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Reader, I'm torn.
For a considerable number of years now, the cursory attention this column has paid to the Official UK Albums chart has been tinged with regret and mockery. The slow decline of the long-playing format (a fatal combination of digital albums never really becoming a thing, followed by streaming albums becoming even less of a thing) has played itself out in the declining relevance of the album chart as a proper barometer of mainstream popularity. As ever fewer sales are needed to achieve the Top 10, so the listings have become dominated by lame comebacks for superannuated acts who have ended up with chart runs eclipsing anything they managed in their heydays. The last remnants of their existing fanbase still enough to outvote the fans of most contemporary acts. Statistically speaking The Soggy Trumpets' eighth album (their first in 12 years) may well have charted higher than anything save their first from 30 years ago, but that is hardly comparing like for like after all. No, better to just count the weeks that The Greatest Showman spends on top instead, and note how we are harking back to the 1960s and the days before the rock album was even invented.
Yet this week it turned out that the albums market gave us the most fascinating story to tell. The early midweek sales reports indicated that there were three different new releases all pretty much neck and neck in the race to top the charts: Ripples by Ian Brown, Half Way There by Busted and Encore by The Specials. Yes, once more late in the day comeback albums from what are in some cases extremely veteran acts, but significantly every one set to become the first ever chart-topper for the acts in question.
The race was exciting enough for the Official Charts Company to continue to produce sales flashes throughout the week, keeping everyone in the loop. Whilst it soon became clear that the Ian Brown record was falling away and would no longer be in contention, there was still only one question on everyone's lips. Busted or The Specials. Or (as the more cynical amongst us also noted), would it actually be neither of them given that The Greatest Showman was also well and truly in the mix.
Now it can be revealed. The Number One album of the week is not Showman again (thank goodness). Instead, the winners of the most intriguing album chart races for years are The Specials, as Encore sneaks in at the last minute to take the honours. This will be hailed as a big deal. The veteran Ska collective's first album in 18 years and their first album to feature new material since 1998's Guilty 'Til Proved Innocent!, their first chart album of any kind since In The Studio back in 1984 and the first to feature founder member Terry Hall on vocals since their 1980 album More Specials. It does indeed take them to the top of the album charts for the first time ever, their previous best being the group's self-titled debut which reached Number 4 in 1979. By a strange coincidence, it is exactly 39 years to the week that the group were on top of the singles chart for the first time with Too Much Too Young.
But let's not get too carried away here. The album still only sold 18,799 copies. Which is a tiny amount in the grand scheme of things, and indeed the lowest weekly sale for a Number One album for a year and a half.
Be In It All The Time
So why make this the headline of the week? Because the Official UK Singles chart story of Ariana Grande spending her third week at the top with 7 Rings by another comfortable margin carries with it less of a sensation. So the female domination continues, solo ladies topping the charts for the seventh week in a row and for 13 of the last 14 weeks. For now, there seems no prospect of an end in sight, particularly given the availability as I speak of Ariana's fifth album thank u, next which seems more or less a lock to top the charts next week and whose extra streams will inevitably give another boost to its current hit single. Attention this week has also been called to the presence on the 7 Rings songwriting credits of 25-year-old Tayla Parx, this now the fourth major smash hit inside a year on which she has been part of the creative process. With work on Khalid and Normani's Love Lies, Panic! At The Disco's High Hopes as well as a co-credit on Ariana's own thank u, next to her name she is easily one of the most consistent pop composers currently active. All of which bodes well for her own performing career which appears to be the inevitable endgame to her backstage development.
There was possible intrigue in the Top 3 during the week, the prospect of Sam Smith and Normani overtaking Ava Max to at the very least rise to Number 2 was a real one. Yet that too came to nothing, and indeed the entire Top 4 singles remain static this week. It means Sweet But Psycho has now spent the last three weeks at Number 2, matching the trio of charts it spent in the runners-up slot over Christmas before ascending to the top of the charts, one of only a tiny handful of Number One singles to have also spent as many as six weeks at Number 2.
Psycho But Sweet
The parade of ladies continues lower down. Mabel's Don't Call Me Up jumps to a brand new peak of Number 5, and two places below one of the hottest new female stars of the moment makes a sensational debut of her own. We first encountered 17-year-old Billie Eilish at the tail end of last year when her intriguing and haunting single When The Party's Over eased its way to Number 21. The appeal of her distinctive and boldly different music is only enhanced by her own arresting visual image, her blue hair and apparent willingness to be shown in as unglamorous a setting as possible in her videos the perfect complement to her sparsely produced multi-part harmony songs. This isn't pop music as we know it in any conventional sense, but that only serves to make her the most intriguing and exciting new act of the moment. Proof of this comes in the way her new single Bury A Friend this week smashes its way to Number 7 to give the American star far and away her biggest hit to date. The track is dark, claustrophobic but somehow the most exciting thing you have heard this year. And a world away from Ariana Grande trilling about how nice her hair extensions are.
The Correct Option
Nobody else penetrates the Top 10 this week meaning we have another glass ceiling situation going on with the singles just outside. Continued commiserations to NSG whose single Options spends a second week locked at Number 11 in what is now its fourth straight week as a Top 15 single. This column notes with justified cynicism how rap/grime/drill singles tend to be one-week wonders, rocketing into the charts on a wave of post-release support and then vanishing from sight almost immediately. It therefore only seems fair to flag up the ones with genuine staying power, and with five weeks in the Top 30 to its name and now desperately unlucky not to be a Top 10 hit, Options is a proper and worthy crossover smash.
Mind you, when it comes to crossover smashes there were none bigger last year than Dave and Fredo's Funky Friday. An instant Number One hit when released last October it spent two months inside the Top 10 despite its solitary week at the top. This week the pair are back on the charts, only this time with the credits reversed. The occasion is the release last week of Third Avenue, the debut album from Marvin 'Fredo' Simms which was rather ignored during the three-way battle for the top but which still smashes its way to Number 5 on this week's album chart. I say "debut album", he actually reached Number 5 on the albums chart last year with Tables Turn, but we are told that was a mixtape and not an album. Because there is a difference, promise.
Of the three single tracks permitted to chart from Third Avenue, far and away the biggest is All I Ever Wanted which does indeed reunite him with Dave and which surges to Number 15 as the second highest new entry of the week. Fredo is also on the chart with the previously available Survival Of The Fittest which jumps to Number 59 and brand new album cut Mmhm just behind at Number 60. Plus as a guest star, he's still entitled to a chart credit on the aforementioned Funky Friday which is still floating around and sits at Number 75 to give the rapper a presence on four chart hits this week.
Bitchy Moment Of The Week
Remember last week when I negged on Dua Lipa's Swan Song, noting that soundtrack hits are rarely an artist's A-list material? It holds steady at Number 25 this week. So nobody else is impressed with it either.
There's a rather startling surge for a long-running older hit this week, an apparently mysterious 57-29 flying leap for Marshmello and Bastille's Happier, returning it to the Top 40 for the first time since it exited for apparently the last time five weeks ago. The flying leap is being credited to the DJ and producer's ground-breaking live gig played inside the Fortnite game universe last weekend, a performance reported to have been watched by anything up to 10 million concurrent users at any one time. Which is quite some bandwidth use. Rather fascinatingly the surge of interest in the single was far more noticeable on the sales market (where the single jumps 40-14) than at streaming where Happier takes a more measured 23-14 step. The concert also pulled off the trick of reactivating Marshmello's 2016 single Alone which makes its chart bow at Number 63, the first time it has ever made the Top 100. Again that's actually largely down to purchases, the track a new entry on the old school paid-for singles countdown at Number 18.
The Nights I Cannot Handle
Making steady progress is Nights Like This from Kehlani and Ty Dolla $ign. It rated a brief mention last week after reaching Number 40 but this week lifts 10 places as the highest climber within the Top 40. It is the first real solo success for the Californian singer and rapper, her only other chart entry in her own name being 2016 single Gangsta which limped to Number 57. It still isn't quite her biggest chart success to date, Number 30 for now matching the peak of Cigarettes and Cush, the Stormzy cut to which she contributed guest vocals and which charted in March 2017 upon the release of the British star's Gang Signs & Prayer album.
A Geezer From The 'Ham
I'm also delighted to note the arrival at Number 36 (climbing massively from Number 90 last week) of A Lot by 21 Savage, the suddenly topical rapper enjoying his first ever Top 40 hit as a lead artist, his previous best Bank Account peaking frustratingly at Number 41 in the dying weeks of 2017. One fascinating subtext of his well-publicised immigration troubles of the last week may pass people by if it is only restricted to subscribers of Alan Jones' column in Music Week, so I will reproduce it here with full credit. 21 Savage's current album I Am > I Was topped the American charts for a fortnight back in January. Technically making him the first ever British rapper to have a Number One album on the Billboard charts.
Finally, it is not a usual thing for this column to flag up something that is not on the charts, but just occasionally it can be fascinating to do so. Absent from the Top 100 albums this week is last week's Number 7 new entry DNA, the ninth Backstreet Boys album. In its second week on sale it apparently sold just 1,161 copies. Making it the 108th biggest-selling record of the week.