Chart Watch

Week Ending Dec. 7, 2008: The Unsinkable Britney Spears

Chart Watch

A couple of years ago, Britney Spears' career was on the slide. Her life itself was careering out of control. This week, she's back at #1 with Circus, which sold 505,000 copies. It's Spears' biggest sales week in more than five years, since her fourth album, In The Zone, opened with sales of 609,000 in November 2003. This week's tally marks a substantial improvement over Spears' last album, Blackout, which opened at #2 in November 2007 with first-week sales of 290,000.

Spears' revival echoes Mariah Carey's comeback from a similar meltdown. After the failure of her movie Glitter and some erratic public moments in 2001, Carey's days as a superstar seemed numbered. But she came back in 2005 with The Emancipation Of Mimi, which wound up as that year's #1 album.

In both cases, the public embarrassments humanized the stars; made them seem more real and relatable. Far from imperiling the artists' careers, the struggles seem to have strengthened the artists' bonds with their fans.

Circus is Spears' fifth #1 album. The pop icon, who turned 27 on Dec. 2, has accumulated five #1 albums at a younger age than any solo artist since Elvis Presley. The King was 25 and 11 months when he landed his fifth #1 album, the G.I. Blues soundtrack, in December 1960. Elton John is in third place on this list. He was 27 and eight months when he landed his fifth #1 album, Elton John-Greatest Hits, in November 1974. (2Pac, who was 25 when he died, has also had five #1 albums, though he scored only two of them in his lifetime.)

Spears is the fifth female solo artist to amass five #1 albums. She follows Barbra Streisand, who is the leader among women with eight #1 albums; Madonna, who is closing in fast with seven; and Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson, who have six each.

Circus opens with the seventh biggest weekly sales total of 2008. Among female artists, only Taylor Swift has had a bigger first week so far this year. Spears' album got off to a faster start than the latest albums by Beyonce, Mariah Carey, Miley Cyrus, Madonna, Leona Lewis and Janet Jackson. Not bad for a singer whom many had written off.

The title song from Circus enters Hot Digital Songs at #1, with first-week sales of 212,000 downloads. It's Spears' third #1 hit on this chart, following "Gimme More" and "Womanizer." "Circus" enters the Hot 100 at #3. "Womanizer" topped the Hot 100 two months ago, becoming Spears' first #1 on that chart since her debut release, "...Baby One More Time."

Taylor Swift also makes news this week. The country superstar is all but assured of being the first artist to have two studio albums in Nielsen/SoundScan's year-end top 10 since 1992, when Garth Brooks put three albums in the year-end top 10. Swift's sophomore album, Fearless, has sold 1,271,000 copies in just four weeks, which puts it at #10 for the year-to-date. Her 2006 debut, Taylor Swift, has sold 1,417,000 copies in 2008, which makes it #6. Brooks earned his 1992 triple-play with Ropin' The Wind (#2 for the year), The Chase (#6) and No Fences (#7).

Female solo artists have a lock on the top three spots on this week's Billboard 200. Spears and Swift are joined by Beyonce, who inches back up to #3. This is the first week in which women have locked up the top three spots since May, when Madonna, Mariah Carey and Leona Lewis achieved the feat.

Not So Fast: A lot of pundits are predicting that the album may, before long, go the way of the typewriter and the rotary-dial phone. I explored the question myself in a Chart Watch Extra not long ago. But let the record show that Circus is the fourth album in the last 10 weeks to debut with first-week sales of 500,000 or more. It follows T.I.'s Paper Trail, AC/DC's Black Ice and Taylor Swift's Fearless. The abysmal economic news which has dominated the headlines for the past 10 weeks makes this development all the more impressive.

Here's more good news. Sales of current albums by Beyonce and Nickelback, which are both in their third chart weeks, are running ahead of their last albums at the same point. Beyonce's I Am...Sasha Fierce has sold 893,000 copies. Her last album, B'Day, sold 798,000 copies in its first three weeks. Nickelback's Dark Horse has sold 638,000 copies. At the same point, All The Right Reasons had sold 627,000.

Alas, not all chart news is good. Guns N' Roses' long-awaited Chinese Democracy drops out of the top 10 after just one week, falling from #3 to #18. By contrast, the band's 1987 debut album, Appetite For Destruction, logged 52 weeks in the top 10. I guess it may have been a tad self-indulgent of Axl Rose to take 17 years between studio albums of original material. But who knows? Maybe he would rather be happy with the album than with the sales figures. For his sake, I hope so.

Here's the lowdown on this week's top 10 albums.

1. Britney Spears, Circus, 505,000. This new entry is Spears' seventh top 10 album, her entire output except for a 2005 compilation of remixes. This is Spears' sixth consecutive studio album to debut at #1 or #2. More than 118,000 of these copies were sold digitally, making it the week's #1 Digital Album. Only four albums have ever sold more downloads in one week. Nine songs from Circus are listed on Hot Digital Songs, topped by "Circus" at #1.

2. Taylor Swift, Fearless, 193,000. The album holds at #2 in its fourth week. Three songs from the album are listed on Hot Digital Songs, topped by "Love Story" at #8.

3. Beyonce, I Am...Sasha Fierce, 153,000. The album inches up from #4 to #3 in its third week. The two-CD set is #22 for the year-to-date.  Three songs from the album are listed on Hot Digital Songs, topped by "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" at #2.

4. Kanye West, 808s and Heartache, 142,000. The album dips from #1 to #4 in its second week. West's last album, Graduation, also had just one week on top before getting the boot from Reba McEntire (of all people). Five songs from the album are listed on Hot Digital Songs, topped by "Love Lockdown" at #5.

5. Nickelback, Dark Horse, 133,000. The album rebounds from #7 to #5 in its third week. Four songs from the album are listed on Hot Digital Songs, topped by "Gotta Be Somebody" at #19.

6. Various Artists, Twilight soundtrack, 133,000. The soundtrack rebounds from #8 to #6 in its fifth week. The movie was #2 at the box-office for the second straight weekend. After three weeks, the movie's gross stands at $138.6 million. Paramore's "Decode" dips to #26 on Hot Digital Songs.

7. Akon, Freedom, 111,000. This new entry is Akon's second top 10 album in a row. His last album, Konvicted, debuted at #2 in November 2006 and went on to log 21 weeks in the top 10. But this first-week tally is less than half of what Akon managed (284,000) in his first week last time out. Six songs from the album are listed on Hot Digital Songs, topped by "Beautiful" (featuring Colby O'Donis) at #7.

8. Various Artists, High School Musical 3: Senior Year soundtrack, 91,000. The soundtrack rebounds from #11 to #8 in its seventh week. The album has sold 937,000 copies. After seven weeks, HSM2 had sold 1,673,000 copies. But that movie aired repeatedly on the Disney Channel. This movie is in theaters, which cuts down on repeat viewings.

9. Various Artists, Now 29, 90,000. The compilation holds at #9 its fourth week. It has sold 523,000 copies to date, more than either Now 27 or Now 28 had sold after four weeks, but fewer than Now 26 had sold at the same point. Now 26 is the most apt comparison, because it was in its fourth week exactly one year ago this week. It had sold 727,000 copies by that point.

10. David Cook, David Cook, 87,000. The album holds at #10 in its third week in the top 10. This is the longest that a debut album by an American Idol winner has stayed in the top 10 since Carrie Underwood's Some Hearts logged 25 weeks in the top 10 in 2005-2006. The last debut album by an Idol contestant to log two or more weeks in the top 10 was Jennifer Hudson's Jennifer Hudson, which had four weeks in the top 10 in October. Cook's "Light On" jumps to #60 on Hot Digital Songs.

Three albums fall out of the top 10 this week. I've already told you about Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy. The others are Ludacris' Theater Of the Mind, which falls from #5 to #15, and the Killers' Day & Age, which drops from #6 to #16.

Josh Groban's Noel sold 148,000 copies this week and would have ranked #4 on the big chart if older, catalog albums were eligible to compete there. This is the first catalog holiday album to appear in the top five on the Comprehensive chart (which includes everything) since Kenny G's Miracles-A Holiday Album hit #3 in 1995. Christmas albums hold down the top 20 spots on this week's Top Catalog Albums chart. The highest-ranking non-holiday catalog album is Carrie Underwood's Some Hearts at #21. (Incidentally, if you missed my Chart Watch Extra on Friday listing the top 40 Christmas albums of all time, here's a link.)

Scarface's Emeritus, which (as the title implies) may be the rap veteran's last studio album, opens at #24. Unless the album improves on this opening, it will become Scarface's first solo studio album to fall short of the top 20 since Mr. Scarface Is Back in 1991. (Scarface has also had three top 20 albums as one of The Geto Boys.)

Neil Young's Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House 1968 opens at #40. Young recorded the 2-disk (CD/DVD) set in Ann Arbor, Mich. in November 1968, a few days before his 23rd birthday. It is said to be his first solo concert since the breakup of The Buffalo Springfield. This is Young's third archival live album to make the chart in the past two years. Live At The Fillmore East: March 6 & 7, 1970 reached #55 in December 2006. Live At Massey Hall, a 2-disk (CD/DVD) set recorded in 1971, debuted at #6 in March 2007.

The soundtrack to Cadillac Records debuts at #66. The movie grossed $3.5 million in its opening weekend, to land at #9 on the box-office chart. This is the latest in a long line of film musicals that tell the stories of early rock and R&B figures. Others include The Buddy Holly Story, La Bamba, Ray and Walk The Line. Cadillac Records stars Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess and features Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon, Mos Def as Chuck Berry and Beyonce Knowles as Etta James. (Note to Beyonce: What's with using your last name in your film work? If Cher can go by one name whether she's making records or movies, so can you.)

The release of Cadillac Records puts Etta James' "At Last" on the Hot Digital Songs chart at #165, ahead of Beyonce's cover version, which debuts at #177. But what caught my eye was the total number of downloads James' recording has sold--748,000. That's a terrific total for a song that peaked at #47 on the Hot 100 in early 1961. That chart performance barely qualifies as a "hit." But the recording is a classic, with more paid downloads than most #1 hits of that era.

Ups & Downs: Jewel's country foray Perfectly Clear, which debuted at #8 in June, re-enters the chart at #195. Sales jumped 183% compared to last week, more than any other non-debuting album. On the down side, two superstar releases dropped 78% in their second weeks, more than any other titles on the chart. Guns N' Roses Chinese Democracy drops from #3 to #18. Coldplay's Prospekt's March EP falls from #15 to #64. I would not have pegged either of these titles as candidates for this dubious distinction.

Heads Up: Common, who reached #1 with his last album, Finding Forever, returns next week with Universal Mind Control. Maroon 5, which hit #1 with its last album, It Won't Be Soon Before Long, returns with Call And Response: The Remix Album. Musiq Soulchild, who has had two #1 albums, is also due with On My Radio. Brandy, who reached the top three with her last three studio albums, will chart with Human. Avant, who has had a pair of top 10 albums for Magic Johnson's label, will be back with Avant.

(If you missed it, this week's headline is a play on the title of the 1960 Broadway musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown.)


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