Getty Images
Getty Images

How Did The Eagles' Greatest Hits Become the Best-Selling Album of the 20th Century?

Getty Images
Getty Images

It may not always seem like it, but most things in this world make sense. Occam has his razor, and what goes up must come down. Occasionally, however, a cosmic curve ball is thrown that makes you question just how logical our little universe really is. For example, the fact that the best-selling album in America in the 20th century was the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975.

Now, it’s not a bad album by any means. “Take It Easy” is a good song, as are “Desperado” and “One of These Nights.” But how has a run-of-the-mill best-of collection sold more than 29 million copies? How did it, in 1999, manage to surpass Michael Jackson’s Thriller—a moon-landing of an LP—as the best-selling album in American history? (Thriller would reclaim the top spot 10 years later, following Jackson’s death.)

The album's success was a mild surprise from the beginning. According to Rolling Stone, the band's record label, Asylum, had grown frustrated with how long the Eagles were taking to finish Hotel California and decided to crank out a compilation album in order to raise revenue in time for the end of the first fiscal quarter.

When Their Greatest Hits was released in 1976, “best of” albums were a relatively new phenomenon in rock and pop music. The album’s initial success prompted a trend piece in The New York Times, one that included primers on nine other new best-of compilations.

“It’s no wonder that record companies love to market these collections,” the Times’ Henry Edwards rationalized. “They cost almost nothing to produce; they sell with a minimum of advertising; and they are spared bad reviews by pop critics who, for the most part, ignore them.” (This didn’t prevent Edwards from slipping in some critical musings: “A genuine gift for melody coupled with vigorous playing and harmonizing occasionally enables the Eagles to overcome the vacuity of their recent hits.”) While Edwards understood why these albums were so beloved by labels, he couldn’t predict how fervently fans would eat them up.

Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 debuted at number four on the Billboard 200 album chart when it was released on February 17, 1976. Less than a month later, it reached number one and stayed in the top spot for five weeks before being usurped by Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive! Still, Their Greatest Hits kept selling. And selling. And selling.

"It was never the biggest thing ever," Carl Mello, the senior buyer for Boston-based record chain store Newbury Comics told Rolling Stone, "but each year it just sold tons and tons and tons."

Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 came out just 10 months before Hotel California, and the timing proved to be serendipitous. Songs from that massively popular later album obviously weren’t included on Their Greatest Hits and, as Rolling Stone’s Steve Knopper wrote, this “forced new Eagles fans to pick up both LPs on record-store runs for decades.”

The Eagles broke up in 1980, but their sound was perfectly suited for rock radio. (When Their Greatest Hits was released, the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau wrote in a bite-sized review that the 10 collected songs were “probably a must for those who've concluded [The Eagles] are geniuses by listening to the radio.”) This carried over to the classic rock format that came to dominate the airwaves and, as anyone who has ever listened to the radio in the last 40 years can attest, an Eagles song is never too far away. (If you share The Dude’s opinion of the Eagles, however, this isn’t necessarily a good thing.)

This steady churn resulted in the album going platinum 26 times by the fall of 1999. Its success meant that record labels no longer hesitated to put out best-of compilations at any point during an artist's career. The Eagles, naturally, are a great example of this: The band managed to put out seven original albums in total; fans looking to buy an Eagles best-of album have 10 different collections from which to choose.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?

Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at


More from mental floss studios