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What It Means When ‘Hip’ Albums Top The Charts

This past week, the No. 1 album in America was by a polo-shirted New York band that has never had a hit single. Even alt-rock radio doesn’t play them much.

This week, that band will be replaced at No. 1 by a French duo that only appears publicly in robot getups and, until a month ago, had never seen the inside of the Top 40.

This is notable activity atop a Billboard album chart that, in 2013, has been led by the likes of Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Bon Jovi, Michael Bublé and Lady Antebellum.

Are Vampire Weekend and Daft Punk — our latest and next chart-topper — the hippest pair of acts ever to top the U.S. album chart back-to-back? Depending on how you define “hip,” maybe. And does this chart-topping success make them instantly unhip? Maybe not.

As of last week, Vampire Weekend’s third album Modern Vampires of the City led the Billboard 200, the music-industry bible’s flagship album chart. Modern Vampires is actually VW’s second straight No. 1; their sophomore disc Contra debuted on top, too, back in 2010. Disappearing for three years doesn’t seem to have been bad for business — Modern Vampires rolled 134,000 in sales in its debut week, about 10,000 copies higher than Contra’s first-week total.

But VW’s solid six-figure sum looks like chump change this week. Daft Punk, who have been away from recording even longer, are replacing VW at No. 1 with Random Access Memories. Billboard just announced late Tuesday that the album rolled an eye-popping debut-week total of 339,000 copies.

That’s not only more than twice what VW tallied; Random Access Memories’ opening tally is the second-largest debut of the year to date, after Justin Timberlake’s 968,000-album arrival in March. For Daft Punk, it’s the biggest sales week of a two-decade career, and about two and a half times what the robotic duo’s last studio album, 2005’s Human After All, sold in total.

Daft Punk’s album is benefiting from a savvy prerelease awareness campaign that’s been months (even years) in the making. But the duo is also reaping rewards from the public as electronic-music godfathers, for helping to birth the sound that’s been permeating the radio for about five years now.

In one sense, Vampire Weekend’s debut is the more impressive — despite recording a raft of catchy songs, they can’t rely on the radio. Ezra Koenig’s jaunty, Paul Simon–esque foursome is selling largely based on buzz and hardcore fandom (a Saturday Night Live appearance two weeks ago didn’t hurt).


A perusal of Billboard’s flagship singles chart, the Hot 100, shows a dearth of hits for VW. In the five years since their 2008 debut, none of their songs has peaked higher on the chart than 2010’s “Horchata,” which reached No. 102. That’s not a typo — Billboard tracks songs that “Bubble Under” the Hot 100, many of which never make the leap onto the list. All of VW’s singles have bubbled under the Hot 100, from 2008’s “A-Punk” (No. 106) to the new album’s “Diane Young” (No. 119). Essentially, Top 40 radio has largely ignored VW; and their fans seem to buy the albums, not the singles. Even on Billboard’s Alternative Songs list (an all-radio chart), success for VW has been hard-won — 2010’s “Cousins” stalled at No. 18, and current single “Diane Young” has fought its way to No. 11. These are modest chart results for a band with two No. 1 albums.

Daft Punk’s pop profile is only moderately higher. Prior to this year, they’d only hit the Hot 100 twice: 1997’s “Around the World” and 2001’s “One More Time” each peaked, coincidentally, at a dismal No. 61. They’ve scored Top 10s and even No. 1’s on the Dance Club chart before, but that’s a tastemaker list, one of the few Billboard charts with no consumer or radio component at all.

This time, however, Daft Punk have an honest-to-goodness, booming-from-a-car-near-you U.S. hit: the Song of Summer frontrunner “Get Lucky,” featuring producer–vocalist Pharrell Williams and legendary, should-damned-well-be-in-the–Hall of Fame–already Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers. A month ago, “Lucky” crashed onto the Hot 100 at No. 19, instantly becoming Daft Punk’s first Top 40 pop hit, period. Last week, just as Random Access Memories hit stores, “Get Lucky” rose into Billboard’s Top 10. An actual hit surely helps DP’s U.S. momentum. But to a large extent, the radio gatekeepers are belatedly catching on to DP’s deafening buzz and jumping on the bandwagon.


So, given all this commercial success for VW and DP, just how hip are these two albums?

By chart standards, pretty hip. Flipping though 50 years of Billboard album-chart No. 1’s, it’s hard to find a pair of back-to-back chart-topping acts (not counting soundtrack albums or compilations) with such a heretofore low profile on Billboard’s song and radio charts. No. 1 albums have occasionally reflected their era’s hipper rock movements, something that was percolating just to the left of the singles charts; but it’s near-unprecedented for two such albums to own the penthouse in a row.

For example, some classic-rock albums we now consider lugubrious dinosaurs were considered “hip” in their day. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon reached the album-chart summit in April 1973, a few weeks before the band had scored its first radio hit (“Money,” which crossed from AOR radio to the Top 40). But Floyd’s first chart-topping LP wasn’t part of a hipster twofer — it was directly preceded in the No. 1 spot by an Alice Cooper album (already regular hitmakers by ’73) and followed by an Elvis Presley album.

In the ’90s, at the peak of alt-rock, several acts topped the album chart before crossing to Top 40 radio: Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains. But all scored copious rock-radio hits beforehand, and there were no twofers — their runs atop the Billboard 200 were bookended by the likes of Snoop Dogg, Mariah Carey and Ace of Base. Alt-metal band Pantera were, in a way, even further out — they managed to top the chart in 1994 with Far Beyond Driven, without going near the Hot 100 or even the upper reaches of the rock charts, a truly rare feat at the time. But they were succeeded by a Bonnie Raitt album. (That’s the fun of the album chart, where disparate discs take turns at the summit week after week.)

Hip-hop has also generated its share of up-from-underground successes. Back in the summer of 1996, Nas had yet to score any Top 40 pop hits or Top 10 R&B hits when he topped the album chart with It Was Written, the followup to his classic Illmatic. That album was succeeded at No. 1 by A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes and Life — their only chart-topping disc in an acclaimed career with no major pop or R&B hits. But Tribe had by then scored plenty of top 10 hits on the Rap chart; so it would be a stretch to call them, in ’96, singles-chart newbies.

In the 2000s, particularly in the last half-decade — as album sales have waned and the bar to top the Billboard 200 has lowered — we’ve seen some more overtly hipster-friendly bands top the chart. Among them have been Modest Mouse (March 2007, 129,000 in first-week sales), Death Cab for Cutie (May 2008, 144,000), Arcade Fire (August 2010, 156,000) and Jack White (April 2012, 138,000 — former band The White Stripes never reached the summit). During this period we’ve even had something close to a twofer: In February 2010, chamber-pop band The Decemberists topped the chart with The King Is Dead, selling a modest 94,000 copies; they were directly followed at No. 1 by adult-alternative guitarist Amos Lee, whose Mission Bell hit the top with just 40,000 copies (still a record for the lowest sales total ever atop the Billboard 200). Neither act had scored an appreciable Hot 100 or rock radio hit.

As for our current twofer, Vampire Weekend and Daft Punk are surely bigger cool-kid fetish objects than barista favorite Lee or even the twee Decemberists. Both Modern Vampires of the City and Random Access Memories have earned “Best New Music” reviews from online alt-music bible Pitchfork (9.3 and 8.8, respectively, on their 10-scale). At the same time, both acts are more established than almost any of the recent hipster chart-toppers — VW is on their second No. 1 album, and DP just rolled an opening sales number higher than either Britney Spears’s or Rihanna’s last albums.

So, Vampire Weekend and Daft Punk: the ultimate hipster chart-topping twofer? Or now terminally unhip pop acts?

You’ll notice we’ve gotten this far in this discussion without using the shopworn term “indie.”

When I tweeted last week the tidbit that VW and DP were going to succeed each other atop the album chart, I added the jokey hashtag #indieplatinum. That prompted NPR Pop Critic Ann Powers to tweet back, declaratively: “the final exhaustion of the usefulness of the category ‘indie.'”

Indeed. That moniker, coined decades ago to denote music released by independent labels, has since the turn of the century replaced “alternative” as the idiom of choice for music loved by urbane cool-hunters. But the problem with “indie” is that it’s not useful either as a designator of coolness nor as a sign of artistic independence.

Of the half-dozen “indie” artists listed above who topped the charts since 2007, only the Arcade Fire is on a fully independent label, Merge. Major-label refugee Jack White self-releases on his own label, Third Man — but distribution of his solo debut Blunderbuss was handled last year by Sony’s Columbia label.

By any reasonable standard, Vampire Weekend’s new album is an indie. The band’s label, XL Recordings, is not directly affiliated with any major label. But even that status is a bit muddy; XL, part of the Beggars indie-label group, teams up with the majors quite frequently. VW’s albums on XL are distributed by the Alternative Distribution Alliance, an arm of Warner Music. And another XL signee in the U.K. — a little artist you might’ve heard named Adele — is promoted in the States by Sony label Columbia.

According to Billboard, “Modern Vampires of the City is the 19th independently-distributed album to reach No. 1 since the Billboard 200 chart began using SoundScan sales data in 1991.” But the record industry’s definition of indie is technical and unintuitive. The roster of labels distributing those 19 No. 1 albums over the last 22 years ranges from N.W.A label Ruthless to, seriously, Walt Disney Records. (Bet you didn’t know the Lion King and Pocahontas soundtracks were “indie” albums.) Even the effing Eagles are now considered “independent,” in the sense that the veteran band self-releases its work — but their 2007 comeback album Long Road Out of Eden was launched via an exclusive release by Wal-Mart, that classic indie shop.

On the other hand, consider Daft Punk. None of their albums has been released on an indie label — their early classics Homework (1997) and Discovery (2001) were released by EMI subsidiary Virgin. Their new album Random Access Memories is DP’s debut on Columbia, a more than century-old label that’s about as un-indie as it gets.

But talk about independence: After taking their sweet time to record their new album for half a decade, the French duo signed a one-album distribution deal with the Sony label, with no promise of a followup — a far cry from the typical recording contract. Sounds rather … indie.

If it’s near-impossible, then, in 2013, to call any album “indie” by genre, can we still call a hit album “hip”? “Hipster” has become a virtual four-letter word in recent years. But hip is a more elastic concept, essentially meaning “something that appeals to a limited segment of the population.” There’s an idea of exclusivity attached to the word that makes it stick.

What was hip in, say, 1968? Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, no doubt — and those two acts (the former with Big Brother and the Holding Company) topped the chart back-to-back in the fall of ’68 with Cheap Thrills and Electric Ladyland. Each album spun off one hit, neither one a Top 10 smash: Big Brother’s searing cover of the Erma Franklin single “Piece of My Heart,” and Hendrix’s definitive cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Janis and Jimi each died young and have since been merchandised to the hilt (especially Hendrix), but each remains fairly cool, even if their hip days as electric-blues avatars are long over.

In 40 years, are we going to think of either Modern Vampires of the City or Random Access Memories as “hip?” Probably not. They may not even sound that hip now — Daft Punk’s unironic resurrection of ’70s-era soft-rock schmaltz on its new album is, to some, either horrifically square or too hip for the room.

For chart fanatics and pop followers, however, there’s nothing wrong with identifying a moment when the mainstream embraces something that was previously — literally — off the charts. Call it hip; call it alternative; call it indie, if you must. Whatever it is, it’s pretty cool, and cool is eternal.

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