Got Charts? No Doubt’s Christmas Gift; Nirvana Ain’t No Beatles

Stefani and company unwrap #9 debut; grunge legends more akin to R.E.M. than Zeppelin, sales-wise.

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In this week’s chart and sales analysis, we first take a merry, ska-core slammin’ sleigh ride with the fun boys — and girl — of No Doubt, and then we’ll seek out a separate and lasting peace for Nirvana and their place in the rock and roll pantheon.

No Doubt’s Jingle Bell Rock

No Doubt know that the true holiday spirit is all in the giving — and then, hopefully in the receiving as well.

This year, Gwen and the boys are celebrating the Yuletide season with a top-10 debut courtesy of their new album, Rock Steady, which cracks next week’s Billboard 200 albums chart at #9, the highest entry of the week (see “Creed’s Home For The Holidays Is #1 Slot On Billboard ). With 254,000 copies sold, Rock Steady is the Southern Cali group’s second straight record to debut in the top 10, following Return of Saturn, which entered at #2 in April 2000.

In one of those chart idiosyncrasies brought on by the seasonal swell in record sales, first-week sales for Rock Steady were actually far higher than for Return of Saturn. Despite the higher Billboard debut, Saturn tallied just 201,000 copies out of the gates. Perhaps more impressively, Rock Steady has already sold almost as many copies as the band’s 1992 self-titled debut, which has notched just 272,000 in sales to date.

The holidays have been good to No Doubt before — the band’s career-making second LP, Tragic Kingdom, reached its sales crescendo almost five years ago to the week. Tragic Kingdom got off to a rather humble beginning and was something of a commercial tragedy upon its release in October 1995, selling just 1,400 copies. But that was long before audiences had ever heard “Just a Girl” or “Don’t Speak.”

After breaking into the Billboard 200 in January 1996 at #175 — and then subsequently fueled by the two hit singles — Tragic Kingdom rocketed up the charts and was a top-20 fixture throughout the summer and fall. The album was eventually crowned #1 in mid-December after its biggest week, topping a whopping 505,000 copies sold. The album went on to lodge nine weeks at #1 through February 1997 and has sold more than 7.69 million copies to date.

No Doubt waited two-and-a-half years before issuing Return of Saturn as the follow-up to Tragic Kingdom, and Saturn has sold only 1.40 million copies, a mere fraction of its predecessor. Safe to say that No Doubt are ho-ho-hoping that Rock Steady will use the holiday season to capture some of Tragic‘s sales magic.

On a side note, we’re also hoping No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani has purchased a really nice gift for her beau, Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale. No doubt he’s smarting from the fact that his group’s new album, Golden State, has already been bounced from the chart and has sold just 163,000 copies. Ouch. That may call for a little mistletoe, too, Gwen.

In Search of an Everlasting Nirvana

“Nirvana” literally means “the cessation of individual existence by the absorption of the soul into the supreme spirit … a state of supreme happiness.” But in light of the vitriol that Courtney Love, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic have exchanged recently, there’s reason to believe there might not be any happiness surrounding the estate of Nirvana for quite some time.

In all the legal wrangling by Kurt Cobain’s widow and his former bandmates (see “Who Speaks For Nirvana? Grohl, Novoselic Lash Out At Courtney Love” and “Courtney Love Sues For Control Of Nirvana’s Master Recordings” ), what seems to be at stake is the future of Nirvana’s music and who gets to control it. With a band of Nirvana’s magnitude and continuing appeal, however, such litigation and maneuvering isn’t surprising.

But what’s really vexed us about these recent lawsuits are some of the gross distortions that are being applied to Nirvana in terms of the band’s overall musical legacy. To get a better handle on the scope of Nirvana’s impact, one needs only to look at the massive sales achieved by the group’s six albums, all of which have surpassed the 1 million mark.

According to SoundScan, Nirvana’s career album sales break down as follows: the group’s 1989 debut, Bleach, has sold 1.44 million copies to date, followed by 1991′s Nevermind at 7.65 million, the 1992 B-sides/rarities collection Incesticide at 1.13 million, and the band’s final studio album, 1993′s In Utero, at 3.58 million. Nirvana’s two posthumous live releases, 1994′s MTV Unplugged in New York and 1996′s From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah (both of which were assembled by Grohl and Novoselic) have sold 4.11 million and 1.15 million copies, respectively.

With numbers like those, there can be little denying that Nirvana are one of the most popular and commercially viable rock groups of the last 20 years. All of Nirvana’s records have continued to do well in catalog sales, with Nevermind selling at a clip of better than 230,000 copies annually, while MTV Unplugged in New York still averages 120,000 copies a year.

Despite those numbers, we were a little shocked by Love’s recent claim that the legal actions taken against Grohl and Novoselic were actually means of assuring that “future generations of music fans give [Nirvana] its rightful place alongside the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan.”

Though it will be up to music fans and cultural historians to determine Nirvana’s lasting impact on popular music, we think that (with one exception to that list) Love may have overstated Nirvana’s place in the mythical rock and roll pantheon. And, of course, we’ve got the numbers to chew on.

To measure Nirvana’s success against those artists Love mentioned, it is necessary to switch from SoundScan, which has only been keeping audited records since May 1991, and instead use the Recording Industry Association of America’s gold and platinum record certifications, which go back to 1958. The RIAA has awarded Nirvana three platinum albums (Bleach, Incesticide and From the Muddy Banks), three multiplatinum albums (Nevermind, In Utero and MTV Unplugged) and one platinum single (“Smells Like Teen Spirit”).

In comparison, the Beatles have been honored with five gold, 12 platinum and 24 multiplatinum albums, along with 17 gold, two platinum and four multiplatinum singles. The Rolling Stones have earned 12 gold, 15 platinum and 10 multiplatinum albums, as well as five gold singles to boot.

Led Zeppelin has scored two platinum and 13 multiplatinum albums in their day, along with one platinum single. And even though Dylan has never earned an RIAA certification for any of his singles, the Master has racked up 18 gold, nine platinum and four multiplatinum albums in his five-decade career. [These numbers reflect the highest certification level achieved for each record -- not the total number of certifications amassed in the life of the record.]

Of all the artists that Love hopes Nirvana’s legacy will someday match, the most comparable is probably that of Hendrix, another artist who only released a handful of albums before his life was cut short. According to the RIAA, Hendrix’s music has earned five gold, four platinum and five multiplatinum albums, although all but a few of those certifications were made after the guitarist’s death in September 1970.

Equating the legacies of Nirvana with Hendrix may not necessarily be such a good thing, especially in terms of pending litigation. Remember, it took a fierce, 25-year legal battle to eventually settle the rights to Hendrix’s musical estate, the control of which eventually reverted to Jimi’s father, Al Hendrix, in 1995.

In the end, Nirvana’s legacy will likely be grouped together with that of several other preeminent rock groups from the last 20 years, in particular U2 (five platinum and nine multiplatinum albums; two gold singles) and R.E.M. (six gold, two platinum and four multi-platinum albums; one gold single) — and we’re pretty sure Cobain would have been pleased with the latter, if not the former.

However, we have a novel concept for settling the matter. Why not let Grohl and Love record and release separate albums, with the one who sells the most being granted the right to make administrative decisions over the Nirvana estate — but with full respect to the other party’s wishes.

Grohl and Love have established their own respective musical identities with similar degrees of commercial success. Grohl’s three records with the Foo Fighters have all done rather well, with the band’s 1995 eponymous debut having sold 1.24 million copies, followed by 1997′s The Colour and the Shape at 1.77 million copies and 1999′s There Is Nothing Left to Lose at 1.11 million.

For Love, her 1991 debut album with Hole, Pretty on the Inside, has tallied just 197,000 sales, although the band’s subsequent two records both struck platinum, with 1994′s Live Through This currently standing at 1.5 million copies sold and 1998′s Celebrity Skin at 1.33 million copies. (Novoselic’s lone post-Nirvana music project, Sweet 75, sold a stunningly low 7,700 copies of its 1997 self-titled debut. Of course, Novoselic has spent the majority of his time not in the studio, but in the political arena, where he has spearheaded the JAMPAC lobbying group.)

While we’re not sure an album vs. album face-off between Grohl and Love would be the best way to settle the Nirvana matter, it would definitely be more fun than the upcoming courtroom battle royal, which looks to become both ugly and lengthy. And that certainly won’t bring any peace to Nirvana’s fans.

[In SoundScan we trust. All figures, unless otherwise noted, are according to SoundScan's audited sales numbers and reflect sales as of press time.]