From Saturday Night Fever to Purple Rain to The Godfather, movie soundtracks used to be a major factor on the albums chart. Then, all of the sudden, they weren’t. This user-made Amazon list of the top 20 bestselling soundtracks of all time includes only two albums released this century, and those — O Brother, Where Art Thou? and 8 Mile — came out in 2000 and 2002 respectively. 8 Mile barely cracks the list, coming in at #20. Nor do we see anything from this millennium on Billboard’s list of the 10 best charting soundtracks, which also includes ’50s and ’60s hits like West Side Story, South Pacific, and Blue Hawaii. Even Rolling Stone’s list of the 25 greatest movie soundtracks — a list based on subjective notions of iconic stature rather than sales figures or chart rankings — doesn’t extend beyond 2003’s Lost In Translation.
For more than a decade, American pop culture went through a dearth of major hit soundtracks. There were a handful of high-charting titles, but the likes of 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ movie and the glorified greatest hits compilation Michael Jackson: This Is It simply didn’t leave an imprint on pop culture the way Grease, Top Gun, and Titanic did. The smattering of smash Hannah Montana and High School Musical soundtracks were big hits with kids, but they didn’t click with adults like their Disney predecessors The Lion King and Mary Poppins once managed. The Twilight franchise and Mamma Mia! are the only Event Soundtracks the aughts produced, and nothing from those albums approached the ubiquity of “My Heart Will Go On,” “Stayin’ Alive,” or any of Whitney Houston’s Bodyguard hits. Was this blockbuster soundtrack drought a product of the crumbling monoculture we’ve heard so much about? A result of Hollywood’s growing dependence on superhero franchises and inability to generate new hits? A symptom of widespread illegal downloading and/or the much-documented decline of the album in the age of a la carte MP3s? For all those reasons and probably more, as a cultural artifact, the soundtrack was dead.
And then, just as suddenly as it died, the soundtrack was alive again. It all started with Frozen. The Disney soundtrack debuted at #18 with a modest 44,000 in sales in late November 2013, but Frozen caught fire as a cultural phenomenon throughout the holiday season, and by the first week of 2014 the soundtrack was on top of the albums chart. Frozen eventually racked up 13 nonconsecutive weeks at #1, the most for a soundtrack since Titanic. Queen Elsa and company ruled the album sales list all year long until Taylor Swift came along to steal the crown at the end. (Just imagine the numbers if Swift starred in her own Disney movie.) Meanwhile, the Guardians Of The Galaxy soundtrack sold impressive numbers during summer blockbuster season. Subtitled Awesome Mix Vol. 1, it was designed to mimic the mixtape of ’70s and ’80s hits Chris Pratt’s character listens to in the movie. And although the Lorde-curated soundtrack for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 peaked at #34, it spawned an unlikely Platinum single in Jennifer Lawrence’s haunting “The Hanging Tree.”
The soundtrack resurgence spills over into 2015 with Fifty Shades Of Grey, which debuts at #2 this week with 258,000 equivalent units (210,000 in pure sales) — numbers that poise it for Guardians-level success and maybe even Frozen-level dominance. Fifty Shades would have easily debuted at #1 if not for Drake’s surprise release; it becomes the best-charting soundtrack since that Michael Jackson movie in 2009. Fifty Shades’ winning formula? A mixture of original singles by stars like Ellie Goulding, the Weeknd, and Sia; old hits by Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones, and Beyoncé; and an original score by Danny Elfman. All it’s missing from the 2014 soundtrack success formula is its very own “Let It Go” — but alas, nobody wrote that kind of showstopper for Dakota Johnson.
So why have soundtracks suddenly become a big deal again? In a Wondering Sound piece last year, Maura Johnston speculated that whether it’s a hit movie or a surprise release a la Beyoncé, an album needs some kind of major news event tied to it in order to drum up interest. That’s a worthy theory, and it explains why massive movie hits like Frozen and Fifty Shades are beginning to spin off hit soundtracks again. I also like Steven Hyden’s hypothesis at Grantland, which boils down to pop is eating itself. As if fulfilling Simon Reynolds’ Retromania fears about endlessly pressing backward against the current, Gatsby style, the charts have been dominated by retro sounds throughout 2014 and early 2015. Sometimes it takes the form of revivalists like Sam Smith, Meghan Trainor and Pharrell; sometimes it’s covers albums or standards collections by old-timers like Tony Bennett and Barbara Streisand. So of course a “mixtape” of old-school hits resonated.
One other franchise that has continued to thrive is the NOW series, essentially a current version of the Awesome Mix. When they function right, soundtracks have always performed a similar function as the NOW compilations, serving as a buffet platter of hit songs from an array of artists. As an executive, you used to be able to pile up a handful of big names and count on healthy sales. That assurance went away for 10-15 years, but it seems to be coming back now (although I’m sure the Mockingjay people were counting on more sales out of Lorde). My best guess as to why the soundtrack is back is that album sales in general have finally declined far enough to match the drop in soundtrack sales. The old ecosystem may be re-establishing itself, just on a smaller scale. One last idea: Maybe the movie industry and the music industry are figuring out that they only way they can survive is by feeding off each other, and they’re throwing all their marketing muscle into saving their symbiotic relationship. Maybe that Disney/Swift crossover isn’t such a crazy idea after all.
As mentioned above, Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late swept in out of nowhere to snatch #1 album with 535,000 units, 495,000 of them from digital sales. Notably, since Drake’s project set Spotify streaming records, it would have debuted at #13 on the strength of streaming alone. Billboard offered some more stats on Drake’s feat: Too Late is his fourth #1 album; it’s his third-best first-week sales total after Nothing Was The Same (658K) and Take Care (631K); it had the best first-week sales numbers for a rap or R&B release since Beyoncé debuted with 617K and the best for a rap album since Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP 2 tallied 792K; it boasts the second-largest first-week sales total of the past year behind Taylor Swift’s 1989 (1.27 million) and has already sold more copies in 2015 in just three days than any album besides 1989; Drake joins DMX as the only rap artists to see their first four albums debut at #1; Too Late is Cash Money Records’ tenth #1 album, though if the rumors are true, it’ll be the last time Drake helps Birdman and company to the top.
The Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack enters at #2 with 258,000 units, which would have been more than enough for #1 most weeks. That’s the best first-week sales for a soundtrack since Michael Jackson’s This Is It started with 373K in 2009 — and since Billboard notes that Jackson’s album was more like a greatest hits, Fifty Shades is also the biggest multi-artist soundtrack debut since the 50 Cent vehicle Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ moved 317K in 2005. Since both Drake and Fifty Shades are part of the Republic Records umbrella, this is the first time since 2008 that the same label has released #1 and #2 debuts in the same week; back then Atlantic had Day26’s self-titled debut and Panic! At The Disco’s Pretty.Odd.
We now return to the old familiars of the top 10. Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour is back up to #3 with 164,000 units thanks in part to a post-Grammys boost. Two more mainstays are at #4 and #5: Ed Sheeran’s x (140K) and Taylor Swift’s 1989 (125K). Meghan Trainor’s Title is next at #6 with about 72,000, followed closely by Now 53 at #7 with about 72,000. Then comes Beck’s Morning Phase, also the recipient of a Grammys sales jolt. Its 71,000 units carried it all the way from #39 to #8, a 466 percent increase. Speaking of the Grammys, the 2015 Grammy Nominees comp is at #9 with 65,000. Maroon 5’s V closes out the top 10 with 63,000.
Over on the Hot 100, Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk!” becomes Mars’ longest-tenured #1 hit with its seventh straight week on top, surpassing “Locked Out Of Heaven.” Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” and Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” stay at #2 and #3 respectively. Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney’s “FourFiveSeconds” is up to a new peak at #4, marking McCartney’s first top-5 hit since “Say Say Say” in 1983 per Billboard. Maroon 5 are at #5 with “Sugar,” then Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” is at #6 thanks in part to its inclusion on the Fifty Shades soundtrack. At 7-8-9 are Swift’s “Blank Space,” Smith’s “I’m Not The Only One,” and Trainor’s “Lips Are Movin.” Swift logs a second top-10 single this week with “Style,” which rises from #18 to #10. It’s Swift’s 17th top-10 single, tying her with Aretha Franklin.
MisterWives – “Not Your Way” (The Week In Pop Premiere)
MisterWives (pictured) made waves last year with the eminently catchy disco-pop single “Reflections” and its school-uniform-heavy video, and we marked them as a pop act to watch this year. The spunky “Not Your Way,” another winner from their forthcoming Our Own House, will buoy their career and your spirits. The album’s out this Tuesday, 2/24 on Photo Finish/Republic Records.
Iggy Azalea – “Trouble” (Feat. Jennifer Hudson)
Further proof that Azalea will never, ever carry a hit single by herself. That said, J-Hud turns this into a pretty decent approximation of hip-hop-infused retro soul, or Cee-Lo-core as I like to call it.
Jordan Bratton – “Danger” (Feat. Fabolous)
Bratton matches a teenager’s energy with a veteran’s poise, and Fabolous further cements his status as guest-verse royalty.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Taylor Swift and Kanye West had dinner in NYC this week. [Lainey Gossip]
- Fun. singer Nate Ruess teased his first solo single “Nothing Without Love,” due out 2/23. [YouTube]
- Justin Bieber gets egged in the first footage to emerge from his Comedy Central roast. [Facebook]
- Poor Kelly Clarkson couldn’t find anybody to guest on her new album. [Billboard]
- Calvin Harris is now modeling for Emporio Armani. [The Daily Mail]
- Christina Aguilera will join the cast of Nashville for a multi-episode arc. [TV Line]
- Rob Schneider’s daughter is an aspiring pop star by the name of Elle King. [Billboard]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) February 17, 2015