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POP MUSIC | FAST TRACKS

Country is making itself heard

July 23, 2006|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Is pop music losing its thump and picking up a twang?

That's the impression you might get looking over what's been selling, and what hasn't, during the first half of 2006. Hip-hop has been the dominant sound in pop music in recent years, yet only one rap album shows up among the year's Top 10 sellers so far: Atlanta rapper T.I.'s "King," and that comes in at No. 7, having sold just over 1.3 million copies to date.

But three country or country-pop albums have been burning up the cash registers: Rascal Flatts' "Me and My Gang" (No. 2 with sales of 1.7 million), "American Idol" alumna Carrie Underwood's "Some Hearts" (No. 5, 1.5 million) and the Dixie Chicks' "Taking the Long Way" (No. 8, just under 1.3 million).

The sense that a musical shift may be underway only gets stronger looking further into the midyear data assembled by the Nielsen SoundScan sales monitoring service.

A breakdown by genre shows that sales of rap albums are down almost 16% compared with the midway point last year, and R&B album sales are off 22%. Further, alternative music sales are 15% behind where they were at this time in 2005.

Meanwhile, country album sales are 18% ahead of where they were this time last year.

Time to trade in the bling for a Stetson? Not so fast, pardner.

Although 2006 has been a good year for several country acts, Billboard charts editor Geoff Mayfield warns not to get carried away by the midyear numbers.

"There is a bit of anomaly. Any snapshot of sales during a year or a partial year is always beholden to the release schedule," Mayfield says. "Every time there's a "Rock Is Dead" obituary, it's usually the case that the key rock releases haven't come to market yet."

Case in point: The first half of 2005 was dominated by 50 Cent's "The Massacre." That's also when Mariah Carey's big comeback album "The Emancipation of Mimi" was released, and Compton rapper the Game also sold strongly, pushing rap and R&B sales results high. So far this year there's been no release by a rap superstar.

On the other hand, last year's first half had just one No. 1 album from a country artist -- Kenny Chesney -- while this year has seen big albums from Rascal Flatts, the Chicks and Underwood, whose debut album had enough country content for it to be considered part of that genre.

Beyonce's next solo album, due in September, is expected to be one of the fall's runaway hits, which will be good news for the R&B genre, and typically other big guns in rap and hip-hop make their appearances during the all-important final quarter of the year.

"Some of the creative folks in the R&B and hip-hop community are concerned with numbers they're seeing right now," Mayfield says. "But I would say it's too early to panic.... Let's see what things look like after more of the big guns come out in the fall."

OK, who needs Radiohead now?

Some of Radiohead's albums may have taken time and repeated listenings to reveal all their strengths, but apparently not front man Thom Yorke's solo debut album "The Eraser." Just eight days after its release, "The Eraser" turned up among the dozen recordings nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, the annual award for the best British or Irish album of the previous year.

It's in the running with the Arctic Monkeys' critically acclaimed "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not," the Editors' "The Back Room" and the Guillemots' "Through the Windowpane," which hasn't been released stateside yet.

British bookmakers have set 5-to-1 odds for both the Yorke and Arctic Monkeys albums over the rest of the field, which also includes albums from Scritti Politti, Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan, Muse, Richard Hawley, Lou Rhodes, Sway, Zoe Rahman and Hot Chip.

The winner will be announced in London on Sept. 5.

BET takes on rap's 'code of silence'

The BET cable channel's new hip-hop newsmagazine show "The Chop Up" takes on the hip-hop code of silence in a segment scheduled to air today.

"Season of the Snitch" looks at the refusal of many in the world of rap and hip-hop to cooperate with law enforcement, a pattern that has hindered investigations in the deaths of Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls and Run-DMC's Jam Master Jay.

"Hip-hop is in love with the whole gangster myth, but it really is just the myth, not the reality," says Carlito Rodriguez, producer of the nine-minute segment that constitutes the heart of today's show. A lot of these guys want to pretend to be gangsters, but real gangsters don't advertise. They want you to think they're nerds, squares, they just want to make money.... Rap and hip-hop need to start taking responsibility for the images that they're putting out and for the messages they're feeding to these kids."

"The Chop Up" series, which has been likened to a mix of "60 Minutes" and "The Daily Show," also has explored subjects including the increasing popularity of crystal meth in black communities, the killing of Smalls and diamond mining in Liberia.

Fans with designs on Janet Jackson

A fan will design the cover of Janet Jackson's new album, "20 Years Old," scheduled for release Sept. 26. The pop-R&B star has launched a contest in which fans can download any of 33 images of her and then come up with their own design.

"We were going on the website and looking at all this creative stuff the kids were doing, and it amazed us," she said. "We said, 'Let's have these kids design our album cover.' "

Submissions will be posted at designme.janetjackson.com, the contest page, and fans will vote on their favorites. Jackson will select her four favorites and use them on the first 1 million copies of the CD.

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