How do you define an album? Nowadays, it’s surprisingly straightforward – it’s essentially anything with a dealer price of over £3.75, but until the long-player first appeared in 1948, it would have been much more difficult to define, and so nobody really made the distinction. The earliest music sales charts were, therefore, not broken into singles, EPs, and albums, and in fact, in the 1950s, between 1956 and 1959, five long-players appear to have turned up on the singles charts that we now consider official. But in fact, by 1956, there was actually already a dedicated chart for albums.
Whereas NME had launched the UK Single chart four years earlier, it was Record Mirror who gave us the first Album chart in July 1956. Their singles chart had launched the preceding year, and had already grown from a Top 10 to a Top 20 when they launched their first Top 5 Album chart.
This was the only album chart for two and a half years, always a Top 5. After that, there appears to be little record online, but it seems likely that it ran for six years in total, retiring in March 1962, when Record Mirror chose to switch to the Record Retailer charts instead.
As discussed previously in this series of posts, the compilers of the Guinness Book of British Hit Singles made a couple of decisions that might be considered questionable, but for me, none is odder than their decision to ignore the first two years of album charts. Somehow I suspect it may have just slipped their attention, but they count the Melody Maker chart as the first official chart. The Official Charts Company has now remedied this oversight, and includes the early Record Mirror charts as canonical – here’s that first ever UK Album Chart.
Melody Maker had been UK chart pioneers a decade earlier, when they launched their Top Songs chart for sheet music, and in November 1958, they launched the Top 10 Albums chart. South Pacific was number one pretty much forever.
Oddly, NME never seems to have published an album chart, and few people seem to really care about the Melody Maker chart, and so unlike the early days of the UK Single Chart, the albums are largely free of controversy.
Record Retailer, and The Official Chart
From March 1960 onwards, everyone seems to agree that the canonically official Album Chart is the one published in Record Retailer, which steadily grew from a Top 10 to a Top 40 by the end of the decade. Then, in 1969, the British Market Research Bureau (BMRB) took over compilation. Budget albums (nowadays defined as albums with a dealer price between £0.50 and £3.75) were intermittently allowed to enter the chart.
Also confusing is the size of the chart – Record Retailer launched their Top 10 in March 1960, quickly increasing to a Top 20, then growing to a Top 30 in April 1966, and a Top 40 later that same year. Then BMRB launched their chart in February 1969 as a Top 15, growing to a Top 30 a couple of weeks later, and then fluctuating wildly between a Top 15 and a Top 77 for the next couple of years. Both Record Mirror and Record Retailer were republishing these charts, leading to a different-sized chart every week at one point.
Finally, in January 1971, the chart appeared to have settled down to a regular Top 50, but then a newspaper strike between February and March led to no album chart for six weeks. Budget Albums then rejoined the main chart for a while in 1971.
From 1975, the chart size started to settle down somewhat, with a regular Top 50, sometimes with a few extra places published, which grew to a Top 75 in December 1978. In 1981, this grew again, to a Top 100, where it stayed until January 1989, when Compilation Albums were removed to a separate chart, and the main chart shrunk to a Top 75.
On the Radio
The album charts have a complex broadcasting history. Back in the 1970s, BBC Radio 1 was counting down highlights on Thursdays from 12.45pm, switching in the 1980s to Wednesday evenings, when Peter Powell and Bruno Brookes would take over. In October 1987, Gary Davies started counting them down on Monday lunchtimes, and then for a brief six-month stint in mid-1993, Lynn Parsons presented the Album Chart Show, an hour-long show containing highlights from top albums, which followed the main chart show.
From October 1993, this was incorporated into the official chart show at 5.30pm every week, when the top 30 albums were counted down, and a track from the highest new entry would be played.
From October 2001 to April 2007, Simon Mayo presented a new album chart show on BBC Radio 2, but this eventually dropped out too, and the chart fell off air for a number of years. Today, it’s again included as part of the official chart show, in its diminutive Friday afternoon slot.
Next time: this series is going to take a bit of a break while I research the next few, before returning to explore the lower reaches of the charts.
This series of posts owes a lot to the following sources which weren’t directly credited above: