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Top 20: The Times, They Are A-Middlin' Print-ready version

by Jon Landau
Rolling Stone
June 6, 1974

The trade charts are fun. They appeal to the fan in all of us by offering the opportunity to cheer the rise of a favorite record and sneer at the success of a hated one. We experience pain as a pesonal choice bombs, and joy when an obscure sleeper makes it. The questionable accuracy of the charts is irrelevant; they remain the only codified measurement of a record's relative popularity and so the only thing we have to go on.

The charts are also good for some superficial observations about the state of mass taste. Billboard's Top LPs & Tape (April 20) shows that five albums in the Top 20 are instrumental and five are by women —the most by either I can recently remember seeing there. There are only five albums by conventional rock bands, while there are nine by singer/songwriters -- a slight move away from hard rock. There are three R&B albums and one jazz record - an indication of greater acceptance by whites of black music as well as a movement by some black artists into more of an MOR style. Only country music is unrepresented in the Top 20, but Charlie Rich's Behind Closed Doors is Number 23 in its 49th week on the charts.

Corporately, the Warner/Elektra/Atlantic family of labels is represented in the Top 20 by a staggering eight albums, while Columbia has four, and Capitol and MCA, two apiece. Eleven of the 20 are gold albums (John Denver, Paul McCartney and Wings, Chicago, Mike Oldfield, Joni Mitchell, Deep Purple, Grand Funk, Elton John, Seals & Crofts Barbra Streisand and Carly Simon) and I expect many of the others will soon follow suit, indicating that business at the top isn't as bad as some have been saying.

While there are some new faces (MFSB, Mike Oldfield Maria Muldaur and Herbie Hancock) one is more struck by the familiarity of so many of the names. It's not a good time for breaking new acts. On the other hand, a staggering number of artists have pulled off the hardest chart trick, keeping an album alive for over a year on the Top 200: Jim Croce, Led Zeppelin, Seals & Crofts, the Doobie Brothers and the Beatles all have two albums each; John Denver, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, the Rolling Stones, Bread, Bette Midler, Cheech and Chong and Simon & Garfunkel have one each. Gladys Knight and the Pips have four albums on the chart and Carole King's Tapestry has been listed for 159 weeks - more than three years. Meanwhile, John Denver, Mike Oldfield, Elton John, Maria Muldaur and Stevie Wonder are all in the Top 20 with albums that have been selling for five months or more.

If some albums last longer than expected, others fade more quickly. Bob Dylan's Planet Waves, released on the heels of his enormously popular concert tour, has fallen to Number 38 after only 11 weeks, perhaps an indication that people didn't hear on the LP what moved them onstage. Similarly, John Lennon's Mind Games has dropped completely out of sight, after a quick sprint up the top. And, needless to say, countless deserving albums barely register at all, including two of my personal favorites so far this year, Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, and Gram Parsons's Grievous Angel.

The emphasis in the Top 20 is generally on mediums: medium quality, medium styles, the medium in each field. The rock records can appeal to the pop audience. Inch by inch, boundaries are breaking down resulting in broader music in some cases and music that is merely more homogenized in others.

In the end, the most interesting thing about the charts is seeing so many diverse records coexisting commercially: Rather than trying to force too many generalizations for which there are bound to be too many exceptions, the best way to get at the breadth of current taste is to examine a representative sampling of individual albums. So, just for fun, the following is my annotated account of Billboard's Top 20 Albums (for the week of April 20), complete with explanations for the records' popularity when I think I know the reasons; an assessment of the nature of the individual artist's approach when one clearly exists, and, of course, some of my usual critical commentary.

  1. John Denver’s Greatest Hits
  2. Band On The Run - Paul McCartney
  3. Chicago VII
  4. Love Is The Message - MFSB
  5. The Sting - Marvin Hamlisch
  6. Tubular Bells - Mike Oldfield
  7. Court and Spark - Joni Mitchell
  8. No one expected this. Joni Mitchell’s albums have sold well since ladies of the Canyon, but Court and Spark is her first real giant and continues to grow without the benefit of a big single. Mitchell launched the album in the usual way - a massive national tour - but the record broke out before she had really begun. Apparently, Court And Spark satisfied the accumulated past interest in her and her special approach to women in love. Her most accessible work, its lyrics are crystal clear, even when dealing in ambiguities, and its music is lighter and broader (with the aid of a complete band) than in the past. Unlike some earlier albums Court And Spark is more inspiring than depressing and larger numbers of people may therefore be open to it. -But whatever the reasons, its presence proves that there is room for genius as well as mediocrity on the Billboard Top 20.

  9. What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits - Doobie Brothers
  10. Burn - Deep Purple
  11. Shinin’ On - Grand Funk
  12. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - Elton John
  13. Maria Muldaur
  14. Innervisions - Stevie Wonder
  15. Unborn Child - Seals and Croft
  16. The Way We Were - Barbra Streisand
  17. Hot Cakes - Carly Simon
  18. Head Hunters - Herbie Hancock
  19. Rhapsody in White - The Love Unlimited Orchestra
  20. Buddha and The Chocolate Box - Cat Stevens
  21. Let Me In Your Life - Aretha Franklin

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Added to Library on January 9, 2000. (10737)


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