Everybody with an interest in music can spin a theory for why Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) by the Eagles, released 40 years ago this winter, became what the RIAA considers the #1 album of all time. Its popularity was remarkable: within a week of its release, it became the first album to be certified platinum, having sold at least a million copies in the United States. (It was not the first million-selling album, of course—merely the first to get the new platinum certification.) The album hit #1 on March 13, 1976, and stayed for four weeks; it would spend an additional week at the top starting on April 17th. Although it never topped the charts again, it would never stop selling, and it’s currently sitting at #11 on the Billboard 200 following the death of Glenn Frey.
I am not here today to spin a theory, however. This post is a ranking of the 10 songs on the album, with brief annotations.
10. “Desperado.” On an album where every song could be considered definitive of the band’s sound, something has to rank at the bottom. “Desperado” is a pretty song and a fine performance, but I’m ranking it here for radio geek reasons. A program director of mine said it’s one of the hardest records to schedule because it’s so slow and so sparse. “Desperado”: what radio jingles and sweepers are for.
9. “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” On the radio as 1972 turned to 1973, when it reached #22 on the Hot 100, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” helps me understand why certain critics and listeners hate the Eagles so much. It feels as if it were molded out of plastic, every note and every line calculated.
8. “Tequila Sunrise.” As unlikely as it seems, this was pretty much a stiff on its single release, getting only to #62 as the followup to “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” It’s every bit as slick as its predecessor, but it ranks a notch above because it’s one of Glenn Frey’s best vocals.
7. “Witchy Woman.” The anti-“Desperado.” On the radio, it sounds great next to almost anything, with a killer introduction DJs love.
6. “Take It Easy.” The first song on side one of the first Eagles album, and from the first second, a fitting announcement of what was to come over the next eight years. (And the next 44.) The platonic ideal of country rock.
5. “One of These Nights.” There has never been another record, by the Eagles or anybody else, that sounds quite like this, from whatever Randy Meisner is doing to his bass on the intro to Don Felder’s highly distorted guitar to Don Henley’s falsetto, so high it it must have hurt to sing that way.
4. “Already Gone.” The Eagles were a straight-up country-rock band for only their first two albums; On the Border was the transitional album, and “Already Gone” the transitional track. You can still hear the country, but they’re clearly a rock band now.
3. “Lyin’ Eyes.” Had I been programming this album, I might have left “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Take It to the Limit” off, given that they were both still on the radio as 1975 turned to 1976. The main candidates for a replacement would have been “Outlaw Man,” a #59 single from Desperado, or “James Dean,” from On the Border, which peaked at #77.
2. “Take It to the Limit.” “Lyin’ Eyes” had gone recurrent by early 1976, but “Take It to the Limit” was in hot rotations when Their Greatest Hits was released. It’s one of those songs that didn’t mean all that much to me in the winter of 1976. But about the time I hit my mid-30s, it began rising up my chart. Its tone of weary resignation comes from the realization that you have to keep striving even though you’re tired and would like to give up—which is something you can’t understand when you’re 16.
1. “Best of My Love.” The most deeply romantic song they ever recorded, full of beautiful sounds, that wall of acoustic guitars and the shimmering electric. I am slain absolutely dead, every damn time, by the vocal harmonies on “oh, sweet darlin’.”
The Eagles went back to the greatest-hits well in 1982, but lightning did not strike again like it did the first time. Read about that in a future installment.