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When was Blonde on Blonde released? Nobody knows.

Fifty years is not ancient history. And yet mysteries are still possible.

Earlier this week everybody celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the release of two groundbreaking albums: the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Both of them are masterpieces but only one of them was released on May 16, 1966.

Why is there confusion around the release date of Blonde on Blonde? Aren’t these things documented? Especially for an artist with the stature and scrutiny of Bob Dylan! Of course they are, but sometimes we don’t have immediate access to everything.

But we do have enough information to definitively rule out the idea that Blonde on Blonde came out on the same day as Pet Sounds.

On Monday morning when I checked my twitter and started seeing people celebrating this milestone, I wondered how many people were fans of both albums at the time. Can you imagine going into the record store and seeing those two albums side by side on the new release shelf? But in 1966, were the Beach Boys loved by the same people who loved Bob Dylan? It’s a fascinating question but there weren’t many publications at the time that took rock and roll very seriously, so it’s hard to find any contemporary comparisons. Rolling Stone wouldn’t publish its first issue for another year and a half (November 1967).

I busted out my trusty edition of Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Albums to see how the two albums sold and was surprised that while Pet Sounds debuted on Billboard’s Top LPs chart on May 28, Blonde on Blonde didn’t bow on the chart until July 23. That seemed odd since Dylan was coming off a hit single with “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” His new album couldn’t have been that much of a sleeper, could it?

Continue reading When was Blonde on Blonde released? Nobody knows.

Thank you for a funky time, Prince

The first time I remember seeing or hearing Prince was the “Little Red Corvette” video. I was at a sleepover at a friend’s house. I was 11 years old and I was pretty sure I knew everything about everything. I was, of course, wrong.

We laughed about his fruity look and completely missed most of the dirty references (“a pocket full of horses, Trojans, and some of them used”). Who was this guy? None of my pals were into Prince…yet.

When seventh grade started in September there was a new kid in school. Rich was a Latino kid who moved from New York, and he knew how to do the wave. I sat by him in Mr. Bergin’s homeroom and he regaled me with stories about breakdancing competitions back home. Our school district was extremely white, and we must have made Rich feel like an exotic alien. He was a badass. By the end of the year a bunch of classmates — led by Rich — had their own breaking crew who blew away everyone else in the talent show.

That summer, my friends and I would go to the Plainfield Dance every Saturday night. It was held in a roller skating rink and attracted kids from all over the area, including the inner city. You follow where I’m going with this? It was my first opportunity as a kid to be around black people. My friends and I were too self-conscious to dance, but we’d walk around the rink looking at girls and listening to music.

Plainfield Skating Center

The music was different from what was being played on the radio, including strange electro grooves that would end up triggering us to make a big circle around the breakdancers as they impressed everybody with their latest moves. They’d challenge each other and battle on the floor. The coolest thing I ever saw was when Rich — after a dizzying assortment of helicopter spins — concluded by coming to an abrupt halt and simultaneously grabbing his nuts with one hand and pointing at a rival with the other. The place exploded.

Continue reading Thank you for a funky time, Prince

Prince Dead at 57

This video has long been my go-to mood enhancer. Of the many, many amazing performances Prince has recorded over the years, this is the one I go back to again and again. There are so many reason why, but a few that come to mind are:

    • If I could play guitar like anyone it would be Jay Bennett, George Harrison or Prince. This hits two of the three
    • Prince’s inclusion elevates the performance from a tribute from pals (famous and talented ones, at that) to a celebration of a song and its writer who inspired and affected so many people
    • Prince absolutely mops the floor with his solo
    • His guitar disappears at the end. Seriously, where did it go?
    • The look on Dhani Harrison’s face throughout Prince’s solo is pure gold

Prince’s Guitar Solo during “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at the 2004 Hall of Fame Inductions

There are few celebrity deaths that would affect me personally—unlike that of a family member or friend, I might miss their artistry, but not their person. Prince’s death has affected me though. I am genuinely sad to hear of his passing. I think it’s because his public persona, the character he’s created and refined throughout his years as a public figure, is exactly what we want musicians to be. Yes, he was successful financially. More importantly, he was unique but cognizant and respectful of what had come before him. He confounded us with genre mash-ups and confusing name changes. He was the guy who wrote “Darling Nikki” and then extolled the virtues of being a Jahovah’s Witness. He was…interesting. Endlessly interesting.

He really seemed to exist on a higher plane.

If anyone felt music, it was Prince. You can see it in his face and his body. He created the wavelengths and then let himself be taken by them. He had that golden combination of science and soul. I don’t think Prince ever once in his life simply ran scales.

So yes, I am sad today and will genuinely miss Prince’s existence in the world. And I’ll lean heavily on my go-to mood enhancer to get through it.

Godspeed to his Purple Badness.

Wilco’s Tiny Desk Concert is the Album We Need Right Now

I’ve recently taken to posting confessions on Facebook. Nothing too salacious or embarrassing, just acknowledgements that may be unexpected to my legion of followers. Things like my arbitrary cap on concerts: $50 ticket, no venues larger than 1500. The reasoning behind this cap is a topic for another post, but I’d like to use this opportunity to make another confession:

I’m bored with Wilco.

Given my own personal history with the band and GLONO’s long trail of coverage, this is not easy for me to write. And I want to be clear that I am very happy the band is as successful as they are now—and that’s not some lame qualifier before I launch into a scathing criticism (which I won’t). I really am quite happy that a band from Chicago, who I’ve followed from its earliest days, and who represents everything great in independent music, is successful. We don’t have enough of those success stories. And I love several songs on every album they’ve put out.

But I haven’t loved a whole album since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

I think about this a lot and while there are a number of factors, it basically boils down to two things:

  1. I want more songs from Jeff Tweedy—not soundscapes or word play, I want songs. I want structure and melodies and harmonies and stories. The bits I have liked from recent albums all fit this mold.
  2. Simple production. A couple mics, acoustic instruments and capable hands behind the desk. Put a guy like David Rawlings, T-Bone Burnett or even Jack White in the producer role and I’m in.

This isn’t a pipe dream; this could happen. John Mellencamp did it on No Better Than This using a 1955 Ampex portable recording machine and only one microphone. Hell, Uncle Tupelo did something similar on March 17 -20, 1992. And more recently, Wilco recorded an NPR Tiny Desk concert that sounds exactly what I am talking about.

I know I sound like the old man yelling about how great the old days were on this, but I only do it because I care. So please, Wilco: won’t you do an old fan a solid and sit down in front of a couple mics and just play some songs? I promise to shut up for a couple years.

Formation: The Call for Black Girls and Femmes

It was around 2:50 PM Eastern Time, I was in my room in front of my desk talking on the phone with one of my closest friends, Amo. We were talking about how to navigate workplaces, and other spaces we wanted to access as a Black woman. We talked about how we were learning how to be productive and how life was popping at the moment because we were doing so much. Also, how do we pick and choose battles? Which battles are worth fighting? To what extent are we willing to be uncomfortable until it’s acceptable to pop off? We needed to get employed and answer these questions in order to survive. As we’re talking about being the young, Black hustlers that we are, “Formation” interrupted our conversation and honestly, I couldn’t even remember what I was saying before the video dropped, all I remember after that is saying “I love Beyoncé” repeatedly as I watched the video and Amo was on the other side of the line wheezing.

“Formation” dropped at the perfect time for me, just as I thought that I needed to tone my blackness down, I was uplifted and encouraged to do the stark opposite. “Formation” was necessary and to underestimate Beyoncé’s timing on all this is to underestimate her ability to use the power that she knows she has. We’re talking about a woman here that works day and night and makes sure that every aspect of her artistry is perfection. She is known for this. ‘Formation’ is a late entry into the dialogue about black lives, and it largely sidesteps the politics. Still it feels essential. But how? Do you really think she didn’t know that she was going to perform at the Super Bowl? Do you believe that she wasn’t preparing to release the video the day before she performed it in the Bay Area, where the Black Panthers Party was started? If you believe this a money-move, I worry about how someone like you exists among the human race.

Unapologetically celebrating your blackness isn’t palatable to a white gaze and Beyoncé is more likely to lose money by having done this. But she doesn’t need more money, and she’ll continue to make more money regardless of what some myopic, racists think of her. At this point in her career, she doesn’t need to care.

This song made a lot of people angry, people expect Black women to be inclusive. That everything Black people do needs to include everyone else even though Black people are excluded from most spaces. This video and song was exclusive, it’s the embodiment of the lyric “how you gon’ hate from outside the club—you can’t even get in.” An outsider looking in wouldn’t be able to understand all of the references in the song. “Formation” is a Black femme anthem. It’s not for all girls like “Run the World” was. She spoke about her experience as a woman. In “Run the World,” it was about how “we run the world”, but the specification of her black womanhood and her usage of the word “I” is important in this song. This song is made for Black femmes to chant in clubs, it’s not meant to be inclusive. If you don’t understand why she carries hot sauce in her bag, if you don’t have a negro nose—”Formation” was not written with you in mind and you better not be caught chanting that you like your negro nose, ever. What was interpreted by some as a display of grandeur was a gift to this Black girl’s Instagram captions, and more importantly, it was spiritually uplifting for me as a Black woman. Before Beyoncé even mentions that she’s the Black Bill Gates in the making, before she mentions that she works hard and she grinds till she owns it, she says: “Earned all this money but they’ll never take the country out me” and that’s followed by “I got hot sauce in my bag, swag”. You can’t take the country out her no matter how high up her paper stacks up because she’s Southern and Black AF and hot sauce in her bag, swag.

The median wealth for a single Black woman in the United States is $5. When people call Beyoncé a titan for capitalism, the only reason I’d understand why they’d call her that is because she’s worth millions, and when she says she just might be the Black Bill Gates in the making that isolates a lot of non-millionaires from relating to her. What I don’t understand is the unmitigated anger that people have for a Black woman getting her coin. People aren’t hiring Black women, and when they do they short us and we have to deal with microaggressions and not so subtle racism. So when Beyoncé says “I dream it, I work hard, I grind till I own it” she knows that every Black girl in the club on a Friday night after having that deposit hit is chanting this because we worked hard, and we need to grind for every. single. penny. we have. And when she sings “I slay” Black girls everywhere are feeling cocky fresh with their baby hairs and afros.

In the “Formation” video, the girls are lined up or, in formation with their afros and glistening melanin, not a non-black person is in sight, well except for the cops. Black women have been in the frontlines in every movement. The Black Panther Party wouldn’t be anything without the women involved, the Stonewall riots were started by a Black trans woman, the Black Lives Matter movement was started by Black women—black women get in formation and then get shit done. “Okay ladies now let’s get in formation” is a call to Black girls only, the “okay” gives us a sense of familiarity with this, we know what we need to do, we’re together in this struggle and together, in formation we run the world.

Najma Sharif is a Minnesotan living and studying in New York City. She likes her coffee like she likes herself— bitter and strong.

Without Sly Stone I Wouldn’t Be Here Today

When I was a teenager my mom told me the story about how she found out my dad really loved her. When they were dating my dad drove her all the way to Detroit — a two-and-a-half hour trip — to see Sly and the Family Stone in concert. But when they arrived at the venue they discovered that the show had been canceled. And she knew he really loved her because when the gig was rescheduled my dad was willing to drive her back across the state to see the make-up date. True love!

I’ve always loved this story. First of all, it shows my parents were hip enough to be into Sly back in the day. Then, as I got older I decided it would make a juicier story to claim that I had been conceived after a Sly and the Family Stone concert, which would also explain why I am so damn funky. It’s simple if slightly salacious to reinterpret my mom’s “I knew he loved me” by adding the unsaid “…enough to do it with him” to the end.

Besides, I had already figured out that there were only seven months between their wedding and my birthday, so although my grandma always insisted that “sometimes the first one comes earlier” than the standard nine months, I realized that when my dad proposed to my mom at Big Boy’s they had gotten themselves into a bit of a situation. My mom said that since my dad (who was 28 at the time) had been married and divorced twice already, he couldn’t ask his friends for another wedding present so they eloped in Las Vegas.

The story has a happy ending: I was born and turned out awesome, and my parents had a happy, loving marriage.

But I recently started wondering if my interpretation of the Sly Stone story might actually be true. So I tried to find out if there indeed had been a Sly show in Detroit approximately nine months before I was born. Sure enough, a December 1970 article by the AP’s Mary Campbell verified my mom’s story (“A November concert in Detroit was canceled about an hour before it was to start. […] A make-up concert in Detroit, a week after the canceled one, subsequently is held.”), and the timing fits my version of events.

So I guess that proves beyond reasonable doubt why I am so damn funky.

Continue reading Without Sly Stone I Wouldn’t Be Here Today

2015 Soundscan Data: Total Music Sales and Consumption

Last year Soundscan was rebranded as Nielsen Music. Whatever, I’m still going to call it Soundscan. I’m a fogey like that.

2015 was the year that streaming really took off. Apple finally got into it after acquiring Beats, which had acquired my beloved MOG. Apple Music still kinda sucks, but I renewed my subscription after my three month free preview ran out. I’ve gotten my money’s worth by downloading all those Velvet Underground box sets and a bunch of other stuff. Some of it I probably would have bought, some of it I probably wouldn’t have.

My favorite albums of the year were Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear, and Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell. I also liked Craig Finn’s Faith In the Future, Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free, Kacey Musgraves’ Pageant Material, the Mountain Goats’ Beat the Champ, Wilco’s Star Wars, and I’m happy the Libertines got their shit together enough to pull off Anthems for Doomed Youth.

But the biggest story of 2015 was Adele who proved that there are still a bunch of people out there who are willing to pay for an album. Billboard’s Ed Christman points out, “By herself, Adele accounted for three percent of total album sales in the U.S.” Which is insane. 25 sold 7.44 million copies. That would have been bonkers in any year, but it’s especially crazy in these days of cultural fragmentation.

Anyway, here’s the data…

Total U.S. Album sales (physical + digital in millions)

Total Album Sales (physical + digital albums)

2015: 241.39 million
2014: 257.02 million
2013: 289.41 million
2012: 315.96 million
2011: 330.57 million
2010: 326.15 million
2009: 373.9 million
2008: 428.4 million
2007: 500.5 million
2006: 542.4 million
2005: 618.9 million
2004: 667 million
2003: 687 million
2002: 681 million
2001: 763 million
2000: 785 million
1999: 754.8 million
1998: 711 million
1997: 651.8 million
1996: 616.6 million
1995: 616.4 million (I’ve heard the figure is 616,957,000)
1994: 614.7 million (I’ve heard the figure is 615,266,000)
1993: ~573 million (1994 was 7.4% increase over 1993)

Continue reading 2015 Soundscan Data: Total Music Sales and Consumption

Overall Album Sales New Weekly Low: 3.51 Million (in September)

Bill boredJust over a year ago, Billboard announced a major change in the way it calculates its Billboard 200 album chart, incorporating streams and individual track sales. At the time I whined about it because I believe the main album chart should reflect which albums people are actually purchasing.

But the biggest bummer that I had not anticipated is that Keith Caulfield stopped reporting the overall album sales total in his weekly Chart Beat column. I loved that paragraph because it showed a bigger picture of the health of the album industry beyond the top ten or even the top 200 biggest sellers of the week. It was also morbidly fascinating to keep track of how low it could dip. The lowest I saw it go before the chart change was 4.05 million in July 2014.

Well it’s gone down even further since then as Caulfield revealed in an aside in his coverage of Adele’s historic sales week: “The lowest week in Nielsen history for album sales was the frame ending Sept. 17, when only 3.51 million albums were sold.”

That is not a lot of records.

Billboard’s Ed Christman has previously reported that “The highest one-week tally recorded during the Soundscan era is 45.4 million albums, in late December, 2000.” In the same article, Christman estimates that the lowest pre-Soundscan period was 1973 when weekly sales probably “totaled around 5.5 million units.”

So now the question becomes: When will weekly album sales dip below 3 million?

* * *

Another interesting fact in Caulfield’s piece is that last week’s overall album sales were 8.2 million of which 25 represented 41% (3.38 million). Numbers 2 through 100 sold 1.48 million, which leaves 3.34 million albums sold outside of the top 100. Those are all albums that sold less than 5,000 copies each. The long tail lives!

Adele’s Album Sales Are Historically Bonkers

Adele’s new album, 25, sold 3.38 million copies in its first week in the United States. This is bonkers. That’s more — way more — than any other album has sold in a week since Nielsen started tracking real sales in 1991.

Only one other album has sold more than two million albums in a week, and nobody’s sold three million. *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached sold 2.42 million in 2000. For the mathematically challenged, 25 sold 960,000 more copies than its closest rival which happened to be released at the absolute zenith of record sales. Billboard‘s Glenn Peoples has some crazy figures that claim that adjusted for inflation (or something) this would somehow be “equivalent to her selling 7.59 million units in 2000.” I don’t know about that, but I know that 3.38 million is a shitload of records in 2015 or any other year.

Pre-SoundScan data is unreliable at best, but it took Sgt. Pepper three months to sell 2.5 million copies according Bob Spitz’s Beatles biography. Beatles' Record-Busting LP (Rolling Stone Dec 21 1968)It took Meet the Beatles four years to sell 5.8 million copies, according to issue No. 24 of Rolling Stone. That same 1968 article points out that the top selling album of all time then was The Sound of Music soundtrack with 8 million. It was front page news that Capitol Records had shipped 3,301,275 copies of the White Album to stores.

So this is big news.

In addition to those 3.38 million “pure album sales” 25 also moved 96,000 “track equivalent album units” and another 8,000 “streaming equivalent album units” bringing its official Nielsen total to 3.48 million equivalent album units.

More sales details: 1.71 million compact discs, 1.64 million digital albums, 22,000 vinyl albums. Sorry hipsters, there was no official cassette release.

A year ago when Taylor Swift sold 1,287,000 copies of 1989, I pointed out how rare it’s always been to sell more than a million albums in a week. SoundScan began compiling its figures May 25, 1991, and for the first 8 years there were only two albums that achieved it. The year 2000 was insane when there were 5 albums that broke the million mark, but since then it’s been about one album per year despite the fact that album sales have been declining steadily. It’s obvious now that 2000 was a bubble.

But Adele is a force of nature. The question now is how long will 25 keep selling? I was mesmerized by the staying power of 21, which managed to sell 100,000 copies every week for what seemed like forever. Will 25 have those kinds of legs? We shall see.

Continue reading Adele’s Album Sales Are Historically Bonkers

New Libertines is better than you’d expect

Video: The Libertines – “Heart Of The Matter”

I’m a big Libertines fan. Their 2002 debut Up the Bracket is one of my favorite albums of the millennium so far, and their 2004 self-titled follow up is pretty good, too. Back in the day, I saw the Peteless touring version of the band twice. And while their solo careers haven’t always lived up to their potential, I’ve always held out hope that if they got back together they could rekindle the magic. But realistically, I knew that after this long it was probably going to suck.

Anthems for Doomed Youth doesn’t suck. There are moments that are great, and plenty more that are all right. I need to spend more time with it before I can be sure whether to file it (in my mind) up with the first two albums or down there next to the Babyshambles and Dirty Pretty Things albums.

“Heart Of The Matter” is one of the immediate highlights. With Pete and Carl trading off verses and self-mythologizing/demonizing lyrics, it takes the classic Libs formula and updates it with 10+ years of life experience. The video is corny and the “twist” ending is obvious, but it’s still fun to see these guys go all Reservoir Dogs in a peep show booth. Get it? The audience demands to see celebrities acting badly! Deep as a puddle, but hey, at least it looks pretty cool.

Image via Albion Rooms.

Continue reading New Libertines is better than you’d expect