Billboard has been charting albums since 1945 under many different names and formulas, but since May 1991 it’s been based on album sales as reported by Soundscan. They used to exclude “catalog” albums from the chart, which seemed ridiculous to me around the time of Michael Jackson’s death when his old albums were selling better than any current releases. I campaigned hard to have these included in the Billboard 200, because I believed the main album chart should reflect which albums people are actually purchasing. That’s what it’s all about: the top selling albums.
Look what I stumbled across in the May 7, 1994 issue of Billboard. It’s a blurb about the break up of Uncle Tupelo who had played their final show just a few days earlier on May 1.
“Say Uncle: Uncle Tupelo is dissolving, with core member Jeff Tweedy and drummer Ken Coomer forming a new group called National Dust. Tupelo’s other main member, Jay Farrar, is forming his own band. Both new acts have deals with Sire.”
By the time the Red Hot + Country compilation was released in September, which contained Tweedy’s new band’s cover of “The T.B. is Whipping Me,” they had settled on Wilco. Greg Kot quotes Coomer on why the band ditched the National Dust moniker: “The womenfolk weren’t havin’ it.”
Of course, a good name can’t remain unused for long, and by 2005 a Los Angeles cockrock band had taken it on. The fact that this new National Dust sounds like post-makeup KISS and employs Confederate flag imagery is a bummer, but what can you do?
Taylor Swift has sold 1,287,000 copies of 1989 in its first week of release. That’s a lot of albums. Only 18 other albums have managed to move a million copies in a week since 1991 when SoundScan started tracking sales.
First week album sales are a measure of true fandom. Real fans get excited to support their favorite artists, and the number of selfies with the 1989 CD on Instagram is anachronistically hilarious. I wonder if half of those kids even own a CD player. Doesn’t matter. They need it.
It’s sometimes tough to remember that even back before Spotify, YouTube, the Pirate Bay, and Napster, it was still rare as hell for an album to break that million/week point. In the first seven years of SoundScan tracking, only one album managed it: The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1993. After that it was almost six more years before another album did it: Garth Brooks’ Double Live at the end of 1998.
I am very excited by the idea of a new Father John Misty album. I spent most of 2012 and 2013 obsessing over Fear Fun after being turned on to him by my sister-in-law. She had heard the song he did with Phosphorescent on the Aquarium Drunkard satellite radio show. I got into the album and finally saw him live at Lollapalooza where he stole the show and blew my mind. It was only then that I dug hard into the FJM mythology, finally catching up on the major Magnet profile and picking up the record on vinyl so I could read his self-consciously ridiculous “novel” that was included in the liner notes.
The performance makes me a little nervous that his sense of humor has gotten pissier and more darkly sarcastic. Gone are the swoon-worthy dance moves, dismissed last year as “the demonic clown thing that I’d been doing,” replaced with an uncomfortable laugh track. He’s still clearly “fucking with artifice” but now I’m afraid he might be going too negative. What the world does not need right now is another fucking bummer.
I’ve been watching the Ken Burns documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History and I’m astonished by how much I didn’t know about that era of American history. One example: a Gallup Poll from early 1939 revealed that 84-85% of American protestants and Catholics “opposed offering sanctuary to European refugees. So did more than one-quarter of American Jews.” This was after the well-reported “Night of Broken Glass” in November of 1938 when Hitler’s goons ransacked Jewish homes, shops, and synagogues through Germany and Austria, killing dozens of Jews and imprisoning thousands more.
I knew that Americans had become isolationist in the wake of World War I, but I had assumed that the so-called Greatest Generation had risen to the occasion when faced with the atrocities of the Nazis. Not so much. It’s shocking to see photos of young American protesters marching with “Make peace with Hitler” signs. FDR reinstated conscription and on October 16, 1940, American men had to register for the draft, and most Americans were not happy about it. Before I watched this episode I had assumed it was just lefty radicals like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger who opposed the war. Their band the Almanac Singers recorded one of my favorite protest songs, “Ballad Of October 16th.”
Oh, Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt
We damn near believed what he said
He said, “I hate war and so does Eleanor
But we won’t be safe ’til everybody’s dead.”
The connection between music and memories is as fundamental as that between heart and soul. We write songs about things we’ve done and people we’ve loved and those songs remind us that we are human. To be robbed of either is heartbreaking, to be robbed of both is tragic.
Glen Campbell has been frank about his battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He announced his affliction in 2011 and embarked on a farewell tour—one that he had to take while he still could. If you love songs but aren’t familiar with Campbell’s work then you are missing some of the 20th century’s most endearing music. The towering shadow of his career is summarized in just the opening paragraph of his Wikipedia entry:
Campbell has released more than 70 albums. He has sold 45 million records and accumulated 12 RIAA Gold albums, 4 Platinum albums and 1 Double-Platinum album. He has placed a total of 80 different songs on either the Billboard Country Chart, the Billboard Hot 100, or the Adult Contemporary Chart, 29 in the Top 10 of which 9 peaked at number one on at least one of those charts.
And now he has one more song and album. His 78 years are reflected in this video, his last.
A couple of years ago, it blew my mind that Adele’s 21 had sold more than 100,000 copies per week for what ended up being 45 weeks by the time I stopped paying attention. Back then 21 had cumulative sales of a little over seven million. Well, guess what: it’s still selling.
Last week Adele’s 21 surpassed 11 million in U.S. sales. This is 189 weeks after it was released, and it has never once fallen out of the Billboard 200. In fact, Billboard‘s Keith Caulfield points out that “It has spent all but 11 of its chart weeks in the top 100.” That’s just bonkers.