Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sale of the Century

Do you know what the biggest-selling album released in this century is? It was rather alarming to me to learn that the answer is 1, by the Beatles, which came out on November 13, 2000. It has sold, according to Wikipedia, around 31 million copies worldwide. That an album of material that was all 30-plus years old at the time of its release could be the biggest seller of its time may seem highly unorthodox, but the more you think about it, the more sense it makes.

First of all, the tunes are all real good. For another thing, the Beatles, for reasons I never understood, were rather late to convert to the CD era. Their original albums weren't released on compact discs until 1987, and they never bothered with the compilation albums. The Red and Blue albums came out on CD in 2010; Hey Jude never did come out on disc, and doesn't really exist any more. When 1 was released, it was the first Beatles compilation to be available on CD. So there was a lot of pent-up demand, especially among casual Beatle fans, to have those songs on compact disc.

The other half of the story is that iTunes was foisted on the public on January 9, 2001, just two months after the release of 1. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that since January 10, 2001, no one has bought a CD. The other best-selling albums from this century are all also from 2000: The Backstreet Boys' Black and Blue and Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory have both sold 24 million copies, and Eminem's Marshall Mathers LP sold 22 million. The biggest-selling album released in the past ten years is Adele's 21, which has sold 20 million copies worldwide.

1 is, at this point, the second-biggest Beatles album of all time; the best seller remains Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which, despite the lack of a hit single, has moved 32 million units, as they like to say in Billboard.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Will You Love Me Tomorrow?

Here's another way to measure the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's snubbing of Carole King, which I wrote about last weekend. Tapestry, of course, is one of the best-selling albums of all time - 25 million copies around the world, 10 million here in the U.S. of A. - and also widely considered one of the best. When Rolling Stone compiled its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Tapestry finished 36th.

For the 35 albums listed above Tapestry, every single eligible artist has been inducted into the R&R HoF as a performer, with the sole exception of Robert Johnson, who is in as an early influence. Miles Davis is in the Hall as a performer, and he wasn't even a rock & roller. Nirvana is the one artist on the list that's not been inducted yet, but they will be as soon as they're eligible.

So apparently, the key to being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is: Make an album that's better than Tapestry.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Home News

I am thrilled to announce that Erika Berlin has agreed to begin contributing posts here at Debris Slide. Currently an editor at Rolling Stone, Erika is young, smart, passionate about music, and fairly throbbing with Midwestern values - she's from St. Joe, Missouri (I've never heard her refer to it as "St. Joseph"), which if memory serves is the geographic center of the lower 48.

Mostly, I asked her to start posting here because I'm eager to read whatever she has to say. I think you'll enjoy her work as well.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Ladies Sing the Blues

You would not know it from the press coverage leading up to tonight's ceremony, but there are acts other than Guns n' Roses being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this evening. One of the other inductees is the late Laura Nyro, who is an odd choice for several reasons. Nyro was a very highly regarded songwriter, with hits recorded by the likes of the Fifth Dimension ("Wedding Bell Blues," "Stoned Soul Picnic"), Blood, Sweat & Tears ("And When I Die"), and Three Dog Night ("Eli's Coming"). But she never had any hits of her own.

Nyro's only appearance in the Hot 100 was her cover of "Up on the Roof," which peaked at Number 92. I'd never heard her own records before today, which are highly regarded but hardly considered legendary. Frankly, I don't have a problem with putting someone in the R&R HoF almost entirely on the basis of their songwriting - I think songwriting is the crucial element of pop music - but I can see how some people might. She's being inducted as a performer, after all.

She's also being inducted as a woman, and as my friend Erika Berlin loudly pointed out to me not long ago, the Hall of Fame is woefully short of women. (And you thought I was drunk and not paying attention, didn't you?) There are roughly 25 women or female-led groups among the Hall's 279 inducted artists, depending on how you want to count acts like Blondie or Fleetwood Mac or the Mamas and the Papas or the Pretenders. No matter how you count 'em, though, you can't get 'em up past 10 percent.

Which female artists have been overlooked? A bunch, I'd say:

1. Janet Jackson Analogous male inductee: Rick Nelson Really, Janet is absurdly overqualified for the Hall of Fame, with 28 Top Ten hits and ten Number Ones. She has the most Top Tens of any eligible artist not in the Hall. She's won both the MTV Video Vanguard award and the mtvICON award. She's been one of the most famous and popular stars in the world of music for decades. The one knock against Jackson is that she's been dependent on other writers and producers, most notably Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but on the 16-track Design of a Decade career retrospective, Janet has at least a co-writing credit on 13 of the songs. And it's been a long time since anyone said she wasn't in control. (No, I don't think Nipplegate has anything to do with her exclusion.)

2. Linda Ronstadt Analogous male inductee: Rod Stewart She was the dominant female pop star of the mid-1970s, with five Top Five hits from 1975 to 1977 alone, and 21 Top Forty hits overall. Like Johnny Rivers, Ronstadt specialized in not just covers but covers that had been hits for well-recognized artists, and she had enough juice to make them her own, like the Everlys' "When Will I Be Loved" and Roy Orbison's "Blue Bayou." When her pop-hit days were over, Linda genre-hopped through well-received albums of torch songs, Mexican folk songs, movie music and country standards with a facility that David Bowie would envy.

3. The Go-Go's Analogous male inductee: The Lovin' Spoonful As the Spoonful did with jug-band music, the Go-Go's turned surf punk into pop hits, although most of the Go-Go's hits have held up better. Both groups lasted only about four years, but were among the biggest stars in music during that period. And the Go-Go's made one of the great Rolling Stone covers of all time:

Plenty of female musicians had posed in their underwear before, of course. But Carly Simon looked like she was driven to do so by urges she could never name; Linda Ronstadt looked like someone threatened her into doing it. The Go-Go's were the first female rocks stars who looked like they posed in their underwear because it was fun. This, I would suggest, was a great leap forward not only for the girls but for us boys as well.

4. The Chantels Analogous male inductee: The Dells The Dells got in on the basis of one hit, "Oh, What a Night": The Chantels' "Maybe" is a better record than that, and they managed three other To Forty hits as well. Head Chantel Arlene Smith even wrote "Maybe," although she was cheated out of credit for it when the single was first pressed.

5. Carole King Analogous male inductee: Curtis Mayfield King was inducted along with Gerry Goffin in the non-performer category, and rightfully so. But she also had the biggest-selling album of all time for a long time, which ought to count for something, and went on to have a slew of post-Tapestry hits as well. If Laura Nyro belongs as a performer, Carole King does, too.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cold War Kids

Over at the Popdose site, friend of Debris Slide J.A. "Jim" Bartlett has a post up on Sting's "Russians," as part of a series on the World's Worst Pop Songs. "Russians" is part of an unlikely group of anti-nuclear war hits that flourished in the early to mid-1980s, and while "Russians" is certainly Not Good, it's also a long way from the worst of the lot.

I never quite understood why nuclear paranoia made such a heady comeback in those days, but it was all the rage there for a while. And a lot of artists seemed convinced that we could skirt the problem if they could just convince enough people that a nuclear war would be extremely unpleasant. I don't just mean pop stars; there was a very famous, highly regarded book of the time called The Fate of the Earth, by a writer for The New Yorker named Jonathan Schell, that was entirely about how bad a nuclear war would be. (Spoiler alert: Pretty frickin' bad.) I never read The Fate of the Earth, but I have read and enjoyed Michael Kinsley's evisceration of it in Harper's several times - maybe my all-time favorite Kinsley piece.

Everywhere you turned, everyone wanted to talk about the destructiveness of a nuclear war, although it's a pretty short conversation, since we'd all just die, period end of sentence. I was in high school in those days, and in English class we were assigned as an essay topic, "Should students have to study nuclear war?" The teacher told me I was the only student who answered that question in the negative. Why should we have? If it happened, we were all goners anyway, whether we knew how many megatons the Soviets had aimed at New Orleans or not. Time magazine had a cover story on all of this, called "Thinking the Unthinkable." My uncle was visiting our house at the time and asked me if I had read the article, and I said, "No, I try not to think about it." Which was true, and made him laugh - the funniest things are always true - although making him laugh had the unfortunate side effect of leading me to think I was funny and, eventually, to my writing snarky comments about pop songs for the as-yet-uninvented weblog.

Anyway, pop stars of the time, just like Jonathan Schell, thought they could help avert nuclear war if people would just stop for a second and realize how terrible it would all be. So in the summer of 1983, Men at Work released "It's a Mistake," an all-too-accurately titled bit of fluff that, you know, taught us all a valuable lesson. At the end of the song's video, the singer stubbed out his cigarette on the nuclear button. My bad! "It's a Mistake" ended up being Men at Work's last Top Ten hit.

This same trope was used in the video for Genesis' 1986 hit "Land of Confusion," which was, as Phil Collins helpfully pointed out, "a political song about the mess we have landed in." The video was based on the satirical British TV show Spitting Image, which used puppets made up like famous personages of the day for humorous purposes, although you couldn't prove that by the video. At the end, the Reagan puppet, given two buttons that read "Nurse" and "Nuke," pushed the wrong one. That's so satirical!

But the absolute bottom of the Cold War barrel was Dweezil Zappa's "Let's Talk About It," off his all-too-accurately titled 1986 album Havin' a Bad Day. This song was so important that Jane Fonda agreed to appear in the video, making sandwiches. Poor, sweet Moon Unit was forced to sing - well, more like "recite" - lyrics like "Capitalism, communism, freedom/They're all words/Do we know what they mean?"

They're all words. Think about it.