. I Am – Earth, Wind & Fire (ARC/Columbia)
13. Midnight Magic – Commodores (Motown)
12. Briefcase Full of Blues – Blues Brothers (Atlantic)
11. 2 Hot! – Peaches & Herb (Polydor)
10. Desolation Angels – Bad Company (Swan Song)
9. 52nd St. – Billy Joel (Columbia)
8. Get the Knack – The Knack (Capitol)
7. Live at Budokan – Cheap Trick (Epic)
6. Blondes Have More Fun – Rod Stewart (Warner Bros.)
5. Minute by Minute – Doobie Brothers (Warner Bros.)
4. In Through the Out Door – Led Zeppelin (Swan Song)
3. Spirits Having Flown – Bee Gees (RSO)
2. Bad Girls – Donna Summer (Casablanca)
1. Breakfast in America – Supertramp (A&M)

Greg Brodsky

13 Comments so far

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  1. Norm
    #1 Norm 18 October, 2019, 14:40

    Huh! Nothing about the Beatles? When you mentioned the debacle that was the Sgt. Pepper’s movie, I expected to see on this list an album from an ex-Beatles. OK, John Lennon was in a hiatus taking care of his son and Ringo Starr was seriously ill at hospital. But what about Harrison’ self-titled 1979 studio album with great songs as « Blow away » and « Love Comes to Everyone », a Top 20 LP in the Canadian and American charts?
    And mostly Wings’ Back To The Egg, a number 2 album in the Canadian charts and a top ten LP in many countries, with fine McCartney songs, « Old Siam, Sir », « Getting Closer », « Arrow Through Me », « Spin It On » and the instrumental « Rockestra Theme », with an all-star collection of musicians (Denny Laine, David Gilmour, Hank Marvin, Pete Townshend, John Bonham, John Paul Jones, Ronnie Lane, Gary Brooker, Ray Cooper, Morris Pert,… If only for this instrumental piece that won the 1980 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, I would have included this album in this list of 30 Top Selling Albums of 1979. The critics were severe at the time but the fans were not mistaken. Still today, this album is well seen and highly anticipated in a super McCartney luxury edition.

    Reply this comment
    • Greg Brodsky
      Greg Brodsky Author 18 October, 2019, 15:40

      Note the title of the article, Norm. This list has nothing to do with critical favorites but EVERYTHING to do with what the U.S. public was buying in ’79.

      Reply this comment
      • Norm
        Norm 19 October, 2019, 17:44

        Dear Greg. Thank you for your comment. I understand that this list was made from public buying. I was just a bit surprised that some LPs that sold 500,000 and 1,000,000 copies was in the list. So, why not seeing George Harrison (Gold Vinyl) or Wings (1 x Platinum)? I was 24 in 1979, was listening radio every day and buying LPs (I know all these albums and I still have a half of the list in my collection). And I had my preferences, just like other listeners and buyers. In fact, I just wanted to suggest a 31st one for this list: Wings’ Back To The Egg. Cheers!

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        • Dennis
          Dennis 23 October, 2019, 09:43

          I think you are misinformed Norm, don’t know where you are getting your information from. Hopefully you haven’t fallen into the ridiculous RIAA certification trap. These are the best selling albums of 1979 in order. 2, 3, 4 were all nominated for an AMA, which means they were the top album artists (selling) for the year.

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          • LouieG
            LouieG 17 October, 2020, 15:30

            You are correct about the RIAA information. Case in point: Spirits Having Flown is estimated to have sold 30 million copies wordwide, with at least 6 million in the US alone, but RSO never had the album recertified at its instant platinum status in 1979.

  2. Alias Pink Puzz
    #2 Alias Pink Puzz 17 October, 2020, 17:12

    What about the Kinks big comeback with Low Budget?

    Reply this comment
  3. russ
    #3 russ 2 September, 2022, 08:55

    what a terrible year for music

    Reply this comment
    • BMac
      BMac 23 August, 2023, 13:46

      I’d have to insist ’78 was worse. And ’79 was actually kind of a turning point – new Pink Floyd, Supertramp, Foreigner, the last Wings album (which I really liked), some inroads with new wave from The Cars and others, and ’79 also had one of my all time favorite one hit wonders, “Hold On” from Ian Gomm, as well as Rickie Lee Jones’ “Chuck E’s in Love”.

      Reply this comment
  4. Da Mick
    #4 Da Mick 2 September, 2022, 10:52

    There are certainly some notable records here, not to mention the many great albums of this time that don’t make the top selling list. But when you compare this year’s top LPs to say 1971 or surrounding years, you can see that the truly great era of what we now call “Classic Rock” is pretty much over. The music of the upcoming 80s had its own, what I consider, separate kind of appeal with production coming into play as such a big part of the sonic element in 80s music. In my opinion, The Cars had a lot to do with ushering this sound in, as they were huge sellers, so naturally, imitators followed..

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  5. David
    #5 David 2 September, 2022, 18:03

    Hmmm….Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes reached #2 on the Billboard album chart for 7 weeks and went on to become certified Triple Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.It also yielded two songs that made the top 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, “Don’t Do Me Like That” (#10) and “Refugee” (#15). How much more “popular” or “top selling” does he have to get?

    Reply this comment
    • Greg Brodsky
      Greg Brodsky Author 2 September, 2022, 21:28

      David… This is based on sales during the 1979 calendar year. Damn the Torpedoes was released on Oct. 19 and thus had only 2+ months of sales during the year. It’s thus in our 1980 sales story.

      Reply this comment
  6. BeatleStone
    #6 BeatleStone 17 October, 2022, 10:02

    George’s self titled album George Harrison is an underrated masterpiece. VH2 rocked hard along with Highway To Hell.

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