100 & Single: Considering The Album-Chart Class Of 9/11, 10 Years Later

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A king of hip-hop, retaking the penthouse of the album chart with his latest blockbuster.

A middle-of-the-road rock band, reviving a turn-of-the-'90s "alternative" sound that's now squarely mainstream.

A sexagenarian legend who debuted in the '60s and who still captures Boomers' hearts and CD-buying dollars.

And a younger, big-lunged diva, looking to continue her pop dominance after a notable MTV appearance and a blitz of multimedia omnipresence.

I could be describing some of the current inhabitants of the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 album chart. If I were, they would be, respectively: rap king Lil Wayne, who debuted at No. 1 this week with nearly a million in sales; aging alt-funksters the Red Hot Chili Peppers, debuting right behind Wayne at No. 2; '60s ingénue turned veteran diva Barbra Streisand, at No. 9 in her third week in the winners' circle; and vocal powerhouse Adele, hanging in at No. 3 after a commanding MTV Video Music Awards performance that, just this week, sends her ballad "Someone Like You" to No. 1 on the Hot 100.

But I could also be describing four acts who, on this day a decade ago, dropped new, Top 10-destined albums: hip-hop king Jay-Z; lite-grunge revivalists Nickelback; reluctant '60s-generation spokesman Bob Dylan; and pop/MTV queen turned ill-fated actress Mariah Carey.

That day, as you've heard friends and pundits reminisce, was a lovely one in New York City—perfect weather, blue sky. More important for our purposes, the day now called 9/11 was a Tuesday, which meant it was an album-release day. Not that anyone in my hometown was buying CDs.

What's my point? That, in popular music as in life, the more things change, the more they stay the same? Sure, that's true—there was even a NOW compilation in the Top 10 back then, and another one's in the Top 10 now—if a little obvious.

As a chart-watcher, I'm consumed with the idea of mass art as unintentional art. Week after week, my colleague Al Shipley and I use this space to make readers aware of music whose popularity demands that we reckon with it, for better and worse. (The fact that we genuinely like a good deal of this stuff is immaterial.)

Albums that reached the world on 9/11 are, in a way, the ultimate unintentional art. These albums landed, unwitting and fully formed, into the post-9/11 world. None of these are among the roughly half-dozen Great Works my fellow critics have nominated as "9/11 albums," from prophetic records like Kid A and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to direct responses like The Rising. These, instead, are the albums that had to find the mass audience they were intended for in the fourth quarter of 2001—a time when such an idea felt, momentarily, a bit vulgar.

Some of them actually are great art, amazingly. And what's sort of remarkable about the half-dozen 9/11 releases that materialized in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200 is that they span at least four, maybe five or six sub-genres, and offer a window into how the pop world would reconstitute itself over the next decade—including how certain mini-genres were ultimately doomed in the new century.

I don't want to make too much of these albums as comments on our world, unwitting or not. But I do think it's valid to consider what we were consuming then, and whether the anxious decade to follow changed our perception of these discs.


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