Happy Rocktober, everybody! It’s that wonderful time of year when we celebrate guitars and stuff! And we’re going to do that today by looking at the actual, kind-of-dumb rock charts!
It seems, at its face, a particularly ridiculous thing to look at sales charts to determine what rock music is doing. It has, at least for the last few decades, simply not been indicative of nearly anything that’s been interesting or worthwhile about the genre. Still and all, ONAT is, if nothing else, particularly concerned with popularity, and the whys and wherefores thereof, so it stands to reason that a worthwhile thing to do this rocktober is to look at the rock charts and see where we’re at, popularity-wise.
It’s handy that Billboard does, in fact, have a dedicated rock chart1, because if you were to examine the primary charts you’d find almost no rock music2. The charts themselves are in an interesting (well, interesting to me) position here, because nothing is selling anything. Looking at the charts from week-to-week, weird archival releases pop up because of some kind of sales happenstance3.
1 I mean, they have a dedicated chart to a lot of things, but, y’know, it’s still handy for our purposes here.
2 A brief inventory of the items that made the Hot 100: 2 Twenty One Pilots songs, 1 Coldplay song and 1 X Ambassadors song, for a total of four. There is about the same percentage of items in a higher position on the Top 200 albums chart, which mostly just says that the rock audience buys albums.
3 this week The Eminem Show, an album that came out nearly 15 years ago, was the #79 album on the charts.
I’ve always been interested in the charts themselves as an artifact4 – for a while when I was young I would look through Billboard as often as I went to the library – but, as time has gone by, I have been less so. Since there’s also not really any radio in my life5, and since the record-selling industry’s dreams of centralization have still not really resulted in anything material, I find that I have tremendously little connection to the world of commercial rock music.
4 I mean, it was sort of a pithy throwaway up there, but if there’s something that can be said to be largely true for what I’ve been doing here lo these years, it’s a sort of examination on things that become popular, and what they’re doing there.
5 beyond the extremely-sporadic and long-dormant “Streaming Pile of Truth” series that appears on this very site.
For a long time, the rock charts have been something of an elephant graveyard – the lumbering husks of old giants come in and stop moving, to be picked at by the smaller scavengers who may also leave their bones, but will mostly go unnoticed and unremembered. Thus is it the case now, with the whole thing lacking nearly any vitality. There are good records on the rock charts (I mean, there are a few good records on the rock charts), and there are even three that I actually, myself, contributed to the sales figures of6, as well as a fourth that I considered buying before actually listening to it and deciding not to7. And even among the ones I, myself, am unlikely to ever get to owning, there are a few8 that are worthwhile pursuits, just not to my taste.
6 the Drive-By Truckers album, The Radiohead album, and the Bon Iver album
7 The Head and the Heart
8 Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Opeth, maybe The Lumineers
What I’m saying here is: even with the assumption that there could be nothing of value on the charts, there are still several things that stand out. Admittedly, it’s slightly more than a quarter of the things9, but that’s something.
9 and, tbh, I’m not going to argue for the essentiality of at least two of the things listed in the footnotes above, even without counting the kind-of-included Lumineers.
Of course, none of what it says is actually applicable to rock music as a genre. All Billboard charts are, by their definition, pop charts – they are literally charts of what is popular. It includes, by nature of including all sales, the audience for rock music, but it also includes every incidental copy of every record sold that week, which means it includes much more than the rock audience. Thus the rock chart isn’t really much good for telling us about rock music, but rather about rock music as consumed by pop fans. It still is an interesting place to look, however, because these are, for the most part, the only records filtering through to the audience of people that aren’t specifically looking for them – these are the bands that are on the radio (such as it is) or that make television appearances or that get interviews in whatever magazines or websites still exist.
What is interesting is that this chart, in particular, is dominated by a certain kind of consistent seller: most of the acts here have been around for quite a while (the balance is made of acts that are nominally rock, but that very much have a pop audience), and probably have been selling the same number of copies the whole time, with the major change being the sales figures of the more pop-oriented acts around them.
So before we look at the chart itself, a quick update on the state of rock music on the whole: it’s fine. Still a bunch of great bands, still a lot of terrible bands, just like always. The good stuff requires you to look for it, just like always, but also it’s never been easier to find, so you’re still totally in luck.
All of that said: let’s dive in! Here are the rock albums that are selling, what that could possibly mean, and what you should spend your money and/or streaming counts on to better help the health of the genre.
1. Bon Iver – 22, A Million
WHAT IT IS: Midwestern saddo makes what is genuinely his weirdest record yet.
WHAT IT SIGNIFIES ABOUT THE HEALTH OF ROCK MUSIC (WISATHORM): Bon Iver is one of those acts that a bunch of people can agree on, so each of his records is going to sell a bunch, especially in its week of release (which this chart is from). I would be interested to check back in and see how fast this one drops, since it’s a weird, prickly record. If it continues to sell, it’ll speak to at least an interest in theoretically forward-looking stuff, albeit of the most palatable stripe. If it doesn’t, it’ll be an unsurprising return to liking things that are easier to digest.
BUT IT WOULD BE A BETTER STATE IF YOU BOUGHT (BIWBABSIYB): Let’s say Angel Olsen’s new record. It’s her least sad, but it’s better.
2. Red Hot Chili Peppers – The Getaway
WHAT IT IS: Rock’s bro-iest institution made another record. It’s presumably about bro-ing down, california, having sex with the ladieeeeees and also not doing drugs or yoga or something.
WISATHORM: RHCP are in an interesting position, in that I know a whole bunch of people that used to like them and don’t anymore, and it seems to be a phase that the person moved through rather than the band10. Objectively, it is interesting that a band that is more-or-less an actual, interacting rock band with a band’s creative impulse (even with a remarkable inability to hold down a guitarist). Subjectively, this music is terrible and I don’t even like the RHCP albums I used to like, so I’m going to say that it’s a wash: cool that there’s a band going out and doing what they want. Bully for their creative impulse. Uncool that their impulse is this braindead nonsense.
BIWBABSIYB: Kaytranada’s 99.9 isn’t by any means a rock record, but it brings better funk, would lead to a better party, and is generally better for the health of rock music by not being this atrocity.
10 another band like this is the long-defunct Operation Ivy
3. Van Morrison – Keep Me Singing
WHAT IT IS: Rock’s Marlon Brando continues to exist and make records, despite the fact that I keep thinking he’s dead. Not that I want him dead or anything, I just flat-out do not remember that he’s alive.
WISATHORM: Well, long has it been true that one of the groups of people still buying records is old people, and Van Morrison is much beloved among a certain type of old record nerd, so it signifies that some things are basically unchanging. Van Morrison is eternal.
BIWBABSIYB: Bonnie Prince Billy is also an old, mercurial weirdo, and his new album of Mekons covers (with the aforementioned Angel Olsen, and also Emmett Kelly from The Cairo Gang), Chivalrous Amoekons, is damned delightful.
4. Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool
WHAT IT IS: Long-running art-rock oddballs make another record that seems like it’s as good as their old records at first, and then reveals itself to definitely not be as good as their old records.
WISATHORM: Actually, that line above describes a tonne of bands that exist in the null space between a legacy act that lives on its back catalog and a band whose ever record is an “event.” There are always a couple of these, and now it’s Radiohead. It’s nice that it’s a band whose music is still pretty good, still pretty interesting, and still relatively vital11. I’m going to call it generally a turn up for the books.
BIWBABSIYB: I mean, Radiohead is fine, all told, but if you want something more out-there and experimental, the new Wrekmeister Harmonies record, Light Falls, is good for the ears and good for the soul.
11 I mean, saying that their records aren’t as good as their old records is just saying something that’s true of nearly every record, given that very few records are as good as Radiohead’s old records.
5. Bob Weir – Blue Mountain
WHAT IT IS: A former member of the Grateful Dead made another record.
WISATHORM: I mean, whatever else there is to say about the Grateful Dead, they had pathologically loyal fans. I would imagine that a Bob Weir solo record is among the best offerings of a thin patch, so they probably turned out for this one in droves. So I’d guess it signifies nothing new, just that people really show up for the Dead, just like always.
BIWBABSIYB: If you’re beholden to the idea of buying a record by a guy named Bob who used to be in a band that a bunch of people liked and were known for their live show, the most recent Bob Mould record, Patch the Sky, runs rings around this record.
6. Bruce Springsteen – Chapter and Verse
WHAT IT IS: Rock’s foremost workaholic continues an unusually productive streak as an old person.
WISATHORM: I mean, in the case of The Boss, it’s a heartening and always-welcome reminder that, sometimes, occasionally, the cream rises to the top, and also that it’s possible to continue to work under your own impulses even after unimaginable success and accolades are heaped upon you. So while I’m unlikely to go get the record itself, I’m glad it exists, and I’m glad he still has his audience, even if said audience is almost entirely old people. A version of this paragraph could also have appeared under Van Morrison, but I don’t like Van Morrison, so it doesn’t.
BIWBABSIYB: I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m completely unable to convince a Bruce Springsteen fan of anything else, but certainly there’s room in everyone’s heart for the forthcoming Two Cow Garage album, Brand New Flag, which, at least from what I’ve heard live and in terms of advance stuff, should be pretty amazing.
7. Opeth – Sorceress
WHAT IT IS: Long-running art-metal Swedes made another in a string of records that, honestly, sound pretty much alike.
WISATHORM: One of the non-old-people groups that still buy records are the metal dudes, and they galvanize pretty hard around Opeth, who clearly appeal to people who listen to all sorts of metal subsubgenres11, and thus are selling a whole bunch of records here.
BIWBABSIYB: If it’s a long-running metal band you’re after, the new Neurosis record meets the unusually high bar they’ve set for themselves (again).
11 an editorial note about metal dudes and people who listen to metal subsubgenres: I don’t know that I’ve met many – if any – who don’t listen to a, whole bunch of said subsubgenres, so they’re clearly nonexclusionary, but it seems important (to the metal dudes) that they exist, so I’m trying to respect that here.
8. Drive-By Truckers – American Band
WHAT IT IS: It’s the best album on this chart, certainly. Another long-running band with a highly consistent fanbase12.
WISATHORM: Kind of the same thing as Opeth, actually – there’s a certain breed of country-inflected rock music that has a devoted group of people that still buy records (hi), and it’s enough to launch them, when nothing is selling, into the higher branches of the chart.
BIWBABSIYB: Nah, it’s pretty great that people are buying American Band. Yay.
12 and, secondarily, a heroically consistent output
9. Regina Spektor – Remember Us to Life
WHAT IT IS: The lady behind the Orange is the New Black theme song continues to make records.
WISATHORM: I would go so far as to say that is says nothing about rock music, except that it’s in the wrong category. I don’t think even an extremely loose definition of “rock” includes piano-based pop songs by someone who doesn’t really have a band. I am somewhat curious about how this decision is made. To wit: does the label decide which chart it should appear on, or do the Billboard/Soundscan people? In any event, I like Regina Spektor generally, although I haven’t bought the last couple of records, I just don’t think it should be here. Although, in its defense, this kind of thing (non-rock records making the rock charts for reasons that I can’t quite fathom, although it probably has something to do with the way it’s performed and/or produced, which I could say very much about, but probably won’t because it’s the kind of digression we don’t need here)13 has always been a feature of the rock charts.
BIWBABSIYB: Thalia Zadek is another oddball singer with an interesting way of constructing songs, and the Thalia Zadek Band’s Eve is much better than this.
13 I’m not even going to footnote it!
10. Yellowcard – Yellowcard
WHAT IT IS: The last record by violin-toting emo stalwarts.
WISATHORM: I guess there’s some buzz that comes with it having been announced that this is the end of the road for Yellowcard (until the inevitable reunion, which I’m comfortable betting on being a thing that’s definitely going to happen). I haven’t listened seriously to a Yellowcard album since Ocean Avenue (and I haven’t liked a Yellowcard album since One for the Kids), but I reckon there are a lot of people (probably around my age) who still are, and that’s where this is. It says that at a certain point, in terms of the salability of the genre, familiarity is the greatest asset.
BIWBABSIYB: It’s not sonically similar in any way (thankfully), but if you want to let it all out to some loud-ass music, you should definitely improve the health of rock music by listening to Wreck and Reference’s Rivers Romance End.
11. Blink 182 – California
WHAT IT IS: Pop-punk lifers made another record with the dude from former pop-punk lifers Alkaline Trio. This, apparently, worked, since it came out months ago and is still on the rock albums chart.
WISATHORM: That I am old enough to be a part of the nostalgia market, which has always been a powerful force for record sales. Blink 182 has spent the last decade basically emerging from collapse – Tom DeLonge left and then came back, and then left again to be replaced the dude from Alkaline Trio – and have, in that time, almost certainly become known, at least among a general audience, as “the band that Travis Barker is in when he’s not doing shit on tv and/or with rappers”. Once again, familiarity breeds record sales.
BIWBABSIYB: Beach Slang’s guitar player, it turns out, is probably involved with some pretty bad shit, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that their newest record, A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings (an album which completely lives up to its title) beats this record in a walk for catchy punky satisfaction.
12. Suicide Squad: The Album
WHAT IT IS: Proof positive of Warner Bros’ ability to successfully ape at least one aspect of Guardians of the Galaxy – it had a soundtrack stuffed with radio staples that made people like stuff about it.
WISATHORM: In the ongoing “Considered Look at the Best-Selling Records of All Time”, elsewhere on this site, I am often flabbergasted by the popularity of soundtrack albums, and I sort of thought those days were behind us14, but here we are, with a bunch of people buying the soundtrack to this wretched movie. I’m sure there’s a way to blame Queen for this.
BIWBABSIYB: Oh jesus, just listen to the radio for an hour. You’ll probably even hear the same fucking songs. What’s wrong with you people?
14 when you can get any individual song you want at basically any time, why would you need a label-approved list of these specific songs?
13. Eric Clapton with Special Guest JJ Cale – Live in San Diego
WHAT IT IS: I mean, it’s all pretty much there in the title. This particular live album is E.C.’s 13th (and the second one this year), and also is the first of two appearances by Doyle Bramhall II, who is one of the the other guitarists in Clapton’s band. It’s the second of the 13 live albums to feature JJ Cale, and also Robert Cray is in there. Also Derek Trucks. It is unclear if there are any non-guitar-playing instrumentalists on the record. I mean, there must be, but that’s a whole lot of guitar players.
WISATHORM: It says that Eric Clapton is a shrewd capitalizer on his status as a live draw. I generally approve of this as a method – if your audience primarily exists to see you live, why not just make your albums live albums – except that Clapton also released a studio record this year, so clearly he’s just trying to work every available money-making angle here. Also, to the mainstream record-buying clot of old dudes that buy these things, there is no such thing as too many fucking guitarists. Jesus, Glenn Branca had fewer guitar players than this record. I bet they all play solos for a fucking hour each, too.
BIWBABSIYB: Aidan Baker, who is a fantastic and inventive guitar player, has released a handful of collaborative records this year, a high point of which is the great live improvisation record Werl, recorded with Tomas Jarmyr. It’s more mind-expanding, less cash-grab-y, and more satisfying in every way than this Clapton nonsense.
14. Twenty One Pilots – Blurryface
WHAT IT IS: Columbus’ most famous rock band’s most awful pop record. I mean, I assume it’s their most awful. I’m not particularly intersted in finding out if they can do worse. Oh, also, the most recent single from this garbage fire of a record is also on the Suicide Squad soundtrack. I guess that’s worth noting.
WISATHORM: This is the pop audience buying music that’s classed as rock music, here. I mean, it is rock music, but the audience for it is a pop audience. It says “ugh, this is still happening and that’s terrible” is what it says. It also says that Fueled by Ramen is still an operating label, which seems less important, but, y’know, also worth noting, just like the Suicide Squad thing.
BIWBABSIYB: It’s a year old, but if you’re looking for an actual-rock songwriter-y band from Columbus, that’s pretty much wrapped up by Saintseneca, whose Such Things is a worthy addition to your life.
15. Jimi Hendrix – Machine Gun: The Fillmore East: First Show 12/31/1969
WHAT IT IS: Noted perfectionist Jimi Hendrix’s every recorded note continues to be plundered for any available dollar by unscrupulous folks that can’t imagine not being able to extract every cent of value out of what should be a pretty-much flawless legacy15. At least a full live set is less insulting than any given set of studio outtakes16, but it’s still pretty gross, especially since the Cox/Miles rhythm section was pretty clearly meant to be temporary, and now here they are, still being a part of the damn thing. I bet there’s a bunch of fucking Buddy Miles’ scat singing on there. Gross.
WISATHORM: That the same old dudes that bought the Eric Clapton record still have money, so still have to be bilked, and will fall for basically anything. Which is bad.
BIWBABSIYB: I mean, the Velvet Undergrond’s Complete Matrix Tapes are marginally better (although still a plundering of the archives) as an ethical quandary, but worlds better as an album – they were a better band than the Hendrix/Cox/Miles lineup presented here – but would scratch the itch of wanting to hear whole sets by performers known for their live show.
15 every record that Jimi Hendrix approved of and released within his lifetime is basically perfect, and the rest of it adds nothing.
16 although it must be noted that this record is basically both: the New Year’s 1970 shows at the Fillmore (there were four of them) were what Jimi cut together and tried to salvage as the record Band of Gypsys. BoG is a good record, but also the reason for the phrase “approved of” in the above fn: Hendrix didn’t like it, despite the fact that maybe his single greatest moment as a guitar player, “Machine Gun” appears on that record. There’s a version on this one as well, but the version that made Band of Gypsys was from the third show, and is several minutes longer. See? Basically outtakes.
16. The Pixies – Head Carrier
WHAT IT IS: Unswayed by the fact that no one fucking wants a new Pixies album, the Pixies went ahead and made another album.
WISATHORM: That thanks to advances in medical science and also music marketing, there are now two generations of old dudes who buy records to sell dumb inessential bullshit to.
BIWBABSIYB: I mean, if it’s a veteran indie band’s new work you’re looking for, Wilco’s Schmilco would be a better way to scratch that itch than this.
17. Sully Erna – Hometown Life
WHAT IT IS: The guy from Godsmack’s second solo record. I dunno, man.
WISATHORM: You know, I’ve tried to do pieces like this before, and I always run up against this problem: it means that the nostalgia market is bigger than the market for new music, at least in the rock sector, and all the stuff I’ve already said about familiarity. It says that the health of the genre might be ok, but that the commercial health is failing because, metaphorically, it’s becoming more inbred and cloned and overworked.
BIWBABSIYB: Emma Ruth Rundle is also a metal-type songwriter refugee, and her Marked for Death isn’t a product of the commercial flailings of the record-selling industry’s ability to dictate sales based on familiarity and recognition.
18. Panic! At the Disco – Death of a Bachelor
WHAT IT IS: More pop-punk, which I guess is a surprisingly durable sales genre, provided the band is somewhat old17.
WISATHORM: I guess it says that they’re surprisingly vital. I’ve never had much of an opinion about their music, but I don’t think they’re really old enough to qualify as a part of the nostalgia market. It’s not quite like Twenty One Pilots (that is, I don’t think it’s necessarily the pop audience buying this record), so it’s probably more like Bon Iver, in that it’s possible to build a fanbase and sell records to them. So in that sense, bully for them. Good job being good for the genre as a commercial concern, whoever is actually in the band (I think it’s just Brandon Urie at this point).
BIWBABSIYB: Hiss Golden Messenger’s Heart Like a Levee is also a catchy record by a dude who is basically the only member of his band, and isn’t nearly so disposable as Panic! At the Disco’s music seems to be.
17 At only a decade or so in, they actually qualify as the younger of the pop-punk bands here.
19. The Beatles – Live at the Hollywood Bowl
WHAT IT IS: Yet another archive-milking full-concert release, in this case by a band that stopped touring literally half a century ago.
WISATHORM: That The Beatles will always sell, no matter what it is, forever and ever amen.
BIWBABSIYB: I mean, this particular show is mostly famous for being inaudible to much of the audience due to the screaming of the crowd, so I don’t know, literally anything? Literally any rock record that isn’t this one. Except the Suicide Squad soundtrack. Fuck that.
20. Epica – The Holographic Principle
WHAT IT IS: Symphonic metal is a weird thing. People go nuts over it. There have been a handful of bands18 that have done good work, but mostly it’s all kind of pander-y and not very good.
WISATHORM: See above w/r/t the metal audience and their tendency to still buy records. In Epcia’s case it almost entirely about the genre, because there really isn’t anything to distinguish the band itself beyond that.
BIWBABSIYB: Mono’s Requiem for Hell, which should satisfy your urge for big, sweeping heavy music with a composed sort of bent19.
18 chief among them (I think) being Paradise Lost, but I’ve also had good things to say about X Japan, and I used to like Nightwish. I could probably come up with a couple more if I needed to. But I don’t need to.
19 and also their Hymn to the Immortal Wind is one of the greatest records of any genre ever recorded, and features orchestral (albeit not symphonic) accompaniment.
21. The Lumineers – Cleopatra
WHAT IT IS: Folksy-type chummy, strummy music. Jack White is a fan.
WISATHORM: Well, you’ve probably heard them on television, since they seem to work their singles by having them appear in tv shows. So I guess there’s still some selling power to be had if you can get on television. Good for them.
BIWBABSIYB: Amanda Shires’ My Piece of Land is chummier, strummier, and all-around more enjoyable.
22. Doyle Bramhall II – Rich Man
WHAT IT IS: “Hey,” you’re saying, “that’s that guy from the Eric Clapton album a few entries ago.” And indeed it is. He’s actually a sideman/replacement guitarist for a bunch of people. And he makes solo records, of which this is one.
WISATHORM: Guitar dudes have an overlap with the white blues dudes, and also buy records. I do not know anyone that would buy/has bought a Doyle Bramhall II record that isn’t a guitar dude.
BIWBABSIYB: For the musical stylings of an erstwhile sideman, you would do a lot better to get ahold of Peter Broderick’s John Cage-inspired Partners. It’s a record of mostly piano, so it won’t scratch the guitar dude itch, but if you’re a guitar dude, you probably wouldn’t be interested in not buying a Doyle Bramhall II record anyway.
23. Suicidal Tendencies, World Gone Mad
WHAT IT IS: It’s apparently not a joke? I mean, this has to be a joke, right? There’s no way this isn’t a joke.
WISATHORM: I hate to say the word “familiarity” again, but I genuinely have no idea what else would explain this record charting. Like zero idea. Not even the presence of the truly great Dave Lombardo as their drummer gives me any kind of clue as to what is going on here, except name recognition.
BIWBABSIYB: I mean, it’s not a thrash record, it isn’t a legacy record, and the band has never broken up or reformed, but if you want a metal record that’s not totally ridiculous, you should probably try Sumac’s What One Becomes. Or even Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas’ Mariner. Or, hell, I think there’s a new Meshuggah record and that probably is a thrash record. Pretty much anything that isn’t this. Seriously.
24. Skillet – Unleashed
WHAT IT IS: Veteran rockers for Jesus soldier on, marching as to war.
WISATHORM: I would wager that like all of the genre work on this chart, it’s a result of music that appeals to very specific people also being likely to sell to those same specific people. I have very little actual exposure to the jesus rock scene, but Skillet is a band of which I’m aware, so I’m going to hazard that they are sort of the big name in there. Insofar as that goes. Good for them.
BIWBABSIYB: Subrosa’s For This We Fought the Battle of Ages is also steeped in religion (although it’s not what you’d call a praise album), even if it is sort of the vicissitudes of the Mormon church. It’s a fair sight heavier than the Skillet record, though. Probably harder to sing along to with your arms in the air. I’d be interested, however, in someone trying.
25. The Head and the Heart – Signs of Light
WHAT IT IS: More extremely likable strummy music
WISATHORM: I think the thing we can take away here is: if you want to sell and not be old af, you should either be a metal band or a strummy band. Let it be known.
BIWBABSIYB: As previously mentioned, I almost bought this record, but it’s probably fair to say that since I did actually get Chris Staples’ Golden Age that that’s a reasonable replacement.