So we’re gonna act like AC/DC didn’t just hit No. 1 in 2020?

(November 29, 2020).  Am I the only one who thinks that AC/DC getting a No. 1 album in 2020 is kind of a big deal?

In a year (actually a lot of years) dominated by hip-hop and its unrelenting stranglehold on the Billboard charts, it’s refreshing when a rock band can muster a No. 1 best-seller – even if that band is a bunch of 60-and-70-something-year-olds whose first No. 1 occurred in the year Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president and hard rock bands were still the rage.

That’s what happened this past week (okay, it’s week-old news by now, but it bears reporting in this space) when the venerable Australian band AC/DC’s latest album, Power Up, entered the Billboard 200 at No. 1, ahead of albums by veteran rappers Future and Lil Uzi Vert, who collaborated on the No. 2-debuting Pluto x Baby Pluto, and country superstar Chris Stapleton, who entered at No. 3 with Starting Over.

AC/DC photographed in a 2020 album promo

Is this a sign that the rock genre is making a comeback?  

Not hardly.  Even in a down week for hip-hop, there are still five such albums in the top ten (the Future/Lil Uzi Vert collabo is joined by albums by the late Pop Smoke, the late Juice WRLD, AC/DC’s country-mate The Kid LAROI, and YoungBoy Never Broke Again).

If you think that’s a lot of “late” artists in the top ten, btw, that’s not even the most this month. Just two weeks ago, three dead rappers had albums in the top ten simultaneously: Pop Smoke and Juice WRLD were joined by King Von, who died Nov. 6 in an altercation in Atlanta.

On the contrary, the only other rock album in the top ten is one that was released in October 1981 – no, not AC/DC’s first No. 1, For Those About To Rock, We Salute You…that was a month later.  I’m talking about Queen’s Greatest Hits, which this week jumped into the top ten for the first time (boosted by a discount sale on vinyl – of all things – at Walmart, something that no doubt helped AC/DC’s haul as well).  

The fact that Queen’s album took 39 years to reach the top ten after its initial release is a record in itself (for a non-holiday album) in a banner week for old rock-and-rollers.  But it’s still a sad testimony that the only two rockers in the top ten are a couple of bands who first charted in the 1970s – Queen with a bunch of songs that were recorded before 1981, and AC/DC with a bunch of songs that sound like they were.  

That’s not a knock on AC/DC btw, I’ve had the album on repeat for at least three complete listens while writing this (I don’t always do that), plus music needs bands like them, IMHO. 

By the way, the next two rock albums on the chart, at No. 12 and No. 18, respectively, are by Fleetwood Mac and Creedence Clearwater Revival.  You have to go all the way down to No. 36 to find the only other rock album in the top 40: Nirvana’s self-titled compilation album from 2002.  

In other words, the five rock albums in the Billboard top 40 are all by acts that have been around for 30 to 50+ years, with four of them leaning towards 50 years and beyond.  The only rock album in the top 40 the week prior to this, btw, was Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which is still running on the fumes of the “Dreams” resurgence following a viral user-generated TikTok video back in October.

But back to AC/DC (yeah, I digressed hard). The fact that rock’s reigning heavy metal champions, which consist of reunited surviving members Angus Young (lead guitar), Brian Johnson (lead vocals), Cliff Williams (bass guitar), Phil Rudd (drums), and Stevie Young (rhythm guitar), were able to hold off the latest entry from two of the past decade’s rap superstars Future and Lil Uzi Vert, is nothing short of phenomenal, particularly in an era where hip-hop reigns and the eulogy of traditional rock was written years ago.

But it’s worth noting that while Power Up is only AC/DC’s 17th studio album in over 45 years, Future has amassed that many in just the past nine years.  And his number excludes about sixteen non-commercial mixtapes, but includes several studio albums (including collaborations), EPs, commercial mixtapes, and one reissue.

And Future is not even the most prolific rapper in the top ten. YoungBoy Never Broke Again has amassed 17 entries on the Billboard 200 chart since August 2017 – or just three years and three months – giving him the most of any act in that timespan.

It may be safe to say that Future is experiencing a bit of a burn factor, while the appetite for AC/DC, which has hardly waned over the past 45 years, couldn’t have been more whetted.  The band hasn’t had an album since 2014’s Rock or Bust, the last album recorded before founding member Malcolm Young, who left the band just before that album due to health reasons, died in 2017.  Power Up Is dedicated to his memory.

Read more: See this djrobblog tribute to AC/DC’s Malcolm Young.

Power Up is unapologetically AC/DC, with Brian Johnson approaching the same wet-cat, screechy vocals he employed in albums past, if not as high in the notes (he’s 73, so…).  Critics have favorably called it the band’s best album since 1990’s The Razors Edge, which contained the timeless classic  “Thunderstruck,” this blogger’s all-time fave by the group.

Ironically, that was the first AC/DC album that had to contend with rap.  It memorably peaked at No. 2 behind MC Hammer’s megasmash LP Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt Em, and was stuck at No. 3 behind Hammer and Vanilla Ice’s To The Extreme for weeks.  This is notable because those two rap albums had a stranglehold on the Billboard charts from July 1990 to March 1991.  The two albums reigned at the top for 34 straight weeks, blocking out all contenders and signaling rap’s true crossover appeal to audiences beyond its traditionally Black fan base.

A scan through Billboard’s archives during that era reveals that, even then, pundits were questioning whether rock was on its way out as other genres – including rap, dance, R&B, country and soft pop – were dominating the charts.  The Razors Edge was (prematurely) viewed as one of rock’s last true hopes as it reigned as the genre’s only top-10 mainstay for months from 1990-91. It was just a few months later, though, that a new sub-genre of rock emerging from Seattle – grunge – would prove to be rock’s salvation as the early ‘90s raged on.  Post-grunge and pop-punk bands kept the genre commercially viable into the early 2000s.

But many of the bands from those sub-genres have fallen by the wayside, while AC/DC just keeps on rocking!

A fair criticism is that the songs on Power Up are largely indistinguishable – they all employ the same traditional up-tempo, 4/4-time, heavy guitar chords that fans have come to love.  And there’s nothing as iconic as “T.N.T.,” “Thunderstruck,” “Highway to Hell, “Hells Bells” or “Back In Black,” or as top-40-ready as “You Shook Me All Night Long” on it, although the No. 1 rock track “Shot in the Dark” approaches the band’s early greatness.

But the album has plenty of bravado, some controversy, lots of melody, and it plays short at 41 quick minutes across its 12 tracks, none of which are hard on the ear for those like me who enjoy this stuff.

AC/DC’s main message here is simple: Hip-hop may still reign as a genre in 2020, but rock still has a pulse…at least if these sixty-and-seventy-something-year-old rockers have anything to say about it!

Congratulations, AC/DC, on your third No. 1 album, and your first in 12 years!  May you keep rockin into the ensuing decade and beyond!

Recommended tracks: “Shot In The Dark,” “Kick You When You’re Down,” “Through The Mists of Time,” “Demon Fire, “Wild Reputation.”

DJRob 

DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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