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:

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