History of the UK Charts – Between Singles and Albums

As we saw earlier in this series of posts, the modern definition of an album is relatively straightforward – there are a number of sneaky clauses, but the main decider is simply what the dealer price is. Singles are more complex, and have evolved over time. If you have a bit of spare time, you can try to digest the rules here, but here’s a high-level summary.

Permitted formats (using my own terminology to try to simplify it):

  • Single: digital or CD, with one track, and a maximum playing time of 15 minutes
  • Maxi: vinyl, digital, CD, or USB, with up to four songs (three tracks on a 7″ single), and a maximum playing time of 25 minutes
  • Remix: vinyl, digital, CD, or USB, with one song, and a maximum playing time of 40 minutes

This is probably less of a deal nowadays, but of these, you can have up to 3 physical formats, from:

  • Any combination of Single CD, 7″, or 12″ vinyl
  • Two Maxi or Remix CD, DVD, or USB formats
  • Plus up to 3 digital bundle formats, and any number of digital single-track versions of the lead song

This might seem confusing if you haven’t seen it before, but, apart from the odd tweak here or there, this is pretty much how the UK chart has worked since the late 1980s – the digital formats are a more recent addition, of course. But other than that, five formats were reduced to four in the early 1990s; and four became three in 1998. Singles were reduced to three tracks and twenty minutes for a while, but then sense prevailed, and it was decided to try to rip music fans off a little less by expanding the rules again.

But once you step past all those rules, there are, of course, a couple of gaps. Something that costs the same as a single, but runs past the 25-minute limit might be an EP, or a mini-album. Or if it’s a bit longer, maybe it’s a full album that just retails at a lower cost. There’s no hard and fast rule, but by original definition, an EP, or “Extended Play” release, would have normally been a 7″ single playing at 33 1⁄3 rpm, running at maybe 15 minutes in terms of total playing time.

So where do those releases fall? The answer has evolved over time – in the 1960s, EPs had their own chart, and since then, Budget Albums have been a thing – albeit a thing that nobody really talks about much.

The UK EP Chart

As the Single and Album charts came to be established as two separate things, it was inevitable that EPs would get their own place in history, but it was somewhat short-lived.

Melody Maker may have been second to launch an Album Chart in the UK, but they led the charge with the EP Chart, kicking it off in November 1959 with a Top 10, and running until May 1963. Record Retailer also published an EP chart from March 1960 to December 1967, which slowly worked its way up from a Top 10 to a Top 15, and finally a Top 20. Finally, Music Echo and Pop Weekly also published short-lived EP charts in around 1965-1966. And after the Record Retailer chart ended the following year, there has never since been an EP chart in the UK.

Of course, that’s fairly appropriate – EPs were hugely successful in the 1960s, often acting like cut-price albums, but they fell out of favour over time, to a point where the term is often used these days for something that is really just a single.

The UK Budget Album Chart

For a while after the disappearance of the EP charts, EPs were either incorporated into other charts, or were lost for good. Then, by the late 1960s, Budget Albums started to appear on the market, often as cover albums by anonymous artists, but they appear to have been initially excluded from the main charts.

In 1969, Record Retailer published the first Budget Album Chart, although confusingly, it appears to have actually been a Mid-Price Album Chart, due to the actual prices involved. Then, in early 1970, an actual Budget Album Chart appeared, as did a Mid-Price Album Chart. NME, meanwhile, allowed all lower-price albums on their album chart.

From August 1971 to January 1972, Budget Albums were allowed onto the now-official UK Album Chart, and there was a sudden but short-lived influx of low-cost albums on the chart, many of them anonymous cover albums, and some of them entering right at the top spot. After that, they were removed for good.

The Record Retailer Budget Album chart lasted until June 1975, when it was retired. It’s not clear to me whether Budget Album charts then disappeared altogether for a couple of decades, or was published somewhere all along – a lot of people seem not to care particularly. But from 1997, the Budget Album chart has become available again, albeit with a bit of searching.

It’s a funny old chart – you can see one on UKChartsPlus’s sample edition here. In that particular week, it appears to be primarily made up of cut-price multi-artist compilations, discounted “greatest hits” collections by established artists. EPs make it on, occasionally, but it’s fairly rare – this only appears to have happened twice in 2010, for example.

Browsing through the hits, you see some interesting entries – for instance, The Human League had multiple hits with their cut-price best of The Best Of (#10 in 2000), Best Of (#7 in 2001), and The Best Of (A’s, B’s & Rarities) (#32 in 2005), but also studio album Dare peaked at #16 on a reissue in 2006. Depeche Mode had a number 1 with their Goodnight Lovers EP in 2002, and then had multiple hits with reissues in 2004. Plenty of other artists have never had a single hit on there.

If all this makes the Budget Album chart sound like some kind of purgatory, where badly behaved singles and albums are sent to live out the rest of their days – well, that’s because it is, pretty much.

Next time: midweek charts and artist charts.

This series of posts owes a lot to the following sources which weren’t directly credited above:

History of the UK Charts – The Lower Reaches

After a bit of a break, it’s time to return to our series of posts exploring the long and complex history of the UK charts. As you may remember from previous posts, after humble and understated beginnings, the singles chart started in 1952, with the albums chart following four years later, followed by a long period of arguing about which one was actually official.

In those early days, the size of the charts were very much dictated by the numbers of records sold within their sample set of stores, which of course was itself heavily influenced by the sample size. When NME launched their first chart, as few as 15 stores might have reported their sales, each providing a top ten list, and so it’s hardly surprising that the initial chart only had 12 positions.

Despite not being as widely available, there have long been unofficial chart positions running way down to pretty much infinite numbers – the UK press were excited to share Naomi Campbell‘s 1994 chart placing for her album Baby Woman as having peaked at number nine hundred and something (unfortunately those particular articles never seem to have made it online).

Singles

By the late 1970s, record sales were healthy enough that positions outside of the range of the official chart were shared within the music industry, but not published externally, and so while it was the Top 75 Singles that were official at this time, records of lower positions can occasionally be found.

This appears to have started with publication of the Bubbling Under list from 1981, an alphabetical listing of singles that were just outside of the main chart. From 1983, this was officially published in some publications as The Next 25, a “compressed” listing of near-misses from just outside the main chart. Special rules were used to “star out” any releases that were falling in popularity, leaving just new entries, re-entries, and climbers. Thanks to an intriguing piece of rewriting of history, these are now included as part of the Top 100 listings on the Official Charts Company website.

Also existent but not, apparently, available to the public at that time, are much longer charts, which make for intriguing reading. Thanks to this fascinating post, we can now all see the full chart for 29 January 1983, revealing that the number 200 single sold just 24 copies. Although things have changed a lot since then – crazy as it might sound, that would be enough to get you onto the top 10 in the Physical Singles chart nowadays.

The Next 25 continued to appear in certain publications until April 1991, but then the following month, a sister publication of Music Week, Charts Plus, started publishing the full, uncompressed Top 200 Singles. A second publication, also in the same family, called Hit Music, started in September 1992, and revived the compressed Next 25, continuing to publish it until Charts Plus closed in November 1994. The Top 200 moved to Hit Music, and continued to be published until its closure in May 2001.

The extended chart continued to be available within the music industry, but not formally published, until a private publication Charts+Plus (now called UKChartsPlus) picked it up in September 2001. Meanwhile, chart compilation had changed so that positions 76-200 were now all compressed, so rather than a Top 200, the chart was effectively a Top 75 and a Next 125.

This continued until April 2005, when the chart expanded to a Top 250, shrinking back down to a Top 200 in March 2006, and then dropping right down to a Top 100 in July 2017. As always, lower positions are apparently available within the industry, but not formally published any more.

At least we can finally all agree that it’s a Top 100 now.

Albums

As with the Single Chart, positions below number 100 had been made known within the music industry in the 1980s. Unlike the singles, those extra positions on the Album Chart were first published in a sister publication of Music Week, called Charts Plus, from May 1991 to November 1994, which included the Top 200 Albums. A separate publication in the same family, Hit Music, published the Top 150 Albums from September 1992 to November 1996, and then the Top 200 Albums until the magazine closed its doors in May 2001.

From February 1994 onwards, even though the album chart that was published in Music Week was only a Top 75, as with the singles, the Official Charts Company now displays the Top 100 as official. Whether we will ever see those missing 25 positions for the preceding five years remains to be seen.

Next time: the mystery of what lies between singles and albums.

This series of posts owes a lot to the following sources which weren’t directly credited above:

  • “King of Skiffle” and others, and their extensive chart collections on UK Mix

Preview – Madonna

For Madonna, simply making it to her fourteenth album is pretty impressive – she must work pretty hard. She has been teasing her latest offering Madame X for a while now. I picked this track because I liked the message – here’s God Control:

Clark – Totems Flare

It’s an interesting challenge to try to review material by an artist you know nothing about. Worse still, when it’s a largely instrumental work, so finding the words to say is even more difficult. So, let’s be clear: I have no idea where I got this album from, and I don’t know anything about Clark apart from the fact that this album was released a decade ago on the quietly legendary Warp Records.

Totems Flare opens with Outside Plume, which is definitely interesting, and challenging, but isn’t exactly pleasant to listen to, as the dark, fuzzy, and discordant sounds mix together in weird, uneasy, arrhythmic form. At worst, it is at least different from most of the music you’ll have heard recently, and that alone makes it worth a listen at this stage, but hopefully the whole album isn’t going to be like this.

Fortunately, it isn’t – Growls Garden follows, with a gloomy vocal and a much broader range of synth work. There’s still a sense of unease here, particularly in the verses, as the beats only seem to be doing a fraction of the work they should be doing, but there is at least a melody, a sense of rhythm, and some vaguely familiar sounds. They’re fuzzy and loose in form, as is the vocal really, but it comes together nicely, in a more accessible form – you can see how this might have got some radio and club plays at the time.

In the absence of any real knowledge of Clark, it would be tempting to do some research, but as regular readers will know, I try not to do that too much when reviewing, as it can so easily be a distraction from the music itself. Clark might, for all I know, be a side project of the owner of the shoe company of the same name, but trying to review their work while learning this kind of thing would strongly distract from the music. As would speculating about it, actually – I’m drifting.

Rainbow Voodoo is pleasant, but it’s probably fair to say that it’s a bit of a mess. The vocals almost sound like scat, and they kick off a rhythmic synth line that echoes the words that have been delivered. As always, you can definitely say that it’s interesting, particularly when the wild chiptune-plinky-plonk part kicks off towards the end. Then Look into the Heart Now follows, full of weird vocal samples and acid synth noises. Somehow it hangs together better than some of the other tracks, despite perhaps having a little less substance.

Of course, part of the reason your mind is wandering is that the music, while definitely interesting, does encourage you to take flights of fantasy. Maybe some stronger narcotics are needed in order to really do this justice? But you have to admire Clark for just going off and doing something interesting with his music, without any real attempt to be accessible or provide much of an explanation or commentary. In a way, it’s easier to review – this music is whatever you want it to be at the time. For me, it’s fuzzy, odd, and a bit bouncy.

That’s good, because if you listened with a traditional muso mindset, Laxman Furs would honestly be pretty awful. There isn’t a single melodic element here, and the sounds haven’t been chosen because they work well together – everything seems to be here to challenge and question the listener’s expectations. Yet somehow it’s still holding together as an album, five tracks in. Totem Crackerjack, too, is lively, with a huge bass part and frenetic drums, and somehow manages to hold itself together despite that being about it.

It should be fairly clear what you can expect by now, though, and while some tracks like Future Daniel hang together better than others, it’s all starting to get a little tiring now. How much quirky, fuzzy, awkward synth noise do you really need in your day? There’s a short piece called Primary Balloon Landing, and then Talis seems to use the same vocal sample as Growls Garden, but to less interesting effect this time. That seems to be it, really, for this end of the album – Sons of Temper doesn’t appear to have much to offer, and Absence isn’t great either. At least they don’t try to push the duration too much – there’s nothing on here longer than about five minutes.

So Totems Flare is, for me at least, a bit of a mixed bag. I liked Growls Garden, but didn’t particularly enjoy anything else here. The general mood and sound was interesting enough to keep me entertained for half an hour or so, but then it all seemed to fall apart for me, and very quickly. Could it just be that Clark isn’t my thing? Or should I just demand that they give up and go back to making shoes? I honestly don’t know.

You can still find Totems Flare from all regular retailers.

Seven years of stowaways

In spite of some recent lapses, we appear to have made it to this blog’s seventh birthday! If you’ve been around since this day in 2012, then thanks for sticking with me, and if you’re one of the seemingly ever-growing number of readers, then thanks for joining in!

Coming up in the next few months, as and when I have time, I’ll see whether I can get the rest of my History of the UK Charts series together, as well as all the regular (-ish) reviews, previews, random jukebox, charts, and other “fun”. Please stay tuned, and if I don’t have time to post anything new, why not browse the archives? They’re probably just as contemporary as anything I post on a daily basis!

Obviously you can’t tune into a blog, but you get my point…