Diminishing Returns

2011's Chart-Toppers: Disaster, Narrowly Avoided

Meet the new year, same as the old year: Justin Bieber has a new haircut for 2011, but some things never change: he's got another chart-topping album this year.

hide captionMeet the new year, same as the old year: Justin Bieber has a new haircut for 2011, but some things never change: he's got another chart-topping album this year.

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

This week, I felt a familiar — but recently AWOL — gnawing responsibility to peek at the Billboard album chart. We stopped posting weekly recaps of the country's best-selling albums around the end of 2010 because, frankly, it was hard to find news in the same story week after week. A new album would top the chart despite lackluster sales, then slip out of the number 1 spot the following week. Rinse, repeat. The only thing less inspiring than the indifferent churn of the marketplace was watching an album repeat in the top spot due solely to lackluster competition.

2010 closed as the worst year for album sales since Nielsen SoundScan started keeping track of such things; 2011 started out with a string of weeks that were even worse. And disinterest curdled into disenchantment. What can the the top of the chart possibly tell us as it crumbles? So I looked away.

Still, the mix of obligation and curiosity dies hard, so I looked at Billboard's charts for the first 13 weeks of 2011, and compared them to the same period in 2010. Here's what I found: somehow, despite a strong feint in that direction over the year's first few weeks, 2011 hasn't been a complete disaster.

Number 1 Albums, Weeks 1 - 13, 2011

  • Taylor Swift - Speak Now (77,000 copies)
  • Taylor Swift - Speak Now (52,000)
  • Cake - Showroom of Compassion (44,000)
  • The Decemberists - The King Is Dead (94,000)
  • Amos Lee - Mission Bell (40,000)
  • Nicki Minaj - Pink Friday (45,000)
  • Now That's What I Call Music 37 (151,000)
  • Justin Bieber - Never Say Never: The Remixes (165,000)
  • Adele - 21 (352,000)
  • Adele - 21 (168,000)
  • Lupe Fiasco - Lasers (204,000)
  • Adele - 21 (133,000)
  • Chris Brown - F.A.M.E. (270,000)

Number 1 Albums, Weeks 1 - 13, 2010

  • Susan Boyle - I Dreamed A Dream (122,000)
  • Ke$ha - Animal (152,000)
  • Vampire Weekend - Contra (124,000)
  • Hope For Haiti Now (171,000)
  • Lady Antebellum - Need You Now (481,000)
  • Lady Antebellum - Need You Now (209,000)
  • Sade - Soldier of Love (502,000)
  • Sade - Soldier of Love (190,000)
  • Sade - Soldier of Love (127,000)
  • Lady Antebellum - Need You Now (126,000)
  • Ludacris - Battle of the Sexes (137,000)
  • Lady Antebellum - Need You Now (93,000)
  • Justin Bieber - My World 2.0 (283,000)

Maybe that's not the breaking (!) news we'd hope for. In fact, if you pull back far enough, the first three months of 2011 look a lot like the first three months of 2010. Taylor Swift fills in for Susan Boyle as the previous year's holiday-hangover best seller. Adele is this year's Sade — an adult friendly, swooningly romantic R&B singer and repeat winner. Each quarter had its collection of songs by chart-topping artists, though the win by 2011's Now 37 wasn't as inspiring as the victory by 2010's benefit album Hope For Haiti Now (maybe the proceeds from Now 37 should go to Japan?) Both years have surprising indie-skewing chart-toppers (Vampire Weekend in 2010; Cake, The Decemberists and Amos Lee this year). One could compare Ludacris to Chris Brown, but comparing the self- and otherwise-destructive dance/pop/R&B star to anyone feels kind of terrible, so instead we'll call Lupe Fiasco's Lasers the 2011 instance of an album by legacy rapper supported fan base came out to support an album despite mediocre reviews. Justin Bieber is, well, I guess he's still Justin Bieber.

What's been different about 2011?

Here, take a look at this sample of Billboard.com headlines from 2011: "Taylor Swift's 'Speak Now' Takes No. 1 In Record-Low Sales Week" (January 12), "Cake Scores Lowest-Selling No. 1 in SoundScan History" (January 19), "Amos Lee Nets No. 1 on Billboard 200 in Another Dreary Sales Week" (February 2).

See a pattern? Swift's Speak Now, in its final week atop the chart, sold 52,000 copies. Cake's Showroom of Compassion sold 44,000. Lee's Mission Bell sold just 40,000. Nicki Minaj — who topped the chart in the week after Lee — sold 45,000, which four weeks earlier would have been a record low. But the fact that it took eleven weeks for Pink Friday to rise to the top of the chart — a low, persistent burn almost unheard of these days — was newsworthier.

In all, seven of the first 13 weeks of 2011 saw the Billboard album chart topped by an album that sold fewer than 100,000 copies, which happened only once in 2010. Chart-topping albums for those 13 weeks in 2010 sold 2.7 million copies (an average of 209,000 per week). In 2011, the first 13 weeks of number 1's sold 1.8 million (an average of 138,077 per week).

And then, in mid-February, things turned around. Not just because of increased sales at the top of the charts, either. Adele may have given 2011 it's only bona fide hit record with 21, but indie bands Mumford & Sons and Arcade Fire saw significant sales increases after the Grammy awards telecast on February 13, helping overall album sales notch increases over 2010's stats for six weeks straight. In 2010, overall album sales dropped 13%. So far in 2011, they're only down 5%.

Here's what it might mean: if the biggest albums out there aren't selling like they used to, sales of everything else — smaller records, catalog titles — are picking up the slack. Is that good news? We can hope so.

Then again, take a look at next week's presumptive winner, Britney Spears' Femme Fatale. That album is expected to sell around 280,000 copies, just about half of what her last album, 2008's Circus, sold. Reaching the top of the album chart is almost always bittersweet these days.

Of course, some things are just weird in their constancy. Last week, The Strokes released Angles, the band's first album in 5 years. It debuted at number 4 on the Billboard 200 with sales of 89,000 copies, far behind Chris Brown's chart-winner (270,000 copies sold). In 2005, First Impressions of Earth sold 88,000 copies in its first week to finish at number 4 on the chart, which was topped by Jamie Foxx's Unpredictable (131,000 copies sold). These last five years have been disastrous for the music industry, so it's hard to know whether to scoff at or applaud The Strokes' achievement. On the one hand, the new album's numbers would have been good enough to win five of the first 13 weeks of the year. On the other, unlike other hiatus-prone stars (like Sade last year) the time off doesn't seem to have done the band any good.

The biggest music story of the year so far isn't anywhere on the chart. Rebecca Black's leftfield hit "Friday" isn't attached to an album — the song only became a "single" after its low-budget video went viral. Though it's not getting radio play, it has sold well enough to land on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. And the 13-year-old is reportedly planning to release an album. So at least the youth of today haven't given up on the format entirely.

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