She’s been one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters in indie rock for over a half-decade now — but with her most recent studio album, this February’s Laurel Hell, the artist born Mitski Miyawaki is also officially a major factor on the Billboard charts.
This week, Laurel Hell bows at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 albums chart (dated Feb. 19), with 36,000 equivalent album units earned — including 24,000 in album sales, making it the week’s top-selling set. It’s by far the best debut of Mitski’s career, with her previous high on the Billboard 200 being her No. 52 debut with prior LP Be the Cowboy in 2018, and an impressive performance for any indie rock act in 2022.
How did Mitski get to this new peak as a commercial artist? And what other indie sensations may take a similar leap in the near future? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. After previously notching a No. 52 best on the Billboard 200 with 2018’s Be the Cowboy, Mitski enters all the way up at No. 5 on the chart with her Laurel Hell set — along with a No. 1 debut on Top Album Sales. On a scale from 1-10, how surprised are you at the album’s resounding bow?
Josh Glicksman: Let’s go with a 7. Mitski has long released music worthy of this kind of debut, but that doesn’t make it any less surprising to see such a massive jump. She benefits from a sparse week in terms of new releases from chart mainstays, but it’s largely her vinyl presence — with Laurel Hell scoring the biggest vinyl sales week for any album so far this year — to thank for her first trip to the upper reaches of the Billboard 200. Don’t forget about those resurging CD sales, either, with 4,000 copies sold in the U.S. accounting for about one-sixth of the album’s sales, according to MRC Data.
Jason Lipshutz: A 2. Mitski has been garnering critical accolades for some time now, but she noticeably leveled up as a streaming artist and live performer during the period between Be the Cowboy and Laurel Hell. Before the release of her new album, Mitski had multiple songs become TikTok sensations, accrued nine-figure streaming numbers more than a few times and plotted her biggest headlining tour to date for the first half of 2022, along with Harry Styles support dates; this chart debut simply continues an upward trajectory that wasn’t hard to locate.
Joe Lynch: I’m going with 8. I’m not sh00keth but I’d be lying if I told you I knew Mitski’s expanded online presence would catapult her from a No. 52 bow to a No. 5 bow on the Billboard 200 – and a No. 1 on Top Album Sales to boot. That’s a big deal! Especially for an act better known for racking up high scores on Pitchfork than album sales.
Kristin Robinson: I’d say I’m a 6! Over quarantine, Mitski expanded her fanbase while barely lifting a finger, thanks to TikTok. I think her work resonated with a lot of people at a lonely time — she articulates that feeling so well. There was a lot of hype coming into this album, and although it’s not her best work (in my opinion), it is the most accessible and arrived at her most successful point to date. No. 5, however, is a really high score for her. Next week, I think it will fall off considerably due to the pre-saves and sales that boosted this week’s placement. Lastly, I think she dropped the album early enough in the year to avoid much competition on the Billboard 200 – I think the combination of timing, accessibility, and popularity pushed this one up the charts.
Andrew Unterberger: Maybe a 6.5. It shouldn’t be that surprising, since Billboard has reported about Mitski becoming a streaming star over the course of past couple years, in addition to already being close to sacrosanct in critical circles. But the sales number is pretty surprising — since TikTok success only leads to physical purchases in the rarest of cases — and I can’t count the number of times an acclaimed favorite like Mitski who seems to have decent mainstream support releases a seemingly much-anticipated new album, only for it to barely debut in the top half of the 200. A No. 5 bow is really quite attention-grabbing.
2. Clearly Mitski has seen her streaming presence expanded in the past year or so with her high level of TikTok success — and obviously Laurel Hell is largely built around a synth-pop sound that’s arguably more immediately accessible than some of her previous work. Which of these two factors do you think is more important to the album’s triumphant debut?
Josh Glicksman: As an avid supporter of (most) artists leaning into a more immediately accessible synth-pop sound, my heart says the latter, though I’d actually tie that in with a third option instead: some good old-fashioned, sustained fan base building. The numbers indicate that her digital sales didn’t move the needle all that much — just 2,000 of the 24,000 copies in the U.S., according to MRC Data — though her expanded streaming presence certainly brought plenty of newfound attention to her catalog. Instead, give credit to Mitski’s repeated critically acclaimed efforts over the years, as well as her team’s rollout plan for Laurel Hell.
Jason Lipshutz: The former — since, regardless of how Laurel Hell sounds, the increased interest in Mitski was palpable and yielded a major chart win. The synth-pop foundation of the new album should continue Mitski’s momentum, and maybe even produce a bonafide radio hit, but the success of Be the Cowboy on streaming set her up for this moment.
Joe Lynch: Laurel Hell hit No. 5 on the Billboard 200 mostly through sales – SEA accounted for 12,000 and sales for 24,000 of its 36,000 total. And of the 24k, 17,000 of those sales were vinyl. I find it hard to believe everyone who bought the album in its first week thought, “Wait, this is synth-pop? That’s more accessible than what I’ve previously heard from Mitski. Time to buy a copy!” These sales come from both longtime fans who have come to expect and trust Mitski to deliver a quality album start to finish and newer fans who discovered her through TikTok, did a deep dive into her back catalog and emerged as converts. TikTok had the bigger impact; this being synth-pop is incidental to its success.
Kristin Robinson: I think next week will be telling for Laurel Hell. Albums often get huge boosts in their first week if they have strong, loyal fanbases, due to pre-saves, sales, and also curiosity listens. Once people have had a week to sit with it, will they still stream it and save it to playlists and buy physical copies? If they continue to keep momentum, then you can easily say that the accessible, synth-pop sound was a primary reason, and if not, then you can conclude her growing popularity is the catalyst. My personal guess is it’s the latter!
Andrew Unterberger: It’s more the TikTok success, I think. What’s conspicuous about the new album’s bow (and maybe why it’s a little surprising that it’s as lofty as it is) is that for all of Mitski’s recent streaming success, none of the album’s new songs have really taken off yet: Only one of the 10 songs listed on Mitski’s “Popular” page on Spotify currently comes from Laurel Hell, and none of the album’s 11 tracks can be found on this week’s 25-position Rock Streaming Songs chart. It’s not the specific songs that are necessarily propelling this album’s immediate success, so much as Mitski’s expanded fanbase and general reputation for excellence.
3. Despite her album success — and some presence on rock streaming and airplay charts — Mitski has yet to chart a single on the Billboard Hot 100. Do you see that coming for her with any of the singles from this album, or at some point in the next couple years?
Josh Glicksman: I don’t see Mitski becoming a frequenter to the Hot 100 anytime soon, but I wouldn’t rule out a one-off here or there at some point in the next couple of years, especially with her aforementioned TikTok presence. That said, I’m not particularly optimistic about any of the singles from Laurel Hell being her ultimate breakthrough: it feels like her best shot to land something would have been in her debut week, and with nothing even cracking the Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart, the odds are not in her favor.
Jason Lipshutz: I could definitely see something from Laurel Hell crossing over to the lower reaches of the Hot 100 — maybe something like “Stay Soft” or “Love Me More” grows enough on alternative radio and streaming to crack the tally? The new album may not include a surefire crossover song that would threaten top 40 spins, but there are tracks among the most accessible of Mitski’s career and worthy of becoming her biggest hit to date.
Joe Lynch: Nah. Mitski’s TikTok moment was authentic enough that it worked, but if someone on the label side tries to create some sort of top-to-bottom #LaurelHellChallenge on TikTok, people will see through it immediately and it will flopski. I could see a rock chart or even Adult Contemporary picking up on one or two of these songs, but a Hot 100 hit from Laurel Hell seems unlikely to happen in a streaming era dominated by hip-hop.
Kristin Robinson: I think it’s possible, but I’m shocked “Nobody” from Be The Cowboy didn’t crack the lower half of the Hot 100. Luckily for Mitski, she has multiple upbeat, catchy tracks to work with from Laurel Hell for radio airplay. She already streams well, and I think doing well at rock and alternative radio will be crucial for cracking the chart.
Andrew Unterberger: I think it’s very likely she scores a Hot 100 hit in the next couple years — but it may or may not be from Laurel Hell, or anything else she’s released this decade. The promotional blessing and curse of TikTok success is that it is totally impossible to predict what songs from an artist might take off during an album cycle, and that it might even be something from a totally unrelated earlier album — and several of the Mitski tracks that have exploded on streaming this decade were from several albums ago at this point. If “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” from Be the Cowboy or “Fireworks” from Puberty 2 started aggressive scaling the streaming charts a couple months from now, would you be terribly surprised? Only if you hadn’t really been paying attention, probably.
4. While Laurel Hell has scored easily the best commercial debut of Mitski‘s career, the reviews — while still mostly very positive — have been a little more mixed in some corners than her last couple near-unanimously acclaimed sets. Is that fair to you, or do you think Laurel Hell should be viewed on a similar level to 2016’s Puberty 2 and 2018’s Be the Cowboy?
Josh Glicksman: It’s fair, though Mitski is undoubtedly in a tough spot: Be the Cowboy cracked the upper reaches of just about every publication’s Best Albums of 2018 list, so to follow that up with an equally stunning effort is no small task — nor is she interested in making a replica of that album, as she noted in a recent interview. The highs on Laurel Hell still take you well into the stratosphere, including project opener “Valentine, Texas,” and I’m more than happy to listen to her experiment with more radio-friendly singles like “The Only Heartbreaker.”
Jason Lipshutz: The main criticism of Laurel Hell seems to be that too many of the songs exist in the same synth-heavy pop-rock atmosphere… but I think Mitski finds a ton of success in that sound, so I don’t ding her for any redundancies. Laurel Hell may not contain the layered textures of Be the Cowboy or the emotional high points of Puberty 2, but this shade of Mitski’s music is just as rewarding to me.
Joe Lynch: It’s hard to say what’s fair and unfair when it comes to critical reviews, since it’s mostly subjective. In a streaming era where nearly everyone can sample nearly everything with a quick click (which is easier and more interactive than reading a review), music critics are nowhere near as important to the industry as they were 10, 20 years ago. Mitski is a wonderful artist and I care enough about her music to keep up with each new release, so I really don’t care what the Metacritic score for Laurel Hell is.
Kristin Robinson: I think that the somewhat more mixed reviews are fair. Mitski has set the bar so high for herself with critics in the past, especially with Puberty 2 and Be the Cowboy, it’s unsurprising that she would create something that wasn’t quite as lauded at some point. My favorite thing about Mitski is her smart lyrics and her ability to create drama without becoming kitschy. While this album has these elements too, I think it’d be hard to argue Laurel Hell has a better ballad than “Two Slow Dancers” or “A Burning Hill” or a better upbeat track than “Nobody.” Frankly, it just didn’t reach the same heights, but she’s still an incredible artist.
Andrew Unterberger: I think this album rules, honestly. It’s not wrong to say that Puberty 2 was more exciting and challenging, or that Be the Cowboy was more dynamically varied, but Laurel Hell will still likely end up on the same level as those for me. There’s still something subversive to me about Mitski inserting her bloody brand of frayed-nerve songwriting and uncompromising performance into this mainstreamed form of synth-rock. The sonic stylings are perhaps a little bland by comparison, but it feels like it’s done for a purpose — and since the songs and productions are uniformly excellent, it’s hard to really find fault in that.
5. Now that Mitski has achieved a top 5 Billboard 200 debut, who’s another prominent indie rock artist who hasn’t gotten to the 200’s top tier yet — but who you could see jumping up there soon on a future release?
Josh Glicksman: It depends how lenient the definition of “soon” is here, but put me down for Snail Mail making a run at the Billboard 200’s top five on one of her next few albums. She jumped to the top of Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart after the release of last year’s Valentine and has a similarly growing vinyl presence that could help her make a splashy debut down the road.
Jason Lipshutz: Feels obvious, but based on how much her profile has grown since 2020’s Punisher, expect Phoebe Bridgers’ next album to very easily best her career high of a No. 43 debut on the Billboard 200 chart — at this point, she could drop an album of phone book reading and it would streak into the top 10.
Joe Lynch: Her chart trajectory doesn’t entirely support this, but I feel like Angel Olsen is a breakthrough song away from getting a top 10 album on the Billboard 200. My Woman reached No. 48 in 2016, and while All Mirrors only hit No. 52, Mitski has demonstrated that a jump from No. 52 to No. 5 for a critically beloved indie artist is entirely possible. Olsen’s songwriting is so sturdy and her best melodies are unshakable that I could see the right sync (or hell, even a TikTok moment) bringing her to an expanded audience who would help take her next LP to the top 10.
Kristin Robinson: I could see Snail Mail making a high Billboard 200 debut at some point. Her last album Valentine’s roll out pushed her to No. 1 on the Emerging Artists chart. I also believe Big Thief is continually gaining steam, with no signs of slowing down and could be a future contender. Most obviously, Phoebe Bridgers has the best shot: Her last album Punisher peaked at No. 43, and after all the press and acclaim that received, she’s a true star. The chart’s top five, given she drops the album at a time that isn’t crowded with major label releases, could be in easy reach for her.
Andrew Unterberger: Phoebe Bridgers is indeed the clear frontrunner here — Mitski may be touring with Harry Styles, but Bridgers has actually dueted with Taylor Swift — but I’ll also take the longer odds on Alex G, the increasingly ambitious bedroom singer-songwriter who has worked with Frank Ocean and Japanese Breakfast, was a huge cult favorite of the Tumblr era, and whose rep seems to grow with every acclaimed album. A Mitski-like TikTok breakthrough/revival feels within reach for him, and the right Laurel Hell-type album could absolutely put him over the top.