20 years later: How America responded to 9/11–musically speaking; a look back at the songs that helped heal a nation

(September 9, 2021).  Music has a way of saying what many of us are feeling in ways that we cannot always express ourselves.  

Sometimes a song can even trigger emotions that we may be too stunned or numb to display in the moment of immediate anger or grief.  For instance, if the sight of watching the World Trade Center towers collapse on 9/11 knowing that thousands of people were still trapped inside didn’t spark tears, then hearing R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” playing the following morning in a moment of reflection almost certainly would have.

In the immediate wake of 9/11 as U.S. radio stations shifted back to music programming from around-the-clock news coverage of the unfolding horrific attacks against America, they took on a new role: soother of a nation that badly needed healing.

Songs that were inspiring, poignant and largely patriotic began dotting the airwaves and eventually the Billboard charts as the music industry reacted to the attacks on NYC, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.  Tunes reflecting emotions ranging from sorrow and fear to pain and anger became the soundtrack for our recovery from the worst terrorist attack on American soil in our nation’s history.

Clockwise from top left: Alan Jackson, Lee Greenwood, Alicia Keys, Enya, Michael Stipe (of R.E.M.), Toby Keith, Jay-Z and Whitney Houston (all flanking an image of the World Trade Center Towers at center)

In the early hours and throughout the day of 9/11, many radio stations had abandoned their regular formats after the planes struck the World Trade Center towers and The Pentagon, and when the fourth plane crashed in a wooded area in Shanksville, PA after heroic attempts by passengers to thwart the terrorists’ plans to target either the White House or the U.S. Capitol building, according to later U.S. Intelligence reports.   

Regarding the day of the attack, Billboard reported that Broadcast Data Systems (now Nielsen MRC Data) detected an astonishing 50% drop in the number of songs played on 9/11.  The following day showed 26% fewer plays than the average daily sum.  

As the week progressed, radio stations slowly returned to regular music programming.  Songs with titles or themes that were considered insensitive or deemed inappropriate (like Neil Diamond’s immigration-friendly “America”) were largely avoided or even banned, particularly with pop and country radio as patriotic sentiment took over.

A prominent example of that patriotism occurred in the Windy City, itself feared to be a target that day, where the Radio Broadcasters of Chicago observed a moment of silence on Sept. 14 at 11:59 am before stations simultaneously played Ray Charles’ classic version of “America The Beautiful.”  

Even some non-patriotic songs took on new significance in the wake of the tragedy.  According to an article that ran in Billboard the following week, songs like Michael Jackson’s “Heal The World” (from his 1991 Dangerous album) and R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” (from their 1992 opus Automatic for the People) generated huge listener response on the day after the attacks.

Other pop-rock songs like Don Henley’s “New York Minute” (from 1989’s The End of the Innocence) and Collective Soul’s “The World I Know” (from their 1995 self-titled album) were cited as examples that captured the emotions of one Billboard writer in particular as he recalled his radio listening experience in the days after the attacks.  The Verve’s introspective 1998 anthem “Bitter Sweet Symphony” took on even more poignancy in the aftermath of the attacks.  

According to Billboard, other sentimental songs that saw immediate bumps in radio play after 9/11 included Sarah McLaughlin’s “Angel” and “I Will Remember You,” Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” and “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” Eric Clapton’s “Tears In Heaven” and Bette Midler’s “From A Distance”—a song whose lengthy 1990-91 chart run had been aided by sentiment leading up to the first Gulf War (January 1991).

Delayed chart reaction…

The Billboard charts themselves were a bit of a conundrum in September 2001 from a historical perspective.  As a quirk of the calendar and how the charts were pre-dated, 9/11 occurred on the Tuesday during a week in which Billboard’s September 15 edition had already been published.  Accordingly, that issue’s charts reflected sales and radio activity from two weeks prior to the attacks.  It’s notable that radio and sales (CD, cassette and whatever vinyl was still available) were the chart’s only components at the time—streaming and (legal) digital downloads weren’t yet factors in 2001.

Even the following week’s Sept. 22 issue covered radio/sales activity through Sunday Sept. 9 and did not yet reflect any of 9/11’s impact.  So while the charts for the week ending Sept. 15 will always be cited by historians as the ones that were “in effect” when 9/11 occurred, it wasn’t until the issue dated Sept. 29 that 9/11 actually began to impact Billboard’s lists.

Artwork for Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA”

That impact was prominently reflected in the song that people turned to most in the wake of the attacks: Lee Greenwood’s 1984 single “God Bless the U.S.A.,” which entered the Hot 100 for the first time at No. 16 on Sept. 29, instantly becoming Greenwood’s biggest pop chart hit.

It was joined by Whitney Houston’s classic rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which had peaked ten years earlier at No. 20 in the wake of the first Gulf War.  Arista Records decided to capitalize on the moment and re-released the single to stores on Sept. 25, which prompted a climb to a new peak of No. 6 the following month.  The song ultimately spent an additional 16 weeks on the chart.

Several newer songs also made strides on the Hot 100 chart in 9/11’s wake.  Enya’s “Only Time” moved from No. 27 to 18, instantly surpassing “Orinoco Flow” as her biggest hit (“Time” ultimately peaked at No. 10), and Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero” debuted at No. 44 en route to a No. 3 peak.  U2’s eerily and accurately titled “Stuck In a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” entered the chart at No. 62 that week (it only got as high as No. 52).

Enya’s “Only Time” became her biggest hit in the wake of 9/11

In the second full week of impacts (the charts dated Oct. 6, 2001), a remake of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” by a group billed as All Star Tribute entered the Hot 100 at No. 50.  This superstar ensemble had been organized by U2’s Bono as an AIDS benefit and included some of the day’s hottest acts such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, Nelly, Fred Durst, Jennifer Lopez, Ja Rule, P. Diddy, Gwen Stefani, Alicia Keys, the Backstreet Boys and others.  Despite its AIDS epidemic focus, many fans associated the tune with the traumatic events that had just occurred, which helped its initial chart profile.  It leaped to its No. 27 peak the following week before quickly trailing off.

Country music saw the biggest impact 

When it came to patriotism in music, it was mostly country acts—not surprisingly—who got into the spirit, or at least benefited from it.  Aaron Tippin’s “Where the Stars and the Stripes and the Eagle Fly” entered the Hot 100 chart in October at No. 66 on its way to a No. 20 peak.  Brooks and Dunn’s already-charting “Only In America” saw a rebound to a No. 33 peak on the Hot 100.

Country superstar Faith Hill—already in her prime in terms of chart performance—had several winners on the charts in 9/11’s wake.  Her version of “The Star Spangled Banner” entered the country chart at No. 35 in that Sept. 29 Billboard issue.  Her “There Will Come A Day” re-entered the country chart at No. 45, and her poignant top-10 Hot 100 hit “There You’ll Be” rebounded and re-bulleted on that chart at No. 75.

Toby Keith

“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” by country’s Toby Keith wasn’t as immediate a reaction as people might have assumed in retrospect.  It didn’t surface on the charts until the following June when it debuted at No. 73 on the all-genre Hot 100 on its way to a No. 25 peak.  It got as high as No. 1 on the country charts, ironically during the weekend of July 4, 2002.

The song—which had been partially inspired by the death of Keith’s father earlier in 2001–also embodied the anger of many Americans still scarred by the attacks some nine months after they occurred, while the war in Afghanistan was in its infancy.  Keith has said that his main inspiration for the song, the lyrics of which were chided by some as ignorant and boorish, were the troops who were fighting that war in particular. 

Perhaps the most eloquent of country’s contributions was Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” a song the country superstar specifically wrote and recorded to capture the sentiment and reaction to the 9/11 attacks.  Released just two months later on Nov. 7, the critically acclaimed “Where Were You” eventually peaked at No. 28 on the Hot 100 and, perhaps more importantly, topped the country list for five weeks.

Alan Jackson debuted “Where Were You” at the CMA Awards on November 7, 2001

The poignant tune had earned Jackson praise for its apolitical, non-vengeful approach to the topic, with lyrics that simply pondered a number of different scenarios people might have found themselves in when they first learned of the attacks…something anyone of cognitive age at the time would likely remember for the rest of their lives.  “Where Were You” earned Jackson multiple awards the following year, including Song of the Year at the Country Music Association awards and Best Country Song at the 2002 Grammys.

Driven by the immense connection of “Where Were You” to many still-grieving fans, Drive—the song’s parent album—became Jackson’s first chart-topper on the Billboard 200, spending five weeks at No. 1 on that chart.

A change at the top… 

In the first weeks following 9/11, the top of the all-genre Hot 100 singles chart seemed to be impacted as well, if not by a song that was contextually tied to the tragedy.

Prior to 9/11, the premiere chart’s No. 1 song had been by Jennifer Lopez—a smash remix of her hip-hop hit “I’m Real” featuring a rap by uncredited rising star Ja Rule.  Waiting in the wings at No. 2 was Alicia Keys’ smash debut ballad, “Fallin’,” which had already spent three weeks at No. 1 prior to Lopez’ hit.  Driven by its melancholic piano arrangement and even more somber lyrics featuring a forlorn protagonist, “Fallin’” returned to No. 1 in the first chart registering 9/11’s impact (dated 9/29) and remained there for three weeks, giving Keys one of the longest-running No. 1 songs of 2001.

“Fallin’” by Alicia Keys returned to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the wake of 9/11

Despite its lack of 9/11 relevance and subject matter that was clearly about an unrequited love interest, Keys’ “Fallin’” had a title that was ironically and unwittingly connected to the tragic events that had just transpired and a mood to go with that of the country’s, making it a near shoo-in for that return to the top.

Several high-profile albums were released on 9/11

Notwithstanding the country’s mood and the obvious disruption that 9/11 created for the music industry (and U.S. retailers in general), that Tuesday also happened to be new album-release day (now albums are released on Fridays).  

As such, several high-profile albums were released on 9/11 and had already hit stores before the attacks occurred.  Key among these were two albums considered to be the career zenith and nadir (at the time) for the two superstar artists involved.

On that day, Jay-Z released his sixth studio album, The Blueprint, which has since been lauded by many critics as his best.  The multi-platinum set has repeatedly appeared on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (currently ranked No. 50) and contained classics like “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Jigga,” “Girls, Girls, Girls,” “Takeover” (the Nas diss) and “Song Cry.”  The album debuted at No. 1 on September 29 with more than 440,000 copies sold on 9/11 and the ensuing days during the tracking period.

On the other hand, Mariah Carey’s much-panned movie soundtrack album Glitter was also released that day.  Critics largely viewed it as the worst of her eight studio albums released to date, and fans largely agreed.  The album debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 on September 29 with just 116,000 copies sold (most artists would love that figure today).

At the time, Mariah blamed the “poor” sales week on 9/11 and claimed that critics were quick to criticize her for something largely beyond her control.  What didn’t help her case was that five(!) other albums had debuted higher than hers that week, including Jay-Z’s album that had sold nearly four times as much, plus releases by Nickelback, Fabolous, and Bob Dylan.

Despite this career low-point, Carey—who had also been experiencing some personal mental well-being issues—ultimately dug deep within to contribute to the 9/11 recovery effort with a song originally recorded for Glitter.  The ballad “Never Too Far” was mashed-up with her 1994 smash “Hero” for a medley that was released by her then-new label Virgin Records as a single.

Mariah stated that the song had been an outgrowth of reactions she’d received from fans at different charity events where she’d sung the two tunes. She stated that the song’s proceeds would go to the Heroes Fund, which specifically benefited families of police officers and relief workers who had responded to 9/11.

And the biggest irony,…

This blog is not known for allowing irony to go unnoticed and, as such, it’s worth pointing out that both Jay-Z and Mariah Carey have had many great career fortunes since they simultaneously released albums on 9/11.  

In fact, Jay and Mimi now happen to be the two solo artists with the most No. 1 albums (14) and singles (19) on the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 charts, respectively.  They both trail only one act—the same act—in these two categories: the Beatles who, with 19 No. 1 albums and 20 No. 1 singles, still rule the roost on both charts to this day.

Despite their seemingly diametrically opposed career directions at the time, Jay-Z and Mariah, as well as the many other artists discussed in this article and beyond, played a huge role in helping to heal a nation and return it to a sense of normalcy, as then-President George W. Bush had urged the country to do. 

And now, twenty years after 9/11, we remember the unspeakable tragedy that befell this nation, and we honor those Americans that perished or who were seriously impacted by the attacks.  

In many ways we all were impacted, and music was one of the ways we got through it all.

Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” returned to prominence in 9/11’s wake

As a bonus treat, here’s a special Spotify playlist of all the songs mentioned in this article—songs that played a big part in the recovery of a wounded nation.

DJRob 

DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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DJRob

No. 1 pecking order: Artists should never release albums the same week as other artists above them on this list…

(October 9, 2021).  There’s a certain unwritten hierarchy when it comes to superstar musicians and their album release schedules.  It’s a status that artists rarely test and sometimes find themselves moving album drop dates in order to comply with the pecking order.

Artists (and their record labels) know and respect this unwritten code.

It’s why you’ll never see Drake and Taylor Swift—the two biggest recording acts of the 2010s—release albums on the same day or even within two weeks of one another.  It’s a show of respect between the two artists as well as a recognition that, despite the fact that both of them could sell hundreds of thousands of copies each, there could only be one No. 1, and one musician would ultimately prevent the other from padding their chart-topping totals.

Adele has announced the upcoming release of her fourth album, ‘30,’ in November

It’s also why Taylor Swift moved up the scheduled re-release date of her Red (Taylor’s Version) album from November 19 to the week before.  With the just announced planned release of Adele’s fourth album, speculatively titled 30, on the 19th, Swift and her people realized that even she wouldn’t be able to compete with the British chanteuse whose last album—six years ago—sold more than 3.3 million units in its first week of availability.

Similarly, while he’d likely deny it if anyone asked, rap icon Kanye West released Donda this August on an off-cycle Sunday—five days before his nemesis Drake’s planned release of Certified Lover Boy, which fueled speculation that Ye moved up his release date to avoid the embarrassment of competing with Drizzy in the same chart frame.  The move, which Ye blamed on his label’s jitters, not his own, allowed both rappers’ albums to debut at No. 1 in successive weeks last month. 

It was a surprising turn for a once fearless Kanye who 14 years earlier had challenged a then-hot 50 Cent to a debut-week duel.  Both artists albums—Yeezy’s Graduation and 50’s Curtis—were released on September 11, 2007, and Kanye’s commencement album ultimately prevailed with nearly one million copies sold in its debut week.

The times have certainly changed and few artists have been able to muster that level of sales since.  Only Taylor Swift (four times), Lil Wayne, Lady Gaga, and Adele have been able to sell over one million copies of an album in their debut weeks since 2007.  And Adele managed to sell more than a million copies of her last album 25 in three different weeks back in 2015.

With Adele’s next album now on deck, will she be able to rekindle the kind of momentum that gave her the top-selling album for two consecutive years the last time out?  As with 2015, has Adele shifted the landscape once again to send other artists scrambling to either push back or move up their album releases in order to avoid competing with the “Hello” singer?  

Will the November release of 30 make it a wrap for anyone else to be able to get another No. 1 for the remainder of the year?

If past is prologue and considering the buzz around Adele’s announcement, the answer to that last question is likely yes.  Or, it at least illustrates that there truly is a hierarchy when it comes to today’s superstar artists and their album release schedules—that is, if said artists want those albums to get that coveted No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200.

With all of this in mind, djrobblog reviewed Billboard’s ranking of the 100 biggest artists of the 2010s, plus a few of the biggest album acts of the past two years, and came up with the following exclusive ranking of the 25 artists with the greatest potential for huge opening week sales, in descending order. 

Translation: artists on this list should avoid releasing albums during the same week as any artist ranked above them if their goal is to enter at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. 

One.  Adele.

Adele

Any artist who sets all-time opening-week sales records in an era when album sales overall are down more than 50% from their all-time highs is one to be reckoned with.  And with the gap between her albums becoming larger with each release, the anticipation just grows deeper for any new Adele product.  No one expects Adele to move numbers like she did in 2015, but even a third of those 3.4M copies would be more than any artist has been able to sell in a single week since.

Two. Taylor Swift.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock (10481442fs) Taylor Swift 47th Annual American Music Awards, Show, Microsoft Theater, Los Angeles, USA – 24 Nov 2019

Taylor Swift is more likely to keep someone from a No. 1 debut than any artist not named Adele.  The wildcard for Ms. Swift right now, however, is whether the album would be all new material or a re-release of one of her older albums.  The gap between new releases also would be a factor.  In the six years since Adele’s last set, Taylor has released five albums, including four since 2019, with another, Red (Taylor’s Version), planned for release next month.  While all of Taylor’s albums have been No. 1 débuts, each subsequent release has experienced diminishing first-week sales numbers, with the 2021 re-release of Fearless (Taylor’s Version) moving just under 300K.

Some of this can be attributed to changes in how Billboard’s charts are calculated, with album bundles and concert ticket offers no longer factoring into chart and sales rankings (October 9, 2020), a change that should equally affect many of the artists on this list (keep reading!)

Three.  Drake.

Drake

The 6-God proved that he can still move enormous numbers with the release of Certified Lover Boy in September.   Its 609K album-equivalent units in Week 1 were more than any album since Taylor’s Folklore in August 2020.  Granted there was a two-year buildup of hype for CLB, not to mention the free publicity from the Kanye beef to stir up more interest.  But Drake proved formidable even in his third week of release, where he held off the long-awaited debut of Lil Nas X, whose Montero settled for a No. 2 entry behind CLB

Four.  Post Malone.

Post Malone // Stavernfestivalen // Post Malone // 2018-07-14 20:21:28 // Larvik golfbane, Larvik, Vestfold, Norway (NOR) /

It’s been more than two years since Posty’s last album, Hollywood’s Bleeding, which is still riding high on the Billboard 200.  That album contained several megasmash singles (“Wow,” “Circles” and “Sunflower”) and opened with 489K album-equivalent units in September 2019, giving it the second-largest opening sales week of that year behind Taylor’s Lover.  With those credentials and the artist’s profile still on the rise, Malone’s next album could open even bigger.  In fact, aside from Kendrick Lamar, he may be the only hip-hop artist who could give Drake a run for his money in a head-to-head matchup.

Hip-Hop Geography: Which cities, states (and provinces) have had the most Number One albums by rap artists?

Five.  Kendrick Lamar.

Kendrick Lamar

Speaking of Kendrick, he’s another artist who’s gone nearly five years since his last studio album, DAMN. in 2017.  That album moved more than 603K album-equivalent units in its first week, clearly establishing the Compton-based rapper as one of the top acts in the game.  While all of the attention was on the Kanye-vs.-Drake battle this summer, many speculated that neither of those two would’ve survived a head-to-head battle with K.Dot.  All eyes are on his next release, which is slated for release this year.

Six.  Morgan Wallen.

Morgan Wallen

Cancel culture be damned.  Ever since its No. 1 debut week in January 2021, and even after the infamous N-word fiasco and the fallout that came with it the following month, new country superstar Morgan Wallen has been a mainstay in the top ten of the Billboard 200 chart.  Dangerous: The Double Album opened with 265K album-equivalent units in its first week and has been in or near the top ten all year.  It’d be a safe bet that he will double that figure the next go-round (assuming he’s back in his label’s good graces anytime soon). His fans certainly gave him the benefit of the doubt. 

Seven.  Harry Styles.

Harry Styles

The next two artists on this list were a toss-up.  They both happen to be British superstars with Harry Styles emerging as the biggest solo singer from his former group One Direction.  His last album, the nearly two-year-old Fine Line, opened with 478K album-equivalent units in December 2019.  It’s safe to assume that its followup could do similar numbers if he strikes while the iron is still hot. 

Eight.  Ed Sheeran.

Ed Sheeran

It’s been almost five years (March 2017) since Sheeran’s last studio album, ÷ (divide), which opened with 451K album-equivalent units in its first week.  Those are hefty numbers by most standards, and with the momentum of his current hit single, “Bad Habits,” behind it, his next release = (equals) should easily take the No. 1 spot after it is released October 29.  

Nine.  Cardi B.

Cardi B

Rapper Cardi B is in rarified air when it comes to female MCs.  She is the only femcee in the past nearly ten years to have a No. 1 album.  The last set by a female rapper to hit No. 1 before Cardi’s 2018 opus Invasion of Privacy was Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded in April of 2012 (and yes that includes albums by Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat and Lizzo).  Cardi has had two stand-alone No. 1 singles in the past year-plus with “WAP” and “Up!,” which only builds anticipation for her sophomore album—one that could easily exceed the 255K album-equivalent units that Invasion did nearly four years ago.  

Ten.  Rihanna.

Rihanna

Few artist’s next releases have been as highly anticipated as Ri-Ri’s.  Her last album, Anti, will turn six in January 2022.  Anti suffered from a messy release (exclusive Tidal streaming and 1 million free downloads by way of a Samsung promotion), which prevented it from a lofty Billboard debut.  It eventually overcame those obstacles to reach No. 1, and has been on the Billboard 200 for 288 weeks (five and a half years).  It is the longest-charting album ever by a Black female.  Her next album, which the Barbadian superstar recently teased in an associated press interview, should greatly benefit from comments like this: “Whatever you know of Rihanna is not going to be what you hear,” she noted. “I’m really experimenting. Music is like fashion.  I should be able to wear whatever I want. I treat music the same way. So I’m having fun and it’s going to be completely different.”

Eleven.  Lil Baby.

Lil Baby

When it comes to the hip-hop Babys, it appeared that both rappers DaBaby and Lil Baby would continue to yo-yo back and forth for chart supremacy.  But two things happened in the past 18 months: 1) Lil Baby released the biggest album of his career (and of 2020) in My Turn, which is still in the top 15 after 83 weeks, and 2) DaBaby opened his mouth.  Now Lil Baby seems to have the infant-named rapper market cornered.  All “kidding” aside, Lil Baby debuted with 197k album-equivalent units last time out.  Next time should be even bigger!

Twelve.  The Weeknd.

The Weeknd (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for dcp)

The Canadian superstar and “Blinding Lights” singer will find it hard to top his last album, the 18-month old After Hours.  The former No. 1 album has been hovering around the top 20 in Billboard ever since its release, thanks in large part to “Blinding Lights,” which spent 90 record-breaking weeks on the Hot 100.  Earlier this summer, The Weeknd officially declared the end of the After Hours era with the purported first single from his next album, a song called “Take My Breath.”  The song debuted and peaked at No. 6 in August and currently sits at No. 22–ten spots lower than his last After Hours single, “Save Your Tears”—suggesting that his fans aren’t quite ready to let go of the AH era just yet. 

Thirteen.  Travis Scott.

Travis Scott

This one is tricky. Scott’s last solo studio album Astroworld sold more than 530K album-equivalent units upon its release in 2018.  But the 2019 compilation album JackBoys did less than a third of that total with 154K units.  Fortunately for the Houston-based rapper, his next album can be billed as the official followup to Astroworld, which will no doubt raise its profile in the minds of fans who thought of JackBoys as a side project.  Either way, Scott would fare better than most other rappers in a head-to-head battle, with the likely exception of those above him on this list.  

Fourteen.  BTS.

BTS

When the South Korean boy band BTS achieved their fourth No. 1 album in America in February 2020, they’d never had a No. 1 single.  Now they’ve had six—all since September 2020–making the K-pop septet the fastest to accumulate six No. 1 singles since the Beatles in 1966.  Their last album Be (in December 2020) was their fifth No. 1 on the Billboard 200, making them the fastest to accumulate five No. 1 albums since, who else, the Beatles.  It’s safe to say that it’s a risk for any artist to go head-to-head against a group who is among the biggest in the world since…well, the Beatles.

Fifteen.  J. Cole.

J. Cole

Don’t look now, but Fayetteville rapper J. Cole is slowly climbing the hip-hop leaderboard with six No. 1 albums, and counting (behind only five other rappers).  The latest, this year’s The Off-Season, debuted at the top with 282k album-equivalent units—not a bad number considering it came without a lot of the fanfare of this year’s other big-name releases by Drake and Kanye.  North Carolina’s biggest hip-hop export has already announced the name of his next album, The Fall Off, whose release date is TBD.  

Sixteen.  Kanye West.

FILE – Kanye West appears on stage in November 2019 during a service at Lakewood Church in Houston. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke, File)

Kanye West is another wildcard on this list.  While his 2021 album Donda showed he still has chart muscle, it took a lot of promotion and hype to get the album above the 300k-album-equivalent-unit mark, a level the Chicago rapper hadn’t seen with his previous four studio efforts (2013’s Yeezus was the last one to open with more than 300k units before Donda).  It’s likely that Kanye will continue to release albums, if for no other reason than to keep pace with fellow rap leaders Jay-Z, Drake and Eminem—all of whom, like Kanye, have ten or more No. 1s on the Billboard 200.

Seventeen.  Eminem.

Eminem

Don’t count out Slim Shady, whose last ten albums have debuted at No. 1 and who’s been charting since 1999.  With the proper spacing and lack of over-saturation, the Detroit legend has shown that he can generate enough numbers to win in most weeks throughout a calendar year.  His last album, Music To Be Murdered By, debuted with 279k album-equivalent units in January 2020.

Eighteen.  Beyoncé.

Beyoncé

Queen Bey hasn’t had a No. 1 album since 2016’s Lemonade, which is officially her last solo, non-soundtrack related, non-collaborative album.  So one could argue that she hasn’t released a proper album since then.  With that as a premise, Lemonade debuted at No. 1 with 653k units in the spring of 2016.  While her profile has lowered somewhat since then, and she has reached the dreaded pop female age of 40 (a gender-based double standard, btw), when Bey does decide to release her next LP, there aren’t many artists who would want to go head-to-head with her.

Nineteen.  Billie Eilish.

Billie Eilish

Like Drake and Kanye West, pop star Billie Eilish has very recent data to show where she stands on the pop music landscape.  Her sophomore album, the introspective Happier Than Ever, debuted in August 2021 with 238k album-equivalent units consumed in its first week.  Those numbers are respectable, but a tad lower than what one might have expected from an artist whose first album was one of the biggest and most critically acclaimed just two years earlier.  Still, three weeks at No. 1 is nothing to sneeze at, and Happier remains in the top ten two months later.

Twenty.  Ariana Grande.

Ariana Grande

Ariana’s latest album, the one-year-old Positions, became one of the earliest cases of Billboard’s new policy of not allowing album bundles and concert ticket tie-ins to count toward sales and chart positions.  Positions entered the chart at No. 1 last fall with a respectable 174k album-equivalent units, the highest consumption under the new policy at that point.  As artists and labels adjust to Billboard’s stricter terms, I’m sure they’ll find ways to beef up sales again, especially for an artist of Grande’s popularity. 

Twenty-one. Justin Bieber.

NEW YORK: Justin Bieber attends The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue )

The Biebs is another artist with recent data to show the kind of first-week numbers he’s capable of pulling.  His latest effort, Justice, debuted at No. 1 in early April with 155k album-equivalent units after being previewed by four single releases over the previous six months.  The 155k number is modest compared to earlier releases, especially given his singles saturation.  His prior album Changes debuted with 231k only 13 months earlier, suggesting that the releases may be coming too frequently.  Bieber’s high watermark remains 2015’s magnum opus Purpose, which debuted with 649k album-equivalent units that autumn. 

Twenty-two.  Dua Lipa.

Dua Lipa

Twenty-first century disco-pop queen Dua Lipa is still enjoying the immense success of her latest album, Future Nostalgia, which debuted at a modest No. 4 in April 2020 with an even more modest 66k album-equivalent units consumed. But that was before its first single “Don’t Stop Now” went on to become the biggest hit of 2020 by a female and its latest single “Levitating” threatened to do the same in 2021.  In fact, “Levitating” is now the second-longest charting top-10 hit in Billboard Hot 100 history behind only The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” and is on track to be the biggest single of 2021 when Billboard’s year-end rankings are released in a couple months.  

Twenty-three.  Bruno Mars/Silk Sonic.

Bruno Mars

In an ironic plot twist, the duo of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, also known as Silk Sonic, announced on Friday (Oct. 8) that they were moving up the scheduled release of their debut album from spring 2022 to Nov. 12 of this year.  For those paying attention, that is the same day Taylor Swift is issuing Red (Taylor’s Version).  Assuming the schedule doesn’t change again, that will be the only head-to-head matchup in 2021 between artists on this list, a battle that will immediately test this blog’s theory (and its rankings).

Twenty-four.  DaBaby.

DaBaby

The down-but-never-out Charlotte, NC rapper DaBaby is trying to recover from being the latest (and highest profile) MC to be maligned by (dumb) homophobic comments.  What his next project does will largely depend on whether his label will back him and whether various outlets will allow him to promote it.  Note to readers: cancel culture doesn’t work the same for homophobic rappers as it does for country stars who utter racist remarks, so DaBaby will likely struggle where Morgan Wallen didn’t…just sayin’.

Twenty-five.  Lil Wayne.

Lil Wayne

The Louisiana native Lil Wayne used to make a habit of moving a million units in a single week.  But times have changed since his heyday of a decade ago.  After a lengthy layoff, however, he’s recently shown that he’s still capable of topping the charts, as he achieved his fourth and fifth No. 1 sets in the past three years, with Tha Carter V moving 480k album-equivalent units in the fall of 2018.  The followup, last year’s Funeral, topped the chart with just 139k units…a 71% drop-off from its predecessor’s opening week.

Wildcards:  Luke Combs, Lady Gaga, Megan Thee Stallion, Youngboy Never Broke Again, Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Nas X, Future, Young Thug, Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Justin Timberlake, Jason Aldean, Shawn Mendes, Britney Spears, Chris Brown

So what do you think?  Is the list about right?  Who would you have excluded or included, and in what order would you have ranked them?  Feel free to comment in the section below or in any of the social media feeds where the article is posted. 

DJRob

DJRob

DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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