Easy listening drowns out pop with top five in album charts

Jamie Cullum, Norah Jones and company have beaten rock bands to the top of the pops in a record sales revolution that has Rick Parfitt of Status Quo remarking: 'It smells a bit'
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The Independent Culture

It's like rock'n'roll never happened - easy listening is dominating the charts in a way not seen since the 1950s and the heyday of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Doris Day.

The top five places in the new album charts announced today are expected to be taken up by light jazz and easy listening records - a feat, say industry experts, not seen for at least four decades.

Rock and pop will be politely jostled out of the top five by such acts as the cheesy Irish balladeer Daniel O'Donnell and the rather more hip Norah Jones. It is thought to be the first time since Beatlemania gripped the UK in 1963 that such pipe-and-slipper-friendly artists have gripped record buyers.

Just weeks ago the music industry was toasting the rebirth of rock'n'roll as the band that time forgot, The Darkness, collected three Brit Awards, while Busted, the boy band with power chords, collected a couple.

But Katie Melua, who has been championed by Radio 2's Terry Wogan, will have her sixth week at number one this year. Sales predictions suggest she will be followed by the other rebellion-free acts Jones, O'Donnell, Jamie Cullum and Harry Connick Jr.

The trend is being attributed to everything from the influence of Hollywood to rock and pop marketing techniques being applied to the worlds of jazz and easy listening.

Equally, as veteran DJ John Peel says, chart success is no reflection of quality. He said: "The charts don't really matter to me. It's all so tribalised now that records aren't even considered for the charts if they aren't available in the right shops - and a lot of these might be selling the best."

Rick Parfitt, the Status Quo guitarist, said the new charts "smelt a bit".

"It seems to me kind of weird, because of late there has been such a resurgence of guitar-based rock and pop acts like The Darkness and Busted. Perhaps it's just a fluke.

"Acts like this deserve to be up there, but it does seem more than a coincidence that they're all there at once - it smells a bit.

"Rock hasn't lost its mojo - it never will. This [jazz] makes a change - it's refreshing and a different colour, but next week it'll be back to normal."

Four of the acts in the top five have had strong support from Radio 2, while O'Donnell has a strong fan base which propels him to the upper end of the charts for every release.

Gennaro Castaldo of the retailer HMV said: "This weekend's charts underline the depth of the genre's appeal across all age groups.

"Jamie Cullum in particular is making jazz really cool, even for kids for the first time - they no longer see it as the preserve of their parents. In the 1950s the charts were dominated by easy listening, classical acts and by big band sounds like Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

"The Beatles and Elvis came along and blew that away. All of a sudden the charts became dominated by pop and rock. It's taken nearly 50 years to be in vogue again."

But the phenomenon is also due to the fact that more albums are being bought by older consumers, whereas the singles chart is fuelled by younger fans.

Adam Hollywood, international marketing director for Warner Music, said: "It's the same demographic of people buying all these records, and it's very powerful. It's to do with the rise of Radio 2 as the country's most powerful station, the increasing sale of CDs in supermarkets, and a general change in attitude among people in their 30s and 40s.

"There's not much to rebel against these days, and people are looking for relaxation: easy lives mean easy listening. Robbie Williams opened this jazz path up when he did Swing When You're Winning."

Phil Alexander, editor of music magazine Mojo said: "Jamie Cullum has this ability to produce jazz that is acceptable to non-jazz fans, which is quite remarkable.

"When you look at the landscape, from a pop perspective, there is nothing of interest out there. The rock scene is undergoing a period of regrouping as well - something is about to happen, but nobody's sure what it is yet.

"Labels are recognising that they need to sign acts who will develop over a period of time. In 10 to 20 years, you'll be able to repackage and re-sell Jamie Cullum's album, but with all due respect to most pop acts now, they've only got a shelf life of up to three years. It's no surprise that Atomic Kitten have just split up - it's like 'thanks for coming, see you later'."

Jamie Cullum

Album: Twentysomething

Who is he? Reading University graduate who prompted a record label bidding war after building up a cult following on the smoky jazz-bar circuit. Released major label debut last year, making him the fastest selling UK jazz star.

Style: Piano playing Brit hipster.

What the critics say: "Likeable comedy jazz hobbit."

Cheeseometer: 2/5

Harry Connick, Jr.

Album: Only You

Who is he? Multi-award winning jazz singer and actor, billed as the new Sinatra when he first emerged on to the scene in the early '90s. Has since sold more than 20 million albums and starred in Hollywood blockbusters including Memphis Belle and Independence Day.

Style: Rat-pack cool with a modern twist.

What the critics say: "His Sinatra-Lite vocal style is just one part of his all-round virtuosity."

Cheeseometer: 3/5

Daniel O'Donnell

Album: The Jukebox Years

Who is he? Ireland's most popular easy-on-the-ear entertainer. O'Donnell has sold more than 5 million albums and 1.5 million videos. Mojo magazine put him in at number 31 in their all-time British Pop 100 table, above the Spice Girls, Boyzone and Bob Dylan.

Style: Perma-grinned balladeer and housewives' favourite.

What the critics say: "As disingenuous as Donegal's favourite son is, there is no doubting his prowess."

Cheeseometer: 5/5

Katie Melua

Album: Call off the Search

Who is she? A graduate of the Brit school, Melua, 19, was born in Georgia and spent her childhood in Moscow, Belfast and London. Groomed for stardom by producer Mike Batt, the man who took the Wombles into the charts. Has since signed a five-album deal.

Style: Breathy, versatile teenage songstress.

What the critics say: "There's a street-smart attitude to her tender swoon."

Cheeseometer: 2/5

Norah Jones

Album: Feels Like Home

Who is she? A 24-year-old New Yorker and daughter of legendary sitar virtuoso, Ravi Shankar. Her first album, Come Away with Me, has won five grammies and sold 8 million copies.

Style: Laid-back late night jazz.

What the critics say: "Her sultry vocals have all the smoothness of the greats."

Cheeseometer: 1/5