O Brother Stays on Top

Overall album sales continue to plummet

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There was no small amount of barking last year about the return to rock, and this column was no exception. But in the eleven weeks of sales thus far in 2002, rock has taken a back seat to its country cousin: Six of those weeks have found Alan Jackson's drive or the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack at the Number One position. This week marks O Brother's second week on top, as the album featuring songs by Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley and others performing traditional American music, sold 159,000 copies in its sixty-second week of sales, according to SoundScan.

The continuing saga of the little soundtrack that could is the week's good news. The rest is disheartening, as album sales have all but ground to a halt. B2K's B2K scored the week's highest debut, Number Two, but the sales of 109,000 were not even spitting distance from the top of the charts, and nowhere near the Week One numbers of albums that were falling into stores this time last year, including the Dave Matthews Band's Everyday, which scanned more than 700,000 copies, or more than this week's top seven albums combined. Although the Grammys provided a nice boost for a week or so, the first quarter of 2002 is shaping up to be a colossal sales disaster.

That's not to say there weren't other newcomers to be found this week. The Resident Evil soundtrack debuted at Number Twenty-four with sales of 41,000; Destiny's Child's This Is the Remix didn't fool fans, selling 38,000 copies for a Number Twenty-nine bow; and the Indigo Girls' Become You mustered 37,000 sales and a Number Thirty debut. N.E.R.D.'s debut, In Search Of . . ., which has been the recipient of an embarrassing wave of hype, could only translate that praise into 20,000 sales.

But after the sales-figure extravaganza that was 2000, it seems that using Week One sales as a yardstick of things to come is not reliable -- particularly as some of this year's supposed sprinters are wheezing a few steps into the race. Alanis Morissette's anticipated Under Rug Swept mustered a mere week at Number One and only two weeks with six-figure sales. Jennifer Lopez's recycled remix album is about to step out of the Top Ten after only six weeks. And help might not be on the way. Korn's next record has been delayed until June, and next week only promises a Patti Smith compilation, a new record from an incarcerated Ol' Dirty Bastard and the electronica-hip-hop fusion of the Blade II soundtrack. While O Brother's sales aren't unbreakable, they look like a solid bet to hang on, at least another week.

Which brings up a promising situation. The signs are all in place for some sort of broad-based stylistic and cultural overhaul. It may not be this month or next, but by year's end something has to give, as the industry can't (or won't) sustain sales this gawdawful for long. And it seems the time's come for the trends of the past three or four years (including multi-million dollar promotional blitzes), which have been showing signs of fatigue, to be shown the door. Whether the charge will be led by a new Nirvana or a representative from a different genre, who's to say. But when a collection of songs about death, performed by artists (some of whom top eighty-years-old) on wooden instruments, is the guy to beat on the pop charts, the industry rules and traditions are in dire need of a tune up. Unlike other chart residents like Brandy's Full Moon or Under Rug Swept, people are seeking out the O Brother soundtrack, instead of being told (or programmed) to buy it. Perhaps O Brother itself is the bellwether, as it's the most decidedly punk-minded record to elbow its way onto the charts in a decade.

This week's Top Ten: O Brother, Where Art Thou?; B2K's B2K; Alan Jackson's Drive; Alanis Morissette's Under Rung Swept; Brandy's Full Moon; Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory; Ludacris' Word of Mouf; Pink's Missundaztood; Kylie Minogue's Fever; and Jennifer Lopez's J to tha Lo!.

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