So, er, quick question: what the fuck is going on with the UK albums chart this week? Have you seen it? The Specials have claimed their first ever number one album with Encore, which is also their only album since 1984 that has made it into the charts. Their narrow victory puts Busted in second place, which last happened 15 years ago back when your little sister had a lunchbox with Charlie Simpson’s face on it. Then we have *checks notes* the soundtrack to The Greatest Showman in third position, yer da’s favourite Ian Brown in fourth and UK rapper Fredo in at number five (which, fine, but also, what?). The absolute state of it! If you didn’t know otherwise, you’d assume this was the selection of CDs available in the bargain bin of your local Oxfam, right? But this is the UK’s top albums in February 2019. This is what people are listening to the most right now.
It’s not as simple as that though. The way the charts are compiled in 2019 is not straightforward – because our listening habits are no longer straightforward (the only person who buys CDs is your nan the week before Christmas) – meaning the end result can look confusing. Streaming data was first factored into the album charts in 2015, a year after the singles charts. With both charts, a decision was made over how streams are weighted against physical sales (streams currently counting a lot less) but the methodology for converting album streams into ‘popularity’ is even more complicated, as it reduces the influence of lead singles by down-weighting the two best performing songs from an album – if that makes sense. In other words, the metrics for the working this all out are quite tricky. Things were a lot easier before we all had Spotify Premium.
But let’s take another look at this week. You could argue that the top two aren’t all that surprising in a quiet week for releases from bands formed this millennium. The Specials have reunited and are heading off on a major tour, which probably means nothing to you, but accounts for your uncle wiping dust off his pork pie hat again and playing their album on repeat in the car. Likewise, the aforementioned Charlie ‘eyebrows’ Simpson has re-joined Busted, who are about to embark on a seven-date UK arena; this may well have passed you by, but it constitutes a seismic cultural event for your second cousin, who’s booked two days off work and is travelling up from Coventry to catch their Birmingham date. So perhaps it’s understandable that these two are up there…
But The Greatest Showman? We already tried to work out what is going on here months ago, but since then the soundtrack (for a film which as far as I can tell is aimed largely at children) broke the record previously set by Adele’s 21 for most weeks at number one since the modern charts began. Yeah, I know! Adele! And it’s somehow still in the charts several weeks later. So… who the fuck is responsible for this? Apparently it is your nan; having topped the physical album sales list for 2018. One of the reasons for the maddening success of The Greatest Showman is that people are actually going out and buying it, like in the olden days, with 1.6 million CDs and vinyl copies sold last year (whoever is purchasing musical soundtracks on vinyl should be in jail imho, but that’s a topic for another day.)
So I guess all this makes a little more sense when you consider the target demographics for the albums that are doing well at the moment. The people buying The Greatest Showman, I assume, either have young children, or can remember being confused by their kids’ walkman and think Spotify is some sort of skin condition. The fanbases of The Specials and Ian Brown, meanwhile, are largely made up of friends of your dad i.e. blokes who wax lyrical about the superiority of vinyl and fall over themselves to tell you about their “moral opposition to iPhones”.
So maybe this absolute shit-show doesn't bring up the question of 'why?', but what place the charts have in 2019, full stop. With physical sales continuing to fall, and streaming becoming ever more popular since they first introduced streaming data into chart calculations four years ago, maybe a one-size fits all approach to deciding the 'most popular' album or single or whatever simply doesn't make sense anymore.
Besides, the album as a format is something different now. It doesn’t carry as much significance as it used to in an era when artists were constrained by physical audio formats like they were with vinyl or CDs, and can therefore choose to release music however and whenever they want. In short; the way we’re consuming music is changing, and perhaps it’s time for the charts to change too.
Is this the beginning of the end? I think it might be. RIP UK albums chart 1956-2019. Cant believe it. I wanna run to u. Really cant believe this.
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