Billboard’s album chart of weekly best-selling long players was published on a regular basis for the first time on March 24, 1956. Here are some facts and figures about the long voyage of the chart champions that began with Harry Belafonte in 1956.
The pre-history of the Billboard album chart began when the magazine started publishing Best Selling Popular Albums in January 1955, but only on a bi-weekly basis with 15 LPs and 15 EPs. The EP version disappeared in November that year, and the chart became a weekly fixture towards the end of March 1956.
In those days, the countdown varied in size between 10, 15, 20 and 30 titles, but it was the massively popular singer and actor Belafonte who scored that first weekly No.1 with the RCA Victor album Belafonte. That LP ruled the roost for six weeks before, in a sign of rock‘n’roll’s impending dominance, his new RCA labelmate Elvis Presley climbed to the top with his self-titled debut album, and stayed there for ten weeks.
The chart went through a variety of name changes over the coming years, becoming Best Selling Pop LPs in September 1957 and, later, Top LPs. For some years, Billboard had separate lists for “Monophonic” or “Monaural” and “Stereophonic” or “Stereo” releases, finally amalgamating their sales into one survey in 1963. In 1967, it extended to 200 titles for the first time; in 1991, the phrase “the Billboard 200 Top Albums” was first used, abbreviating to the title we know today, the Billboard 200, in 1992.
In the late 1950s and early 60s, male solo artists and film or show soundtracks generally held sway at the top of the chart. Excepting conductor-arranger Mitch Miller, whose records credited him and the Gang, the first group to top the countdown were folk outfit the Kingston Trio, with their self-titled album in late 1958.
The first female to hit No.1 on the regular, weekly list was Judy Garland, who achieved the feat in September 1961 with Judy At Carnegie Hall. The Beatles’ first week atop the US album chart came in the week of February 15, 1964 with Meet The Beatles! The Rolling Stones pulled it off for the first time in August 1965 with Out Of Our Heads.
Elton makes chart history
As the weekly chart celebrated its tenth birthday in March 1966, US Army Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler was at No.1 with his Ballads Of The Green Berets. Elton Johnbecame the first artist to debut at the chart summit in June 1975 with Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. The chart turned 20 in March 1976 with the Eagles at No.1 with Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975.
Another decade on, the 30th anniversary saw Whitney Houston’s eponymous debut album unmoveable at the top. The first No.1 rap album came in March 1987, in the form of the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill. 2Pac’s All Eyez On Me was America’s best-selling album as the chart turned 40 in March 1996, and its 50th birthday had yet another rapper, Juvenile, at No.1 with Reality Check. We can only guess who might be the chart champion when the survey hits its 70th birthday in 2026.