It Was The Best Of Times

The story of the charts this week is dominated almost totally by that of two albums. Released by acts of two wildly different musical styles but each of which has attracted plaudits and rapturous attention but most importantly of all some utterly colossal sales.

This week's undisputed chart champion is Taylor Swift, a lady who technically hasn't made a "proper" full album for three years but whose musical output in the intervening period has meant she has barely been out of the headlines since. First came her back-to-back duo of lo-fi folk albums in 2020, Folklore and Evermore. Both of them recorded and conceived in lockdown and released with little fanfare or pre-promotion. But both attracted wild acclaim and hung around the charts for a considerable period. Then in 2021 came the start of her plan to mess with Scooter Braun, the temporary owner of the masters for her early work, re-recording each of her first five albums in note-for-note covers to render the originals effectively obsolete and worthless. So far we've seen two - Fearless (Taylor's Version) and Red (Taylor's Version), each release expanding and developing the originals with extra tracks and detailed backstories. Deluxe reissues in all but name.

But really all of these were distractions. Her last full "pop" record was 2019's Lover, meaning the anticipation for her new album Midnights was at a far higher level than any of its immediate predecessors. But who could have predicted this? Midnights debuts at No.1 with a quite extraordinary sale of 204,000, almost needless to say the highest single-week total achieved by any album this year and the first album to crack the 200,000 sales barrier since Adele's 30 just under a year ago. Perhaps startlingly in this day and age it is far and away the biggest Week 1 sale of her entire career, surpassing the totals she managed in the days when people actually routinely bought albums in large numbers - her previous best being the 90,300 with which 1989 debuted back in 2004.

Taylor is nothing if not consistent, this is her ninth No.1 album in a row. All of them have come in a span of exactly ten years, with Red first topping the charts in October 2012. This has prompted Official Charts to do one of their fun tricks of inventing a record on the spot, noting that she has achieved "nine Number One albums" faster than any woman in history, with Madonna having to wait 12 years to top the charts for the ninth time. And for the record, the all-time nonuple record is held by The Beatles who did it in 5 years 7 months.

So just how did this album achieve such a phenomenal sale? Well, one factor was perhaps collectability, the collection was available in multiple physical formats with many different sleeves available for collection. And you can guarantee that many Swifties snapped every single one of them up. Midnights shifted an extraordinary 62,000 sales on vinyl alone - believe it or not the highest weekly sale of black plastic managed by any album in the 21st century - and I've a feeling better than anything since digital records began in 1994. Add to that the 76,000 CDs that were purchased and you can see that on physical sales alone the album was well on its way to shattering records.

Personal View Ahead

But this was also an album streamed in vast numbers. Combined, the album's tracks achieved 72.5m streams - besting even the first week total of Harry Styles who landed 53.9m plays of Harry's House earlier in the summer. All told they added 58,000 to the sales total of Midnights. Having sat down and listened to the whole thing myself I'm scratching my head as to why, and this is the really maddening part. I found myself underwhelmed by the whole thing, a succession of hook-free tracks all produced in the same identical style (her long-time association with produced Jack Antonoff startling to fray at the seams). It is almost as if she is now stuck in a songwriting rut, the tracks on Midnights essentially a retread of the folk-inspired material from Folklore and Evermore, just with a beefier and less acoustic production. And as I saw someone else comment, the fact that she's now an artist in her 30s but still writing angst-ridden songs about teenage breakups leaves you wondering if she really has anything else to say. Frustrated, I went back and listened to Lover again and ended up being entertained by those songs in a way I wasn't with the new stuff. This column isn't supposed to be about what I like and dislike and never has been, but this is genuinely one of those occasions when a headline-grabbing album release has left me wondering just what all the fuss was about.

But what do I know after all. Those large streaming numbers inevitably rebound onto some impressive singles chart domination. Taylor Swift didn't quite achieve the single chart grand slam (1-2-3) that some midweek flashes suggested, but she still dominates the upper end. She does the chart double this week as the album's favoured cut Anti-Hero debuts smartly at No.1 with a sale of 78,993 to send Unholy tumbling into second place. Perhaps curiously it is only her second No.1 hit single in this country, following on from Look What You Made Me Do which flew to the top in 2017. Swift is the second act this year to land the chart double (Harry Styles the other, naturally) although interestingly four of the last six acts to top the singles and albums chart simultaneously have been women - Adele, Olivia Rodrigo and Ariana Grande the others. Once more in the category of "records nobody was tracking" Official Charts are also trumpeting the fact that Taylor Swift is the first female star to enter the both charts at No.1 in the same week since Miley Cyrus did so with Wrecking Ball and parent album Bangerz in August 2013.

Swift's other two permitted chart entries of the week are Lavender Haze which enters at No.3 and Snow On The Beach which lands at No.4. The latter credits co-vocals to Lana Del Rey, her own best chart showing since her participation on Don't Call Me Angel alongside Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus hit No.2 in September 2019. Snow On The Beach does however highlight the main issue with the style of Midnights, Lana's vocal contribution utterly indistinguishable from the multi-tracked choral Taylors who pop up on all the others. It is almost as if there was little point to her being there.

But hush me, or it looks like I'm trolling. All of the cuts from Midnights did huge streaming numbers, meaning that if the 3MAX rule wasn't in place fully eight of this week's Top 10 singles would be tracks by Taylor Swift, with plenty more following below.

Made By The AM

So that's Taylor done, how about we move onto the Arctic Monkeys? When the Sheffield friends first made their debut in 2005 they were hailed as the first act of a new generation of stars, a band who had eschewed the traditional record label-led path to fame and simply built up a large enough following through live and online work to crash to the top of the charts without anything resembling traditional promotion. Seventeen years on they are now industry veterans with a host of awards to their names. Notably they are at roughly the same stage in their career as U2 were in 1997 when they released the decided different and fascinating Pop, and it is quite notable that the Arctic Monkeys have felt free to embrace the same kind of experimental freedom. New album The Car takes the languid themes of the second half of their last album Tranquility Base Hotel And Casino and expands them still further. The album is a work of quite lavish scale, with John Barry-esque strings accompanying much of it and with the album merging blues, soul, funk, easy listening and even Berlin-period Bowie to quite absorbing effect. This is an album which commands repeated attention in a way, sorry, Midnights did not. Talk of it being the greatest ever piece of work from Alex Turner et al are not too wide of the mark.

The Car lands itself a huge sale of its own. 119,016 copies is a large number in this day and age, even if that pales compared to some of the first week sales of their previous collections. It is nonetheless the first time since Christmas week in 2017 that both the No.1 and No.2 albums of the week have posted six figure sales. Tracks from The Car were also streamed in strong numbers (albeit not quite at Taylor Swift levels). It means the Arctics have a trio of chart hits of their own. The final teaser track Body Paint sails past its original No.26 peak to land at No.22, with new arrival I Ain't Quite Where I Think I Am one place behind. The also previously released There'd Better Be A Mirrorball, which coincidentally had also made No.26 first time out, makes a reappearance at No.25 to land a new peak of its own.

Nothing Else Matters

You could be forgiven for thinking there was precious little else that matters, but we need to pay the other two new entries of the week their proper due. Meghan Trainor made a quite extraordinary debut back in 2014 with a signature style which saw her deliver a series of sassy songs in a sax-heavy doo-wop rock and roll revivalist style. She topped the charts here and indeed worldwide with All About That Bass and followed it up with No.2 hit Lips Are Movin'. She was back at No.1 the following year when she helped launch the career of Charlie Puth with Marvin Gaye. Then the wheels fell off. The novelty value of her debut album was never to be repeated, but her second album Thank You turned her into nothing more than a generic R&B pop star, the hits dried up and everyone lost interest. She was one of the voices on Sigala's Just Got Paid in 2018 which restored her to the charts, but her 2020 album Treat Myself produced no hit singles and made a mere No.25.

So it is significant that her new single Made You Look is a return to form in every sense, because it is indeed a return to the original Meghan Trainor we all fell in love with in 2014. Rock revivalism, primary colours and another song about personal and body positivity. Sometimes you can criticise an act for returning to retread old ground, but this time it seems perfectly appropriate. She has novelty value again, she has the material again. And at No.28 this is her biggest solo single since No crawled to No.11 in May 2016.

Finally, in the "one to watch next week" pile is the latest offering from Joel Corry. Lionheart (Fearless) sees him team up with Tom Grennan (a man who has already reaped the benefits of lending his voice to club tracks after a successful collaboration with Calvin Harris on By Your Side last year). The new single debuts at a suspiciously lowly No.37, but we will watch with interest where this climbs. Corry's chart consistency has taken a knock lately with none of his last three singles coming anywhere near the Top 10. Is this the one to return him there?