By now, you've all heard that Taylor Swift's Red sold 1,208,000 copies in its first week, the highest first-week total since Eminem's The Eminem Show sold 1,322,000 copies in its first full week in 2002. It's hard to imagine now, but before Nielsen SoundScan began tracking sales for Billboard in 1991, sales tallies were rarely divulged (and when they were, by the record companies themselves, they were no doubt inflated).
All we had to go on was The Billboard 200 chart itself. Until 1991, it was rare for albums to debut at #1. Even the biggest artists had to climb through the ranks to reach #1. Artists earned bragging rights not by the number of albums they sold in the first week, but by reaching #1 faster than any other album that year.
I've gone back through the charts and determined the album that rose to #1 the fastest in every year from 1956, when the chart became a weekly feature in Billboard, to 1990, the last year before Nielsen SoundScan's arrival made sales tallies public information and #1 debuts commonplace.
The Beatles had the year's fastest-rising #1 album (or one of them, in the case of ties) for six straight years, from 1964 through 1969. The Rolling Stones had the fastest-rising #1 album of four years. Bruce Springsteen grabbed the honor three times. Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin and Elton John each scored twice. (These are six of the greatest stars of the rock era. Now you know how they got that rep: They earned it).
Let's go back in time. I'll tell you the album (or albums, in the case of ties) that rose to #1 the fastest in each calendar year from 1990 to 1956.
1990: New Kids On The Block's Step By Step. The boy band's album shot to #1 in just two weeks. It hit the top on June 30, as the title track reached #1 on the Hot 100. It was New Kids' second studio album in a row to reach #1, following Hangin' Tough.
1989: Madonna's Like A Prayer and Prince's Batman soundtrack. Both superstars reached #1 in just three weeks. Madonna made it on April 22, as the gospel-infused title track reached #1. Prince scored on July 22, as "Batdance" jumped from #6 to #4. The movie, starring Michael Keaton, opened June 23. This was Madonna's third studio album in a row to reach #1, following Like A Virgin and True Blue. This was Prince's second #1 soundtrack, following Purple Rain.
1988: Van Halen's OU812 and Bon Jovi's New Jersey. Both rock bands reached #1 in just two weeks. Van Halen scored on June 25. Bon Jovi scored on Oct. 15, as "Bad Medicine" jumped from #26 to #22. These were the second #1 albums in a row for both acts. Van Halen previously scored with 5150. Bon Jovi previously scored with Slippery When Wet.
1987: Whitney Houston's Whitney and Michael Jackson's Bad. Both icons debuted at #1. Houston scored on June 27, as the vibrant "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)" hit #1. Jackson scored on Sept. 26, as "I Just Can't Stop Loving You" slipped from #1 to #3 and "Bad" surged from #40 to #29. These were the second #1 albums in a row for both artists. Houston previously scored with Whitney Houston; Jackson with Thriller.
1986: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band's Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Live/ 1975-85. This five-record set debuted at #1 on Nov. 29, as the band's muscular cover of Edwin Starr's "War" shot from #45 to #33. It was Springsteen's second #1 album in a row, following Born In The U.S.A.
1985: USA For Africa's We Are The World. This Various Artists collection shot to #1 in two weeks. It reached the top on April 27, as the title track spent its third week at #1.
1984: Bruce Springsteen's Born In The U.S.A. This shot to #1 in three weeks. It reached the top on July 7, as "Dancing In The Dark" spent its second week at #2. This was Springsteen's second #1 album, following 1980's The River.
1983: The Police's Synchronicity, and Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down. Both albums reached #1 in four weeks. The Police scored on July 23, as the instant classic "Every Breath You Take" logged its third week at #1. Richie scored on Dec. 3, as the festive "All Night Long (All Night)" logged its fourth week on top. This was The Police's only #1 album (and final studio release). This was Richie's first #1.
1982: Paul McCartney's Tug Of War. This album shot to #1 in three weeks. It scored on May 29, as "Ebony And Ivory," his glossy collabo with Stevie Wonder, logged its third week at #1. This was McCartney's first studio album to reach #1 since 1976's Wings At The Speed Of Sound.
1981: The Rolling Stones' Tattoo You. This album shot to #1 in two weeks. It scored on Sept. 19, as "Start Me Up" shot from #19 to #11. This was the Stones' eighth consecutive studio album to reach #1.
1980: The Rolling Stones' Emotional Rescue and Bruce Springsteen's The River. Both albums shot to #1 in two weeks. The Stones scored on July 26, as the title track shot from #17 to #11. Springsteen scored on Nov. 8, as "Hungry Heart" debuted at #30 on its way to becoming his first top 10 hit. This was the Stones' seventh studio album in a row to reach #1. It was Springsteen's first #1 album.
1979: Led Zeppelin's In Through The Out Door. This shot to #1 in two weeks. It scored on Sept. 15. This was the band's fourth studio album in a row to reach #1.
1978: Boston's Don't Look Back. This reached #1 in three weeks. It scored on Sept. 16, as the title song jumped from #12 to #8. This was the first #1 album for the band, whose 1976 debut album (which peaked at #3) was one of the best-selling debut albums of all time.
1977: Eagles' Hotel California. This reached #1 in four weeks. It scored on Jan. 15, as the poignant "New Kid In Town" jumped from #16 to #12. This was the band's second studio album in a row to reach #1, after One Of These Nights.
1976: Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key Of Life. This debuted at #1 on Oct. 16. It was Wonder's second #1 album in a row, following Fulfillingness' First Finale. On Feb. 19, 1977, it won a Grammy as Album of the Year.
1975: Elton John's Captain Fantastic And The Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock Of The Westies. These were the first two albums to debut at #1. Captain Fantastic scored on June 7. Rock Of The Westies scored on Nov. 8, as the irresistable "Island Girl" logged its second week at #1. Westies was Elton's sixth consecutive studio album to reach #1.
1974: Bob Dylan's Planet Waves and Elton John's Caribou and Elton John's Greatest Hits. All three albums shot to #1 in two weeks. Planet Waves scored on Feb. 16. It was Dylan's first #1 album (!). Caribou scored on July 13, as the stately "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" shot from #25 to #6. It was Elton's fourth consecutive studio album to reach #1. Greatest Hits scored on Nov. 30.
1973: George Harrison's Living In The Material World. This shot to #1 in two weeks. It scored on June 23, as "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)" jumped from #8 to #5. This was Harrison's second studio album in a row to reach #1.
1972: Neil Young's Harvest and The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St. Both albums shot to #1 in two weeks. Harvest scored on March 11, as "Heart Of Gold" jumped from #7 to #2. Exile scored on June 17. This was Young's only #1 album as a solo artist. It was the Stones' second studio album in a row to reach #1.
1971: The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers. This shot to #1 in two weeks. It scored on May 22, as the rock classic "Brown Sugar" jumped from #6 to #3. It was the band's first #1 album since 1965's Out Of Our Heads.
1969: The Beatles' Abbey Road. This shot to #1 in three weeks. It scored on Nov. 1, as "Come Together" shot from #13 to #10 and the sublime "Something" held at #11. It was the group's seventh studio album in a row to reach #1.
1968: The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour TV soundtrack and The Beatles. Both albums shot to #1 in three weeks. Magical Mystery Tour scored on Jan. 6, as "Hello Goodbye" spent its second week at #1. The Beatles, better known as The White Album, scored on Dec. 28.
1967: The Monkees' More Of The Monkees and Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, Ltd. and The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. All three albums shot to #1 in two weeks. More Of The Monkees scored on Feb. 11, as the group's spirited version of Neil Diamond's "I'm A Believer" logged its seventh week at #1. Pisces scored on Dec. 2. It was the group's fourth album in a row to reach #1. Sgt. Pepper's scored on July 1. On Feb. 29, 1968, it became the first rock album to win a Grammy as Album of the Year.
1965: The Beatles' Beatles '65. This shot to #1 in two weeks. It scored on Jan. 9, as "I Feel Fine" logged its third week at #1.
1964: The Beatles' The Beatles' Second Album and A Hard Day's Night soundtrack. Both Fab Four albums shot to #1 in two weeks. Second Album scored on May 2. A Hard Day's Night scored on July 25, as the title song rocketed from #21 to #2. The movie, the Beatles' first, opened in the U.S. on Aug. 11.
1963: Peter, Paul & Mary's In The Wind. This shot to #1 in two weeks. It reached the top on Nov. 2. This was the trio's second #1 album, following Peter, Paul and Mary (which it bumped out of the top spot).
1962: Vaughn Meader's The First Family. This spoof of the Kennedy family shot to #1 on the mono chart in two weeks. It reached the top on Dec. 15. On May 15, 1963, it won a Grammy as Album of the Year. Six months after that, Meader's act suddenly ceased to be funny: President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
1961: Exodus soundtrack. This soundtrack to the Paul Newman movie (which opened Dec. 15, 1960) shot to #1 on the stereo chart in two weeks. It hit the top on Jan. 23, as Ferrante & Teicher's cover version of the title theme peaked at #2. On April 17, composer Ernest Gold won an Oscar for Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.
1960: The Kingston Trio's Sold Out and String Along. Both of the folk trio's albums shot to #1 in three weeks. Sold Out hit #1 on the mono chart on May 9. String Along hit #1 on the stereo chart on Aug. 29.
1959: Henry Mancini's The Music From Peter Gunn TV soundtrack. This soundtrack shot to #1 in three weeks. It scored on Feb. 23. On May 4, it became the first Grammy winner for Album of the Year. The TV show, which starred Craig Stevens, ran from 1958 to 1961.
1958: Frank Sinatra's Come Fly With Me and Van Cliburn's Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1. Both albums shot to #1 in two weeks. Sinatra scored on Feb. 10. Cliburn scored on Aug. 11. This was Sinatra's first #1 album since 1955's In The Wee Small Hours. It was Cliburn's first chart album.
1957: Elvis Presley's Loving You soundtrack. This shot to #1 in two weeks. It reached the top on July 29, as the double-sided smash "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear"/ "Loving You" logged its fourth week at #1 on Best Sellers In Stores. The movie, Presley's first, opened on July 9.
1956: Harry Belafonte's Belafonte and Elvis Presley's Elvis. Both albums reached #1 in five weeks. Belafonte scored on March 24. Presley scored on Dec. 8, as "Love Me" jumped from #21 to #13 on Best Sellers In Stores. This was Belafonte's first #1 album; Presley's second, following Elvis Presley.