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Cassandra (Tia Carrere): You’ve heard it?
Wayne (Mike Myers): Exqueeze me? Have I seen this one before? Frampton Comes Alive?! Everybody in the world has Frampton Comes Alive. If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide.
—Wayne’s World 2 (1993)
For chart geeks, the Monkees loom large. To us, the candy-colored group, which included among its members the recently departed Davy Jones, have a status probably no other cultural observers would give them: album artists. In fact, by one measure, the Monkees have one of the 15 top-performing albums of all time—and that list of outperforming discs is undergoing a shift right now, thanks to a certain best-selling fellow Brit.
But for all the Monkees’ success on Billboard‘s Hot 100 singles chart from 1966 through 1968—six Top Three hits, including three No. 1’s—their real playground was the Billboard album chart. As veteran chart-watcher Paul Grein points out, the Monkees hold a distinction no other act has matched in 45 years: occupying the No. 1 spot with a record four albums in a single calendar year. With their first four discs, the group spent nearly two-thirds of 1967 monopolizing the top of what is now called the Billboard 200.
One of those four albums—their second, More of the Monkees, featuring the hits “I’m a Believer” and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”—topped the chart for 18 straight weeks. That puts it among the longest-lasting No. 1 albums in chart history, tied for 12th place with the 1987 soundtrack to Dirty Dancing and Garth Brooks’s 1991 album Ropin’ the Wind. (Unlike either of those albums, More of the Monkees‘ 18 weeks on top were consecutive and unbroken.)
About a month ago, for just one week, More of the Monkees was tied on the penthouse-longevity chart with a third album, Adele’s 21. But that was before the British thrush continued on to her 19th week atop the Billboard 200—and then her 20th, and her 21st. Now in its 22nd week as the best-selling album in the U.S., 21 has elbowed its way into the all-time longevity top 10 and is less than a month away from the top five, if Adele can outlast yesteryear blockbuster soundtracks from the Bee Gees and Prince.
What does it mean when an album is the nation’s biggest for that long? Is there any commonality among discs that dominate the cultural conversation for months on end? As per the Wayne’s World quote above, every few years it seems there’s a platter you’re all but commanded to acquire. What happens when an album passes from mere hit status to inevitable must-have?
Let’s look at the all-time list of Billboard No. 1 album longevity champs. If we limit ourselves to discs that spent at least 15 weeks atop the Billboard 200, we come up with a top 25. (Frampton Comes Alive!, for the record, is not among them, although it did spend a mighty 10 weeks on top, as Wayne Campbell might surmise.) Here’s the list.
1. West Side Story soundtrack (54 weeks, 1962-63)
2. Michael Jackson, Thriller (37 weeks, 1983-84)
3. Harry Belafonte, Calypso (31 weeks, 1956-57)
[TIE] South Pacific soundtrack (31 weeks, 1958)
[TIE] Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (31 weeks, 1977)
6. Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (24 weeks, 1978)
[TIE] Prince and the Revolution, Purple Rain soundtrack (24 weeks, 1984)
8. Adele, 21 (22 weeks, 2011-12)
9. M.C. Hammer, Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em (21 weeks, 1990)
10. Elvis Presley/Soundtrack, Blue Hawaii (20 weeks, 1961-62)
[TIE] Whitney Houston/Soundtrack, The Bodyguard (20 weeks, 1992-93)
12. The Monkees, More of the Monkees (18 weeks, 1967)
[TIE] Dirty Dancing soundtrack (18 weeks, 1987-88)
[TIE] Garth Brooks, Ropin’ the Wind (18 weeks, 1991-92)
15. The Police, Synchronicity (17 weeks, 1983)
[TIE] Billy Ray Cyrus, Some Gave All (17 weeks, 1992)
17. The Sound of Music Original Cast (16 weeks, 1960)
[TIE] Andy Williams, The Days of Wine and Roses (16 weeks, 1963)
[TIE] Vanilla Ice, To the Extreme (16 weeks, 1990-91)
[TIE] Titanic soundtrack (16 weeks, 1998)
21. My Fair Lady Original Cast (15 weeks, 1956-59)
[TIE] The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (15 weeks, 1967)
[TIE] Carole King, Tapestry (15 weeks, 1971)
[TIE] REO Speedwagon, Hi Infidelity (15 weeks, 1981)
[TIE] Men at Work, Business as Usual (15 weeks, 1982-83)
The first thing you notice about this list is that there are no repeat artists. Once you have a culture-dominating album, you might return to No. 1 with another one—indeed, if you’re Michael Jackson or Prince or Fleetwood Mac you inevitably will—but it’s pretty rare to have a second chart-topper of the same magnitude.
(To find acts who repeat on the longevity list, you have to go below the top 25. For the record, the two biggest repeaters are Whitney Houston, whose 1985 self-titled debut spent 14 weeks at No. 1; and the Monkees again, whose own self-titled debut from 1966 spent 13 weeks on top, immediately before More of the Monkees. Between those two albums, Davy Jones & co. were atop the album chart for, no joke, 31 straight weeks. Take that, Beatles.)
The second thing you notice is that, while no artists repeat, there is a word that recurs over and over: “soundtrack.” Throw in original cast albums, plus the three movie-tied discs led by Elvis, Prince and Houston, and film-or-Broadway-themed collections make up 10 of the Top 25. They were particularly dominant in the ’50s and ’60s; if you had compiled the above list as of the end of 1969, the top 10 list of longevity champs would be more than half soundtracks and original casts, from West Side Story to My Fair Lady to 1961’s Exodus (14 weeks).
Why so many soundtracks? One eternal theme is that nothing sells music like a tie-in to a visual medium. Albums that listeners connect to a powerful moment of drama—Tony and Maria finding love amid rival street gangs; Rose telling Jack her heart will go on—spread across popular culture like wildfire. Maybe drama isn’t even necessary, or a theater: the driving force behind the Monkees’ chartbusting album sales was a hit TV comedy show. And the visual product doesn’t even have to be that big a hit—in the case of medium-size box-office hit and album-chart blockbuster Dirty Dancing, the music outdistanced the film.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, original cast recordings and Broadway-spinoff film soundtracks were much bigger than they’ve been since. The most obvious answer is that Broadway culture was popular culture in the years just before and immediately after the explosion of rock and roll.
But there’s another, more subtle trend that the success of soundtracks atop the album chart points toward—and it has something to do with the album medium itself, and how an album becomes totemic.
The Monkees, “She”
Obviously, hit songs generally spawn hit albums. Several of the titles on the above list exploded thanks to a radio-dominating single, whether it’s “Every Breath You Take” fueling the Police’s Synchronicity or “Ice Ice Baby” powering Vanilla Ice’s To the Extreme. Even West Side Story, the all-time longevity champ, was fueled in part by its songs; surely, millions wanted a recording of “Somewhere.”
But “Somewhere,” timeless as it is, only explains how an album spends a few months atop the album chart. It doesn’t explain a full year—54 weeks, to be exact. Those 54 weeks were spread across two different, now-extinct Billboard charts, Top LP’s-Monaural and Top LP’s-Stereo, which existed only from 1959 to 1963. And that points toward what happened to West Side Story.
The long-playing record itself, particularly in stereo, was a relatively new format in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Singles handily outsold albums then—according to a 1960 Billboard article, by roughly two to one. If you were buying LPs instead of 45s in 1962, you were not only buying music but also making something of a lifestyle choice. The album-buyer was demographically different from the singles-buyer—an album was a showcase for your hi-fi system, a then-new technology.
This is the easiest way to explain why, for example, Herb Alpert, a talented trumpeter with only a couple of Top 10 singles to his name, wound up with five No. 1 albums in the mid-’60s—including one with a lascivious cover that was a showpiece in many a swinging ’60s bachelor pad. This trend of album-as-accessory persisted for decades. The separate mono and stereo LP charts of the early ’60s weren’t the last time Billboard maintained ephemeral charts fueled by new technology. For about five years starting in 1985, the magazine ran a Top Compact Discs chart; the all-time best-seller on that short-lived chart was the all-digitally-recorded, yuppie-dude-friendly Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits, which spent a staggering 31 weeks on top of the compact disc list (compared with nine weeks on the main album list). When a ’60s dude bought a Herb Alpert LP, or an ’80s guy bought a Dire Straits CD, he was buying a piece of software for his hardware—and simultaneously buying a lifestyle.
In their months of chart dominance, then, the soundtracks to West Side Story and South Pacific became symbols not just of Broadway-derived pop but, one presumes, of a sophisticated, urbane lifestyle. You bought them to have your memories of the movies, or the musicals, or to own the same chic pop totem you saw sitting on your neighbors’ hi-fi set. The same, probably, went for Harry Belafonte’s cross-cultural Calypso in 1956—the handsome Belafonte’s visage and persona, and the exoticism it implied in the Eisenhower years, probably sold as many albums in its 31 weeks on top as “Day-O” did.
Fleetwood Mac, “The Chain”
This pattern from the early days of the album persists, I’d argue, to this day. It’s not a truism for every long-lived album, certainly (Vanilla Ice, whatever you think of “Ice Ice Baby,” was basically a fad). But broadly speaking, once an album spends 15 weeks or more atop the Billboard charts, it has moved from carrier of hit singles to cultural artifact. It starts to symbolize something larger than itself.
The Beatles had a string of No. 1 albums throughout the ’60s, fueled by piles of smash singles—but their disc that spent the most time in the penthouse, the 15-week Summer of Love dominator Sgt. Pepper, had no hit singles at all and came to represent the self-contained album in and of itself. Carole King’s 15-week best-seller Tapestry isn’t just the ur-text of singer/songwriter pop, it practically launched the ’70s single-handedly. Fleetwood Mac’s 31-week dominator Rumours became the album that fused AM pop and FM rock, signaling a watershed for the latter; the hits were vital, but deep cuts like “The Chain” mattered, too. Michael Jackson’s 37-weeker Thriller became not just an aircraft carrier of killer singles but a generational and racial bridge in the decade of MTV and Cosby. Modest as its charms are now, M.C. Hammer’s 21-week smash Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em signaled the arrival of hip-hop as a pop force (even if the album also overperformed in 1990 because Hammer’s label refused to release its biggest hit as a cassingle). The one-two punch in 1991-92 of Ropin’ the Wind by Garth Brooks and Some Gave All by Billy Ray Cyrus—the latter, with his line-dance fad, was the Vanilla Ice to the former’s Hammer—signaled that country had arrived as a countervailing force to pop and hip-hop in the Soundscan era and may even be regarded as a tiny skirmish in the ’90s culture war.
After the 1998 Titanic soundtrack, there was no 15-week chart-topper for more than a decade; it became harder for any album to dominate the cultural conversion. That is, until Adele showed up. Since last month’s Grammy awards, several news outlets reporting her ongoing dominance have quipped, Wayne-like, that it was inconceivable that so many Americans still didn’t own 21. After all, the disc was already the best-selling album of 2011 and spent 13 weeks on top last year.
I’d argue that 21 has entered a new cultural phase, one where success breeds success and it isn’t about hit singles anymore. Among its many records, Adele’s album is the most-downloaded album of all time—more than two million of its seven and a half million copies have been sold via iTunes and other e-tailers—which makes it a symbol of the arrival of the album as a digital medium, after a decade of dominance by singles. It’s the West Side Story of its day, the avatar of refined, ultra-connected adult pop.
Adele’s album is expected to easily hold the penthouse this week, which will be its 23rd on top; very little on the release schedule for the rest of March seems likely to prevent it from pushing to week 25, which would send 21 into the all-time Top Five above Saturday Night Fever and Purple Rain. Adele is reportedly taking a much-needed break after the album runs its course. Like the Monkees, maybe she knows that, try as she might, success this stratospheric can’t really be followed up.