The Five Unlikeliest Billboard No. 1 Albums

Earlier this week, a colleague asked me to guess who Billboard had just revealed as having the top-selling album in the country. Taylor Swift? No. Bruno Mars? Uh-uh. Nicki Minaj? Wrong again. The correct answer was Cake. Cake? Yes, Cake. The long-running and irony-infused Sacramento band whose previous studio album, 2004's Pressure Chief, had peaked on the chart at No. 17. I like Cake fine - the band's deadpan cover of the disco classic "I Will Survive" will, fittingly, live forever - but the biggest selling band in the country? I didn't see that coming. (In fairness, the band hit the top spot by selling fewer copies than any other artist since Billboard has been keeping records.)

Cake though are far from the first left-field No. 1. Below are five other albums that, to me, anyway, were surprise chart-toppers. (I've limited my choices to albums released during the Spin era, from 1985 till the present.) Let me know what you think!


1. Various Artists, La Bamba

No. 1 for the weeks of September 12th and 19th, 1987

Sandwiched by: Whitney Houston, Whitney; Michael Jackson, Bad

Big Single: Los Lobos, "La Bamba"

I think to most casual music listeners, '50s rock'n'roller Ritchie Valens was a one-hit wonder, known for his 1958 single "La Bamba." Others might have remembered Valens for his dying in the same plane crash as the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly. So try to imagine, say Sublime being the focus of a No. 1 album in the year 2040 and you get a sense of why La Bamba's sales strikes me as an unusual.


2. Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman

No. 1 for the weeks of August 27th and September 2nd, 1988

Sandwiched by: Steve Winwood, Roll With It; Def Leppard, Hysteria

Big Single: "Fast Car"

Chapman had been performing as busker in Boston when a Tufts university student brought the singer to the attention of his father, who worked in the music business. There's your lucky break. The music's simplicity and humility also set it apart from other No. 1s, as if a wallflower were picked as homecoming queen.


3. N.W.A., Niggaz4Life

No. 1 for the week of June 22nd, 1991

Sandwiched by: Paula Abdul, Spellbound; Skid Row, Slave to the Grind

Big Single: "Alwayz into Somethin'"

Just look at the albums that preceded and succeeded Niggaz4Life at No. 1: Frilly pop and metal-lite. Diamond hard, street tough, angry as hell, few albums ever sat so uncomfortably at the top as this one.


4. Santana, Supernatural

No. 1 for the weeks of October 30th, November 6th and 13th, 1999' January 22nd, 29th, Feb 5th; March 4th, 11th, 18th, and 25th, 2000

Sandwiched by: [Chronoligically] Creed, Human Clay; Rage Against the Machine, The Battle of Los Angeles; Jay-Z, Vol. 3: The Life and Times of S. Carter; D'Angelo, Voodoo; *NSYNC, No Strings Attached

Big Single: "Smooth"

Maybe the biggest rock career resurrection ever. Santana was thought of as little more than a nostalgia act when Arista records head honcho Clive Davis thought to pair the guitarist with a cadre of younger stars. The concept clicked, and an Age of Aquarius star was reborn.


5. Susan Boyle, I Dreamed A Dream

No. 1 for the weeks of December 12th, 19th, and 26th, 2009; January 2nd, 9th, and 16th, 2010. 

Sandwiched by: John Mayer, Battle Studies; Ke$ha, Animal.

Big Single: "I Dreamed A Dream"

A pretty classic Cinderella story. Boyle was middle-aged Scottish spinster who shot to fame after a soul-stirring performance on Britain's Got Talent.



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