Look Back at the Top
The official figures are in for 2014’s No.1 singles and albums so here’s a quick round-up
The No.1 single
Music buyers in the US, the UK and India all seemed to love one song more than others during the past 12 months: “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, which sold over 6 million copies in the US, over a million copies in the UK and was downloaded enough times on the India iTunes store to be the sole international track in the digital music retailer’s top 20 for 2014, on which the other 19 tracks were from Hindi film soundtracks, led by “Baby Doll” from Ragini MMS 2. “Happy” was everywhere last year, thanks in part to hundreds of tribute videos showing fans in countries across the world dancing to the song. From Mumbai alone, there were versions by students from St. Xavier’s College, the Indian Institute of Technology and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Incidentally, “Happy” was also No.1 on Vh1 India’s countdown of the top 50 videos of last year.
Watch the IIT tribute video to “Happy”
This was the third year in a row that the UK and the US had the same best-selling single, following “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke featuring T. I. and Pharrell Williams (he’s clearly having a good run) in 2013, and “Somebody I Used To Know” by Gotye featuring Kimbra in 2012. However, the year’s best-selling single in the US, which is determined by music sales-tracking system Nielsen Soundscan on the basis of the number of digital downloads purchased in a calendar year, does not always match with the No.1 song on Billboard magazine’s year-end Hot 100 chart. This is because the music publication’s year-end charts cover a December to November period and also factor in radio airplay and online audio and video streaming data. For 2013, the No.1 song on the year-end Hot 100 was not “Blurred Lines” (which ranked at No.2) but “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis featuring Wanz. In India that year, the biggest-selling international single was “Skyfall” by Adele, which ranked No.11 on the overall list.
The No.1 album, according to sales
1989, Taylor Swift
X, Ed Sheeran
Ghost Stories, Coldplay
In the US, Taylor Swift proved again that she’s immune to overall industry trends by shifting a million copies of her album 1989 in the first week of release itself, in a year when only one other album had sold over a million copies at the time. In the end, Swift beat out that album, the soundtrack to the animated film Frozen, by a mere 130,000 units. In 2014, Americans bought 3.66 million copies of 1989, which was not the No.1 album of the year according to Billboard because of the difference in tracking periods between Nielsen Soundscan and the magazine (in which Frozen was the top album followed by Beyonce’s Beyonce at No.2 and 1989 at No.3). In the UK, 2014 was a remarkably patriotic year as each of the year’s top 10 best-selling albums were by British artists. Singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran’s X (pronounced ‘multiply’) led the list with sales of over 1.6 million copies.
In terms of cross-continental popularity, just one album sold over a million copies in both the US and the UK: In The Lonely Hour, the debut set by Sheeran’s counterpart Sam Smith (No.2 in the UK and No.3 in the US for all of 2014). No prizes for guessing that the biggest-selling album by a non-British act in the UK was 1989 by Taylor Swift, which was No.11 for the year. As for India, the most downloaded international release was Ghost Stories by Coldplay, which finished at No.3 on the year-end iTunes top 20. Given that they outsold teen-pop phenomenon One Direction (who didn’t figure in the list), this is as good a time as any for that Coldplay India tour to finally happen.
The No.1 album, according to critics
Lost In The Dream, The War On Drugs
LP1, FKA Twigs
Critics and charts don’t usually go together except in the case of review aggregating sites. I follow two such music sites, Any Decent Music and Metacritic, which are music versions of movie review site Rotten Tomatoes. Both ran best-of best-of charts for 2014, in which they gave points to albums depending on how high they ranked on different publications’ year-end top ten (in the case of Metacritic) or top 50 (in the case of Any Decent Music) lists. The publications, the bulk of which are based in the UK and the US, included music magazines and websites, as well as newspapers known for their quality music coverage.
According to Metacritic, The War On Drugs’s sophomore effort Lost In The Dream was 2014’s best album. It was among my personal favorites too, with the band managing to update a brand of vintage rock n’ roll that had reviewers comparing them to early Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty. Ironically, both those veterans released well-received albums this year, which topped the US album charts but didn’t show up on too many year-end lists. As per Any Decent Music, FKA Twigs’s LP1 was the best album of last year, with reviewers lauding the British singer-songwriter, born Tahliah Barnett, for her experimental R&B.
There is however a caveat to these lists. Neither Lost In The Dream nor LP1 were the highest–ranked albums of the year on either Metacritic on Any Decent Music. Confused? The annual best-of best-ofs only looked at publications’ year-end lists, but if we were to go by individual album reviews, the best album of 2014 – in other words, the one that got the most stars or points from critics – was American R&B vocalist and multi-instrumentalist D’Angelo’s comeback record Black Messiah on both sites. The set was released too late in the year to make the majority of year-end best-of lists, but even if we were to discount Black Messiah, the next highest-ranked album did not belong to The War On Drugs or FKA Twigs but to American indie rock favorite St. Vincent. Her self-titled fourth album was widely regarded as her finest so far.
The No.1 Indian indie release
For What, Nicholson
There are sadly no Indian indie music charts but a few publications that cover the genre have come out with year-end best-of lists for 2014. A handful of releases drew universal praise. Almost all wrap-ups featured Mumbai-based singer-songwriter Nicholson’s debut EP For What, which got mentions in Scroll (which ran my picks) and (somewhat grudgingly) in The Sunday Guardian. If you haven’t yet heard it, you can stream For What on Nicholson’s Bandcamp page.