Pazz & Jop's Album Results Get Soundscanned

The incredible shrinking album

The pop-culture footprint of our 2011 P&J winner, measured numerically, says more about what’s expected these days from an album than it does about tUnE-yArDs’ cultural potential. A recent L.A. Times article profiling veteran indie label Sub Pop notes that most of the Seattle imprint’s albums “now are budgeted to become profitable by the time they sell 10,000 copies — some even 5,000.” Surely Garbus’s label 4AD had similarly modest expectations for tUnE-yArDs; by that yardstick, w h o k i l l is a smash.

Focusing just on the 2011 poll for a bit, here are cumulative sales of the Top 10 albums of Pazz & Jop 2011, according to Nielsen Soundscan:

1. tUnE-yArDs w h o k i l l 47,000
2. PJ Harvey Let England Shake 70,000
3. Jay-Z and Kanye West Watch the Throne 1,232,000
4. Wild Flag 33,000
5. Tom Waits Bad As Me 156,000
6. Adele 21 5,824,000
7. Destroyer Kaputt 32,000
8. Drake Take Care 1,248,000
9. Bon Iver 347,000
10. Shabazz Palaces Black Up 17,000

Tom Waits's Bad As Me. #5 album.
Tom Waits's Bad As Me. #5 album.

Details

Pazz and Jop 2011
Essays
Joyful Noises
Finding the bright side of 2011
By Maura Johnston

Suffering from Realness
The spotlight shines on Adele's heartbreak
By Katherine St. Asaph

Written on the Body
tUnE-yArds, PJ Harvey, and St. Vincent get physical
By Eric Harvey

Guarding the Throne
Jay-Z and Kanye West try to bring back the group listen
By Mike Barthel

Games People Play
Lana Del Rey lights up the Internet
By Tom Ewing

Riding the Bummer
Drake and the Weeknd wallow in their miseries
By Nick Murray

The Incredible Shrinking Album
Pazz & Jop's album results get Soundscanned
By Chris Molanphy

Confuse the Market
Post-crossover, indie retreats
By Scott Plagenhoef

California Demise
Tyler, the Creator and EMA feel the bad vibes
By Jessica Hopper

Most Valuable Supporting Player
André 3000 has a great year without a single starring role
By Andy Hutchins

Just Dance
The year ravers and pop fans learned to (file) share
By Michaelangelo Matos

Comments
Top 10-Plus
The year's big albums, from tUnE-yArDs on down

Singles Going Steady
Rolling down from "The Deep"

Raves and Rants
Making cases for the great and the grating

The Personals
Feelings, whoa-whoa-whoa

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Including our winner, half the albums sold less than 100,000 copies. Another four ranged from low six figures to just over a million. And then there’s that 10th album (at #6), which outsold the other nine albums combined by more than two million copies.

About three months ago in my Sound of the City column “100 & Single,” I floated the tantalizing possibility that Adele’s 21 might pull what I dubbed (inspired by the EGOT) a PB&G: winning Pazz & Jop, topping Billboard's year-end tally of bestsellers, and winning the Grammy for Album of the Year. It’s happened only once before, in 1983, when Michael Jackson’s Thriller won the trifecta. Four P&J winners took home the Grammy but didn't lead in Billboard; one album, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., was tops in P&J and Billboard but missed the Grammy.

My October semi-prediction looks a bit naïve now—especially given the revelation that several high-profile critics found Adele’s smash album “completely boring”. Still, historically among big hit albums, 21’s sixth-place Pazz finish is impressive. Of the eight albums that both topped Billboard for the year and won the Grammy but didn’t top Pazz & Jop, only one, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, did better in the critics’ tally (fourth place, 1977) than Adele’s did. Most Grammy-and-Billboard smashes do quite poorly on P&J, ranging from a 10th-place showing for Carole King’s Tapestry in 1971 to 58th place for Taylor Swift’s Fearless in 2008; three other albums (Saturday Night Fever, The Bodyguard and Billy Joel’s 52nd Street) won industry hardware but didn't place with the Pazz-pollees at all.

The facile explanation for tUnE-yArDs’ victory over an album like Adele’s is that critics will be critics. But the sheer range of sales figures in the above Top 10 suggests something deeper—never mind the titles whose sales can’t even be measured. At a time when two titles in the Pazz Top 20 are actually free, download-only mixtapes by The Weeknd and Frank Ocean, the very definition of a culturally relevant album is in flux.

Finally, and for contrast, below are the digital sales for the Top 10 songs of Pazz & Jop 2011:

1. Adele, "Rolling in the Deep": 5,813,000
2. Beyoncé, "Countdown": 325,000
3. Nicki Minaj, "Super Bass": 3,608,000
4. M83, "Midnight City": 9,000
5. Jay-Z and Kanye West, "Niggas in Paris": 1,469,000
6. Azealia Banks, "212": 6,000
7. Britney Spears, "Till the World Ends": 2,492,000
8. Lana Del Ray, “Video Games”: N/A
9. Adele, "Someone Like You": 3,750,000
10. Foster the People, "Pumped Up Kicks": 3,843,000

As is P&J tradition, when it comes to single tracks, the voters had little difficulty rewarding best-sellers. Still, critics like their viral phenomena: the Azealia Banks and Lana Del Rey tracks barely exist outside of YouTube. (The former was released on iTunes late in the year; the latter just last week, hence its lack of sales.)

Even at under five minutes, for recordings in the 2010s, the ratio of cultural footprint to cultural influence is ever-widening. I’m sure Merrill Garbus can relate.

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2 comments
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Jim Testa
Jim Testa

There's one big factor you haven't taken into account and that's the changing demographics of the Pazz & Jop Voter. There used to be far fewer critics voting in the poll and many of them represented more mainstream media like daily newspapers. Most of those jobs don't exist anymore and I would guess that as P&J adds new voters, most if not all of them come from the blogosphere - younger, hipper, and far less involved with Billboard positions than the aging, retiring, or unemployed dead-tree media critics they replace.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

A very fair and apt point--thank you.

I still say, though, that the dropoff in sales from the three indie-centric winners from 2007–09 is too steep to be explained by a changing voter panel alone. It's always tempting to point to a big macro trend like that and say, "It's mostly this"; but even as rapidly as the Internet has Changed Everything in the last decade, if you can point to a counterfactual in the last 3–5 years, that argument is a bit less persuasive.

I had a similar (pleasant) debate with some American Idol fans who responded to my October column about Scotty McCreery by explaining away his decent-but-modest sales as the product of the industry-wide downturn in album sales. Yes, I said, except there were a couple of Idols who sold significantly better just three years earlier – album sales since 2008 are down, but they're not that far down. (They're down far more steeply since 2001.)

OTOH, to give your argument its due, I suppose it could be argued that the shift in dead-tree criticism in just the last 2–3 years is staggering, an even more precipitous shift than the steady but slower downturn in music sales over the last decade. So you definitely have a point there. My only point is, let's not overstate the effect of one macro trend.

 

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