100 & Single: You Can Keep Your EGOT; Adele's Going For A 2011 PB&G

Michael Jackson, "Thriller"

Rarer is when the critics and NARAS agree on an album. It's happened five times, including Thriller. The four non-Jackson winners at both the Grammys and Pazz & Jop were as follows:

Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life (1976)
Paul Simon, Graceland (1986)
Bob Dylan, Time Out of Mind (1997)
OutKast, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (2003)

All four of these discs had a magical combination of Grammy-viable mass appeal and critic-charming quality. You might wonder why at last a couple didn't wind up tops in Billboard, too. Two of them, Wonder's and OutKast's, topped the weekly album chart for months apiece (coincidentally, both were career-watershed double albums). But both were hurt by off-year release dates; Wonder's sales for Songs were spread across 1976 and 1977, and OutKast's for S/TLB across 2003 and 2004. A similar fate befell Simon's Graceland, which sold decently in 1986 but then more heavily after it won the Grammy in early 1987.

If we broaden our PB&G definition to permit albums that won the various prizes over two years instead of one, these three discs (all of the above except Dylan's) came very close to the trifecta. Each wound up as Billboard's No. 2-ranked album of the year—in the year after it came out. Wonder was second in 1977 behind Fleetwood Mac's Rumours; Simon was runner-up in 1987 to Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet; and OutKast took silver in 2004 behind Usher's Confessions.

The 12th and final album to go for two-for-three as a PB&G, Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. (1984/1985), is the only one to top Billboard's list and Pazz & Jop without winning the Grammy. (Like Morrisette's album above, it gets in on a technicality, taking one prize each in two different years. Born was a 1984 album that topped P&J for that year but sold so heavily for so long that it was Billboard's top-seller for 1985, not '84.)

By all rights, Springsteen should have won the big Grammy for his career-defining, pop-radio-dominating album, but the competition was tough in 1984. Unfortunately, rather than losing the prize to other definitive, unimpeachable discs like Prince's Purple Rain or Tina Turner's Private Dancer, Born in the U.S.A. fell at the Grammys to Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down—which is as good a statement on NARAS's tastes and cultural predilections as any. (I mean, Lionel's adorable, don't get me wrong, but...)

Moving back to 2011, we'll start finding out how Adele made out in about six weeks. Grammy nominations are announced on November 30, and later that month Billboard will crown its top-sellers. Pazz & Jop will follow roughly a month into 2012, with Grammy winners revealed in mid-February.

Do I really think Adele can pull it off? Again, Pazz & Jop is the fly in the ointment, but 21 doesn't need to top even a plurality of critics' Top 10s to go all the way. If Adele is a fixture somewhere in the middle of enough lists, she could sneak her way to the top—much the way, in 1992, Arrested Development's debut album topped P&J, without topping many critics' individual ballots. Or the way the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper has, in the past, topped numerous all-time album polls while not being the No. 1 favorite of very many individual critics.

And if 21 does join Thriller among the only PB&G albums ever, what does it mean? Is Adele the new Michael Jackson? Hardly: the bar for music-industry success is much lower in 2011. Even at quadruple-platinum, Adele's disc in 2011 has sold roughly one-third of what Jackson's did in 1983 alone. And if she tops Pazz & Jop this year, it'll be because critics' attention is pulled in a gazillion directions.

As the music business of the early '80s struggled to come out of its post-disco slump, Jackson was a kind of pied piper, earning credit (along with MTV) as a rising tide at record stores that lifted a great many boats. Sadly, as shown by the gap between Adele's album and everyone else's this year, she is a towering figure in music, but not a widely emulated one.

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