Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Few Words on This Week's Odd Billboard Albums Chart

By Evan Rytlewski
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This week’s odd Billboard album chart deserves a quick glance:

1. E=MC2, Mariah Carey
2. Spirit, Leona Lewis
3. Flight of the Conchords, Flight of the Conchords
4. Bittersweet World, Ashlee Simpson
5. When Life Gives You Lemons..., Atmosphere
6. Now That's What I Call Music! Vol. 27, various
7. Juno soundtrack, various
8. Troubadour, George Strait
9. Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift
10. Prayer of a Common Man, Phil Vassar

That Mariah Carey and Leona Lewis carried the top of the charts affirms that there’s still a healthy market for “American Idol”-sanctioned, major-label pop, but after that, things start getting weird.

Flight of the Conchords, a New Zealand comedy duo—and a Sub Pop Records New Zealand comedy duo, at that—debuted damn impressively at #3, with an unexpected 52,000 albums sold. Surely their well-received HBO program gave them a boost, but this is a nearly unprecedented. Reportedly, it’s the highest charting comedy album since Steve Martin’s late-’70s zenith.

The chart gets weirder, though. The Conchords beat out Ashlee Simpson—who until now had always debuted in the top slot—and a trio of respectable country stars.

And at number five, debuting higher than anyone expected, is Atmosphere’s When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint that Shit Gold. And creeping up again at number seven is the Juno soundtrack, every bit the huge, unexpected hit as the movie was.

Two conclusions to draw from this curious week:

1. As music sales in general suffer, (relatively) small,  (relatively) independent releases are holding their own. With a fraction of the overhead of major releases like Ashlee Simpson’s, these albums are raking up serious sales. The pop album may be dying, but the album as a whole is not.

2. The success of the Atmosphere album is bittersweet. The band deserves it, but surely the group’s label will clock part of the success to their ability to stave off leaks of the album to preserve release-date interest. They did this by essentially keeping the album in a vault, not sending out any review copies to publications and critics. It’s a controversial approach, since it renders obsolete critics (who, despised as they may be by the public, really do provide an important function by acting as sort of a consumer watchdog), but the strategy undeniably worked. Expect more labels to follow suit, sadly.

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