Mumford & Sons press photo, image from PopMatters.com
One of todays biggest musical trends owes a debt to one of musics oldest traditions: buddies gathered on a front porch jamming with guitars, banjos, and mandolins. Some of today's most popular groups sound like they belong in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1920s, not on alternative radio of the 2010s.
With the year 80 percent over, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on 2012's biggest albums before the slew of impending big-label seasonal blockbusters get a choke hold on the music-buying public. Out of the four biggest 2012 US chart debuts, two owe their success to career longevity, another can attribute his massive first week outing to a stranglehold on the teen and tween market, and a fourth is successful for…well, who knows for sure why.
In April, Madonna scored her fifth consecutive #1 album and eighth overall when MDNA topped the Billboard album charts. With 359,000 units sold, she set the bar early as the year’s biggest debut (cnn.com, “‘MDNA’ gives Madonna biggest album debut of 2012,” 4 April 2012).
It lasted but a few months, though. Summer was marked by a Canadian teen sensation who eclipsed the 53-year-old Madge with 374,000 copies of his official sophomore release. Perhaps you’ve heard of Justin Bieber? He not only outdid the Queen of Pop but himself, considering it was his best sales week ever (popdust.com, “Justin Bieber’s ‘Believe’ Records Biggest Debut of the Year,” 27 June 2012). In the record industry heyday of the ‘90s, the album would likely have moved a million copies in a week. However, in the digital age, Bieber’s sales were still impressive.
In September, the Dave Matthews Band became the first group in history to land six straight studio albums atop the Billboard album chart (mtv.com, “Dave Matthews Band’s Away From the World Debuts At #1,” 19 September 2012). While they’d proved themselves a model of consistency, their 266,000-unit week wasn’t enough to dislodge the Bieb. Certainly if veterans like Madonna and Dave Matthews Band couldn’t outdo Canada’s finest, then no one could, right?
Except that someone did – and with a sound that owed more to the music of the Appalachian Mountains nearly a hundred years ago than any of today’s current trends. Relying on instruments like banjo and accordion, Mumford & Sons logged more than 600,000 in first-week sales of Babel, their sophomore release (Rolling Stone, “On the Charts: Mumford & Sons’ ‘Babel’ Scores Biggest Debut of 2012,” 3 October 2012).
The group emerged from the West London folk scene when their 2009 debut, Sigh No More, became a slow-burning hit, eventually hitting #2 and selling two million copies in the US. However, it had to be a fluke, right? How could their next effort even hope to come close?
There was precedent for such a decidedly niche group picking up an even bigger audience the second time out. The Fleet Foxes, a Seattle-based folk band, garnered enough critical acclaim with their 2008 eponymous debut to start life on the Billboard chart at #4 with 2011's Helplessness Blues.
It's important to note that the digital age has afforded some flexibility to niche acts. In an era when six-figure sales are no longer a necessity to top the charts, more modestly successful acts can boast about racking up #1 albums.
For example, with Sigh No More still a top-ten album in early 2011, the folk-rock group The Decemberists debuted at #1 with their third album, The King Is Dead. As an article in Billboard noted, the album moved 94,000 copies (“Decemberists’ ‘King Is Dead’ Is No. 1 on Billboard 200,’ 26 January 2011). While that bested any previous efforts by the Decemberists, it was a so-so figure for the top-selling album."
Mumford & Sons, however, didn’t just scratch the top ten with an album selling south of six figures. They landed a gold record in a mere seven days. This wasn’t just a sales bonanza, either – the crew also stormed radio with first single, “I Will Wait”, topping the Alternative Songs and Rock Songs charts.
When taken along with the success of the Fleet Foxes and Decemberists, the Mumfords’ triumph looks more like a trend than a fluke. Sure enough, Mumford & Sons aren’t the only group topping the Rock Songs chart with a decidedly un-rock mix of instruments like mandolin and strings. The Lumineers, a group out of Colorado, also hit #1 with their song "Ho Hey."
Last year’s Grammys acknowledged the new trend by putting Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers on stage alongside Bob Dylan, arguably the most important figure in the history of folk music. Just a few weeks ago, the Avett Brothers debuted at #4 on the Billboard charts with The Carpenter, one notch behind Dylan’s Tempest.
They weren’t the only new folk stars to emerge from those Grammys. Bon Iver surprised everyone when they stormed out of the gates to a #2 start on the album chart. Even more people were surprised when the Justin Vernon-led crew landed a slew of Grammy nominations, including Song and Record of the Year for "Holocene."
However, in a move which embarrassingly demonstrated the Grammys’ misunderstanding of the word “new”, Bon Iver was also nominated as Best New Artist, an award they ended up taking home. It didn’t matter that the folk group’s self-titled album was their second release. Apparently since the public had largely ignored 2007’s self-released For Emma, Forever Ago, the brilliant minds behind the Grammy selections figured they could as well.
By also taking home the prize for Best Alternative Album, Bon Iver demonstrated the full-fledged acceptance by the alternative rock crowd of a new segment of indie-rock bands – those inspired not by being at the forefront of what was new with music, but tapping into what was old.
The move arguably began a year earlier when Arcade Fire’s mix of indie-rock with baroque pop took home the prize for Album of the Year with The Suburbs. Suddenly the idea of string-drenched rock ‘n’ roll didn’t seem so odd for radio, sales, or awards.
It’s never a simple task to nail down when a movement starts and why. However, the message sent by the widespread acceptance of these folk acts as more than just niche groups suggests a desire to return to music of a simpler time. In a world where enough dollars and proper Auto-tuning can seemingly turn any pretty face into a superstar, perhaps enough cynics cried, "Enough!" to allow for music from a simpler era to take hold.
Interestingly, it also signals a return to rock ‘n’ roll or, more accurately, the roots of rock ‘n’ roll. Music historians largely peg the ‘50s as the birth of rock music, or at least its explosion. The sound, however, grew out of the blues and country sounds from the decades before. In the United States, both of those genres were rooted in the folk music of the early part of the 20th century.
Certainly Mumford & Sons, the Fleet Foxes, the Lumineers, the Avett Brothers, Bon Iver, and Arcade Fire have done more than just mimic the music of a century ago. No, they’ve done what any good artist does – tap into what has come before to point us in a new direction entirely.
Dave Whitaker is the author of The Top 100 Songs of the Rock Era, 1954-1999 and No One Needs 21 Versions of “Purple Haze”…And Other Essays from a Musical Obesessive. He maintains a website (DavesMusicDatabase.com), blog, and Facebook page (all music related) with followers in more than 40 countries.