100 & Single: Of Monkees, Michael, and "Maria"—The History Of The Chart-Dominating, Lifestyle-Accessory Album

100single_march6.jpg
Cassandra (Tia Carrere): You've heard it?
Wayne (Mike Myers): Exqueeze me? Have I seen this one before? Frampton Comes Alive?! Everybody in the world has Frampton Comes Alive. If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide.
Wayne's World 2 (1993)

For chart geeks, the Monkees loom large. To us, the candy-colored group, which included among its members the recently departed Davy Jones, have a status probably no other cultural observers would give them: album artists. In fact, by one measure, the Monkees have one of the 15 top-performing albums of all time—and that list of outperforming discs is undergoing a shift right now, thanks to a certain best-selling fellow Brit.

But for all the Monkees' success on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart from 1966 through 1968—six Top Three hits, including three No. 1's—their real playground was the Billboard album chart. As veteran chart-watcher Paul Grein points out, the Monkees hold a distinction no other act has matched in 45 years: occupying the No. 1 spot with a record four albums in a single calendar year. With their first four discs, the group spent nearly two-thirds of 1967 monopolizing the top of what is now called the Billboard 200.

One of those four albums—their second, More of the Monkees, featuring the hits "I'm a Believer" and "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone"—topped the chart for 18 straight weeks. That puts it among the longest-lasting No. 1 albums in chart history, tied for 12th place with the 1987 soundtrack to Dirty Dancing and Garth Brooks's 1991 album Ropin' the Wind. (Unlike either of those albums, More of the Monkees' 18 weeks on top were consecutive and unbroken.)

About a month ago, for just one week, More of the Monkees was tied on the penthouse-longevity chart with a third album, Adele's 21. But that was before the British thrush continued on to her 19th week atop the Billboard 200—and then her 20th, and her 21st. Now in its 22nd week as the best-selling album in the U.S., 21 has elbowed its way into the all-time longevity top 10 and is less than a month away from the top five, if Adele can outlast yesteryear blockbuster soundtracks from the Bee Gees and Prince.

What does it mean when an album is the nation's biggest for that long? Is there any commonality among discs that dominate the cultural conversation for months on end? As per the Wayne's World quote above, every few years it seems there's a platter you're all but commanded to acquire. What happens when an album passes from mere hit status to inevitable must-have?

Let's look at the all-time list of Billboard No. 1 album longevity champs. If we limit ourselves to discs that spent at least 15 weeks atop the Billboard 200, we come up with a top 25. (Frampton Comes Alive!, for the record, is not among them, although it did spend a mighty 10 weeks on top, as Wayne Campbell might surmise.) Here's the list.

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Sakara
Sakara

the hit making monkees were never good enough for the snobby rock and roll hall of fame.

jaxxalude
jaxxalude

One thing about that Top 25 list, though: only four-count-them-four of them have come during the Soundscan era - re: electronically-monitored sales. Which given the chequered history "reported sales" has, makes us think how many of those multi-week monsters were actually existent as such.

Chris Molanphy
Chris Molanphy

That's an excellent point, but I would refine it somewhat. Accurate counting via Soundscan definitely diminishes the number of long stays at No. 1, but the interesting question is why. I wouldn't call it the corruption of the old system, entirely, although that is a factor. (Not so much outright corruption—the old system was just slow to react; imagine how many retailers polled by Billboard in 1962 would report that West Side Story was their best-seller week after week, after awhile, out of habit.)

Notice that we did have a bunch of additions to the all-time list in the first couple of years of Soundscan: Garth, Billy Ray, Whitney/Bodygyuard. Why so many right after accurate counting kicked in? Shouldn't they have gone away almost entirely the minute Soundscan went online?

What I think actually happened was that the launch of Soundscan in 1991 led to a change in the music industry's business model by 1993 or so, whereby No. 1 debuts became so easily attainable that they were more openly and strategically sought. Once you, record-label exec, realize that even medium-popular acts like Skid Row can score a No. 1 debut in the Soundscan era, you begin promoting albums like movies, picking release dates more carefully to avoid competition and trying to get as many consumers as possible to buy in the opening week/weekend. Long stays at No. 1 go away after early 1993 (there were none until Titanic in '98, then none again until Adele now) because the sales patterns tracked by Soundscan compel labels to generate more No. 1 debuts and turn the penthouse into a revolving door.

So yeah, it's a pre-Soundscan and post-Soundscan thing, but not just because the old system was so horrible. In a way, the new system made the business a little more craven, to the point that we now live in the era of the Danity Kane No. 1–debuting album, or, say, a string of No. 1 debuts by Disturbed. No. 1 debuts are a dime a dozen now.

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