History of the UK Charts – Format-Specific Charts

The UK has, as we discussed previously, a proud history of delivering a confusing range of genre-specific charts, but perhaps more intriguing are the format-specific ones. They’re nothing new, either – there are numerous today, but there were also several back in the 1980s.

Vinyl-Only Charts

The earliest UK charts, back in the 1950s, were, of course, format-specific, as there really was only one back then – 78s ruled until 7″ 45s took over. Although DJs had been cutting their own 10″ and 12″ acetates as early as the 1950s, the first commercial 12″ single appears to have been Buddy Fite‘s For Once in My Life, in 1970, and five years later, Donna Summer‘s Love to Love You Baby kick started an explosion of Jamaican 12″ releases, spreading back to the US and UK over subsequent years.

But the 12″ single was, of course, of special interest to disco and dance music fans, and so it seems logical that it would have had its own chart. Sure enough, from September 1985 to February 1991, early chart innovators Record Mirror carried the UK Twelve Inch Top 20, which in many ways remains one of the more interesting charts of the period. Apart from the obvious domination by New Order‘s Blue Monday, it sees some incursions by obscure releases that didn’t make as much of an impact on the main chart. Unfortunately, as with many of Record Mirror’s 1980s charts, there isn’t an official archive online now, but there are plenty of scans at the links below.

In the years after the death of Record Mirror in 1991, vinyl fell out of favour, with sales falling to practically zero by the late 1980s, and many major artists ceasing regular releases, so while the gap in the vinyl chart archive from 1991 to 2015 is a shame, we aren’t really missing a lot.

But with the revival of vinyl sales, there was a need for something similar again, and hence the launch in April 2015 of the official UK Vinyl Singles chart – followed, a year later, by the Vinyl Albums chart. Obviously the focus has changed again, with 12″ singles being joined by 7″s, 10″s, and all the other obscure shapes and sizes of vinyl. These are, of course, niche charts, dominated by reissues and collector’s editions, and the best illustration of this is the month or so every year after Record Store Day, when both charts get seriously clogged with random collector’s releases. But the Vinyl charts are a nice addition to the list of official UK charts, nonetheless.

Compact Disc and Cassette Charts

For pretty much the same period as the Twelve Inch Top 20 (1985-1991), Record Mirror also ran a Compact Disc Top 20, an album chart highlighting the best sellers in the new format. As with the Twelve Inch chart, it is appropriate that it was put to bed when it was, as a CD-only chart after 1991 would have showed very little unique when compared against the main chart. While it lasted, it was interesting – dominated in its early years by reissues and Dire StraitsBrothers in Arms, it subsequently came to echo the main album chart but with important differences – for instance in 1986, when Pet Shop Boys‘ debut Please was released only on LP and cassette, before climbing back up the main chart thanks primarily to its CD sales, several months later.

More intriguing, in a way, is the short-lived Cassette Top 20, which appears to have been published by Record Mirror for a matter of weeks in 1983 (here’s the page showing the chart from 29th January 1983, in which Men at Work can be seen climbing impressively to the top spot). While cassettes had been commercially available since 1963, and albums had been released directly on them for almost as long, it’s possible that they may not have made the chart until the 1980s. Perhaps this shows us a brief glimpse of cassette sales before they actually got added to the main chart – or perhaps it was only ever intended as an indicator of sales for a new-ish format? History doesn’t really give much information on this, unfortunately, so we can only guess now.

Airplay Charts

The US charts had always attempted to model what people were listening to, rather than what they were buying, and so had long incorporated airplay, but this was resisted in the UK, with claims that it would be too easy to manipulate the charts (as though somehow it was difficult to manipulate the sales-based charts). This is fair, but in the modern age, where streaming makes up most of the chart, it seems absurd (to me, anyway) to try to argue that airplay shouldn’t be included.

Either way, the ERA, and subsequently RadioMonitor, have been compiling a UK Radio Airplay Chart since at least 1993, supplemented by a TV Airplay Chart from 2010 onwards. These also have their own niche interest charts, with the Commercial Radio Airplay Chart also being compiled and carried today. It was also these charts that formed the basis of the often-confusing Hit 40 UK chart, the competitor to BBC Radio 1’s UK Top 40 countdown that was broadcast on Sunday afternoons throughout the 1990s. Hit 40 UK was carried by all the major commercial stations, and boasted a larger listenership, but also had the mind-boggling novelty of carrying the official Top 10 Singles, merged with the remaining 30 places of a combined airplay and sales chart.

Going Digital

We will cover downloads, streaming, and the niche charts of the digital age in a separate post next time, so for now,, vinyl sales are combined in the modern Vinyl Singles and Vinyl Albums charts, and CD sales can be inferred by comparing that with the modern Physical Singles and Physical Albums charts. And as we’ll explore, sales are jaw-droppingly low. But for now, this concludes our exploration of the format-specific charts.

Next time: the digital age

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