100 & Single: Lady Gaga Gets Ready To Join The Million-Weeker Club

The last two decades have been far more accurately tallied, bringing us 16 albums recorded by SoundScan as shifting a million in a week. Here, ranked by the size of their sales, is the full list--16 discs by 13 artists (including three acts that each scored a pair of such albums). In parentheses are each album's big one-week sales number and the Billboard chart date:

'N Sync, No Strings Attached (2,416,000, April 8, 2000)
'N Sync, Celebrity (1,880,000, August 11, 2001)
Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP (1,760,000, June 10, 2000)
Backstreet Boys, Black & Blue (1,591,000, December 9, 2000)
Eminem, The Eminem Show (1,322,000, June 15, 2002)
Britney Spears, Oops!...I Did It Again (1,319,000, June 3, 2000)
The Beatles, 1 (1,259,000, January 6, 2001)
50 Cent, The Massacre (1,141,000, March 19, 2005)
Backstreet Boys, Millennium (1,134,000, June 5, 1999)
Usher, Confessions (1,096,000, April 10, 2004)
Garth Brooks, Double Live (1,085,000, December 5, 1998)
Whitney Houston (+ various), The Bodyguard Soundtrack (1,061,000, January 9, 1993)
Limp Bizkit, Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water (1,055,000, November 4, 2000)
Taylor Swift, Speak Now (1,047,000, November 13, 2010)
Norah Jones, Feels Like Home (1,022,000, February 28, 2004)
Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III (1,006,000, June 28, 2008)

Yes, boy bands really were huge a decade ago. Yes, the music business really does wish it could travel back to the spring of 2000.

What do these blockbusters have in common? Most achieved their eye-popping feat in week one--13 of the 16, to be exact. (The exceptions: the Beatles and Whitney Houston titles rose to the million-weeker level after more than a month, following a huge infusion of Christmas sales; The Eminem Show made it in week two, after a leak forced it to debut a couple of days early.) Gaga's album will join them, and like the other 13, Born This Way will surely never achieve that level again; no album has ever sold more than a million copies for more than one week.

What's more interesting to consider is each album's legacy. Is it still a major work in the act's career?

The fact is, all 16 albums were following up previous best-sellers, many of which are better remembered today. Even before the advent of SoundScan, it was a commonplace that many acts' first No. 1 album wasn't their best-seller. (I call it the AC/DC rule: their first chart-topper, 1981's For Those About to Rock, We Salute You, has sold about one-fifth as many copies as its No. 4-peaking predecessor, Back in Black.) In the SoundScan era, this pattern has only accelerated, as dozens of albums are now able to debut at No. 1 but peter out more quickly.

Of the 16 million-weekers above, only five wound up as the best-selling album of the act's career: 'N Sync's No Strings Attached; Eminem's Marshall Mathers LP; Usher's Confessions; Whitney Houston's The Bodyguard; and Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III. In some cases, these million-weekers ultimately fell only a million or so short of the act's best-seller—Backstreet's 13-times-platinum Millennium is just shy of their 14-times-platinum, self-titled debut, for example. But in other cases, the million-weeker's sales were heavily front-loaded. Backstreet's Black & Blue did about one-third of its total business in week one and never made it past five-times-platinum, less than half of its predecessors' sales. Norah Jones's Feels Like Home stalled at four million, about one-third of what her slow-building 2002 debut ultimately sold.

These are the key works: slow build. Across chart history, most of the albums that made a lasting impact did it in bits and pieces. There are no million-weekers among the 10 best-selling albums of all time, and half of them—Led Zeppelin IV, AC/DC's Back in Black, Shania Twain's Come on Over, Boston and Garth Brooks's No Fences—didn't even top the album chart, not even for a solitary week. (Of the 25 all-time best-sellers, one album, Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell, never made the album chart's Top 10.)

In short, albums are rather like summer movies: the first-week blockbusters get a lot of attention, but the ones we remember insinuate themselves into our lives. Stefani Germanotta, of all people, knows this.

When Lady Gaga's The Fame was released in the late summer of 2008, Interscope was in the middle of a yearlong campaign to break its first single, "Just Dance," on the radio. Even after that megasmash topped the Hot 100 in the winter of 2009, The Fame took until March of that year to go gold, May to go platinum. Lodged in the album-chart Top 10 for the better part of two years, The Fame never rose above No. 2 and rarely sold more than 100,000 copies in a single week. But it's now triple-platinum--a bar Born This Way should be able to equal but, as good as it is, may have difficulty surpassing.

For us chart geeks, SoundScan has been overwhelmingly good in terms of accuracy, precision and keeping this dirty industry honest. If there's a dark side, it's the overemphasis on splashy first weeks that accurate tallying has made possible. Gaga, who will get her first U.S. No. 1 album next week, has earned her week of blockbuster status (and her strong reviews), even if Born This Way never tops her debut in the hearts, minds and wallets of pop fans.

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