(November 15, 2021). It’s official: ABBA’s new album, Voyage, enters the Billboard 200 chart at No. 2 this week (chart dated Nov. 20), giving the iconic Swedish band its highest charting Billboard album…ever!
Under current chart rules that serve as both a blessing and a curse, the new album is thus able to do what none of ABBA’s previous albums had done in the nearly 50 years of the group’s existence: reach the top two or even the top ten!
Unfortunately, by virtue of those same chart rules, it is also prevented from doing something it would have otherwise accomplished under a methodology that existed just ten years ago (before streaming): become their first Number One.
With Voyage being the first new ABBA album in nearly 40 years, Billboard chart rules—and technology in general—have changed dramatically since their last studio album The Visitors debuted in November 1981. Back then, few albums could debut as high as No. 2 or No. 1 due to the way Billboard calculated its charts. In fact, only three albums had ever debuted at No. 1 back then, whereas hundreds have pulled the trick since.
In 1981, Billboard used phoned-in ranked lists from record retailers across the country, rather than the more accurate methodology it has employed since 1991, where point-of-sale barcode scans or digital sales tracking give an immediate piece-count representation of the best-selling (or most downloaded or streamed) albums.
Under the previous regime and despite the band’s immense popularity, none of ABBA’s earlier albums made enough of an impact under the relative-rank scheme to climb any higher than No. 14 in America. That was where the band’s imaginatively titled LP The Album (featuring their classic “Take A Chance On Me”) peaked in 1978.
But two new realities allow Voyage to do what no other ABBA album could do before: 1) the point-of-sale scanning that feeds today’s charts; and 2) ABBA’s now-iconic status and the 40-year anticipation of the group’s reunion and first new music since the beginning of the Ronald Reagan administration.
Indeed, the world has changed in many more ways than American presidents or Billboard algorithms since ABBA’s last studio release, making ABBA’s No. 2 placement even more astonishing.
Think about it: when ABBA were last together, disco had just run its course, there had been no Thriller, we hadn’t yet heard of Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston or even Madonna, sub-genre terms like grunge and crunk were non-existent, hip-hop itself was a fledgling genre with only a few popular names (Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow) tied to it, and the CD had not yet been commercially marketed.
And while ABBA’s pre-MTV music videos have become cult classics (like my favorite one immediately below), they completely missed out on the MTV era, which had only begun four months before The Visitors was issued and ended about 20 years later.
On the world front, the closest thing to personal computers that existed were pocket calculators, video games were of the Atari and Mattel’s Intellivision variety, Prince Charles and Princess Diana were newly wed, the Gulf War was a decade away, and 9/11 (and the 20-year war with Afghanistan that ensued) was still two decades away.
And speaking of those U.S. presidents, the two most recent world leaders were at the very beginnings of their respective paths to fame (or infamy, depending on your perspective). Barack Obama, then only 20, had just transferred to Columbia University in NYC as a junior, majoring in political science. And a 35-year-old Donald Trump had just started the Trump Organization and had yet to be included in any Forbes list (which wasn’t initially published until the following year). MAGA might have been something people would’ve confused with “Macca” (Sir Paul McCartney’s nickname) instead of its intended use today.
And, coming back to ABBA, “Mamma Mia” was just one of the group’s many hits that graced the singles charts both in America and abroad. It was a modest top-40 hit here in the U.S., peaking at No. 32 in 1976 (although it became ABBA’s second No. 1 in the U.K. that year).
Now, that song is associated with the titular Broadway musical (and its offshoots) that has helped make ABBA one of the most successful bands in world history (reportedly second only to the Beatles in global record sales). A reunion of the four original members (Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Fältskog, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad)—and a recording of new music—was practically guaranteed to be met with wild anticipation as many of ABBA’s fans, old and new, sought a return to the kind of pop music that made them superstars in the beginning.
As evidence of their intervening popularity between The Visitors and Voyage, their 1992 compilation ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time! It is one of the group’s ten chart-toppers in the U.K (where Voyage became their tenth on the latest Official Charts Company list issued last week).
In fact, had the Billboard charts in America been under rules that existed just ten years ago (before streaming entered the equation), the Voyage album would’ve been their first No. 1 stateside. It outsold all of this week’s competition in physical sales (60,500) and digital downloads (17,500) and was second only to the No. 1 debut of R&B singer Summer Walker, whose Still Over It was aided by enormous streaming numbers, which accounted for 153k of that albums total 166k units consumed in the tracking week (leaving only 13k in traditional album sales).
Of ABBA’s physical sales, 42,000 came by way of CD (a non-factor in 1981), 17,500 were courtesy of vinyl, and 1,000 copies were sold on cassette (the predominant factor 40 years ago, which is on the verge of its own mini-comeback!).
Alas, with those numbers, Sweden’s greatest export—musically or otherwise—had to settle for a Number 2 debut (and likely peak) on a chart they’ve been ”visiting” since 1974.
That’s not a bad outcome for a group who’d never ranked any higher than No. 14 on the American albums charts before now. Such is the blessing and the curse that can be the Billboard charts.
Here is a Spotify link to their entire Voyage album, followed by an audio clip of the new song this blogger likes the most from it (“Keep An Eye On Dan”).
Congratulations to Anni-Frid, Benny, Björn, and Agnetha on their latest career milestone…bittersweet as it may be!
Länge leve ABBA!
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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