Let me say first, I didn't dismiss them, it's just that the ones I always hear are about the societal importance and record sales. If we base it on that, it should go 1. Beatles 2. Elvis, and if we are going on U.K. sales T. Rex actually outsold the Beatles in their day during T. Rextasy. I don't think anyone should use record sales to base an argument about artistic quality on; one of my biggest gripes with Howard is that he does this. A great example was the fight that he and Fred had with the band Hum and the criticisms he has made since. I feel that you have to judge the music as music once the fog of economic concerns are lifted and it's really out there in the ether. Often the best music, literature and art is the least popular because it's difficult at first glance or the first listen. For instance, I would argue the best Pink Floyd albums were pre-Dark Side, even though their most successful albums were Dark Side and The Wall. To me, the Beatles music has a very produced, manufactured feel to it; it's technically proficient to be sure, but there's no real soul underneath. I would argue that the Stones are the opposite, they lack the technical proficiency of the Beatles, but for better or worse they lived it, it was real and it sounds real.
Second, as to the sell out accusation, I think Van Morrison is a great example. He started out doing a sort of pop act to pay the bills, and as soon as he had a modicum of success he used it to cut Astral Weeks and Moondance, two seminal albums that were commercial failures at least when they were released. He didn't do Wings, and he didn't become a pitchman, he resigned himself to being an alcoholic loner who played folk music. I think that the way you handle success, by using it to do something really challenging like Bowie's Berlin trilogy, or by moving more and more towards a commercial sound, tells you a lot. Imagine is a good song, but it's pretty ham fisted in terms of the lyrics and it wasn't technically ground breaking by any means. Doing a concept album with Brian Eno may not try and effect societal change, but it creates better music. Just my take, I respect your opinion as someone who lived through it; like I said, I didn't, I can only go on the records they cut and you're more than entitled to disagree.