Happy birthday to the Billboard 200 albums chart!
60 years ago, on March 24, 1956, the United States’ premier album chart began publishing on a regular basis. The first No. 1 was Harry Belafonte’s Belafonte, which spent six weeks atop the chart. It was the first of 1,026 No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 (through the April 2, 2016-dated tally).
Let’s take a look back at some major milestones in the history of the Billboard 200 through 2016.
March 24, 1956 — Billboard launches its first regularly published weekly albums chart, Best Selling Pop Albums. (It would change names to Best Selling Popular Albums the very next week!) This chart would eventually become known as the Billboard 200. Previous to the bow of the this chart, Billboard had tracked album popularity — but not consistently. The first overall album chart actually appeared 11 years earlier, on March 24, 1945. That chart was published on an irregular basis until it became a weekly fixture in our magazine on March 24, 1956.
May 5, 1956 — Elvis Presley’s self-titled debut studio album hits No. 1. The King of Rock & Roll’s set, fueled by the classic single “Blue Suede Shoes,” spent 10 weeks at No. 1.
May 25, 1959 — The album chart splits in two: Best Selling Monophonic LPs and Best Selling Stereophonic LPs. The names and depths of the charts would change slightly over time, but Billboard would publish two charts for mono and stereo albums until Aug. 10, 1963.
May 5, 1962 — The West Side Story film soundtrack begins its record 54-week run at No. 1.
Aug. 17, 1963 — The mono and stereo LP charts fold back into one overall chart known as Top LP’s. The 150-position chart would grow to 175 positions on April 1, 1967.
Feb. 1, 1964 — The Beatles arrive on the Billboard 200 with Meet the Beatles! The set debuts at No. 92 on the Feb. 1, 1964-dated chart, and would hit No. 1 two weeks later (Feb. 15). The album spent 11 weeks at No. 1 and was the first of a record 19 chart-toppers for the band.
May 13, 1967 — The chart’s depth increases to 200 positions, where it has remained ever since.
April 26, 1969 — The original cast recording of Hair reaches No. 1 for its first of 13 weeks atop the chart. It is, so far, the most recent musical cast album to hit No. 1.
Feb. 19, 1972 — The name of the chart changes from Top LP’s to Top LP’s & Tapes.
June 7, 1975 — Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy becomes the first album to debut at No. 1. Only six albums would debut at No. 1 until June 29, 1991 (more on that in a moment).
Feb. 26, 1983 — Michael Jackson’s Thriller starts its 37-week run at No. 1 — the longest for an album by an artist. (Only the West Side Story film soundtrack, with 54 weeks at No. 1, earned more weeks atop the chart.)
Oct. 20, 1984 — The word tapes is dropped from the chart’s name, as it becomes known as Top 200 Albums. It later transitions to Top Pop Albums (Jan. 5, 1985) and then The Billboard 200 Top Albums (Sept. 7, 1991). Its current name — Billboard 200 — is adopted on March 14, 1992.
March 7, 1987 — Rap resides at No. 1 for the first time, as Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill jumps from No. 2 to No. 1. The hip-hop trio’s album ruled the list for seven weeks.
May 25, 1991 — It was a week of “historic change” for Billboard, as we noted in a letter from our then-publisher, Howard Lander. That week, we launched our first two sales charts using electronically monitored point-of-sale purchase information, courtesy of SoundScan Inc. (now known as MRC Data). The first No. 1 on the revamped chart was Michael Bolton‘s Time, Love & Tenderness.
Lander wrote, “For more than 30 years, our sales charts have relied on rankings of best-selling records obtained from stores, over the telephone or by messenger service. Until now, the only technological changes have been the introduction of computer to tally the data more quickly and the recent usage of fax machines — but the basic methodology has remained the same… With (this week’s charts) we are proud to begin using actual piece counts our two leading charts: Top Pop Albums and Top Country Albums.”
That same week, we launched the Top Pop Catalog Albums chart, which ranked the best selling older titles (which were restricted from charting on the Billboard 200). The chart is later renamed Catalog Albums.
June 29, 1991 — Skid Row’s Slave to the Grind is the first album to debut at No. 1 after the Billboard 200 began using SoundScan data to power its ranking — and the first to open atop the list since Michael Jackson’s Bad in 1987. Six more albums bowed at No. 1 in 1991. The influx of openings at No. 1 is owed to the chart’s increased accuracy thanks to SoundScan’s point-of-sale data, instead of having to rely on ranked reports obtained from stores.
Nearly 25 years later, it’s normal for albums to debut at No. 1, and, generally speaking, few albums reach No. 1 unless they’ve debuted there. For example, since January of 2014, of the 44 albums that reached No. 1 for the first time, all but three of them debuted at No. 1.
Jan. 24, 1998 — The soundtrack to Titanic sails to the top of the chart, for its first of 16 weeks at No. 1.
April 8, 2000 — *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached debuts at No. 1, and sets a then-record for the largest sales week for an album since Nielsen began tracking sales: 2.42 million sold in its first week. The record would prove to be unbeaten until 2015…
Nov. 22, 2003 — The Top Comprehensive Albums chart launches, which combines both current and catalog titles together in one overall chart. The chart would continue weekly publication through the Nov. 28, 2009.
Dec. 5, 2009 — The Billboard 200 brings catalog titles back onto the chart, so both older and newer titles could chart alongside one another. (Essentially, the Top Comprehensive Albums chart became the new Billboard 200.) At the same time, a new chart for only current albums was established, and it was aptly titled Top Current Albums.
Dec. 13, 2014 — The Billboard 200 becomes a multi-metric popularity chart ranking overall consumption, measuring traditional album sales, track equivalent albums, and streaming equivalent albums. The new methodology was devised to provide a better sense of an album’s popularity by reflecting not just sales, but overall activity. (A pure sales chart was simultaneously launched as well: Top Album Sales. It maintains the previously methodology employed by the Billboard 200, comprising Nielsen’s sales data exclusively.) The first No. 1 on the consumption-based chart was Taylor Swift‘s 1989 (earning its fourth nonconsecutive week at No. 1).