Nuns Competed with ‘Fifty Shades’ For Top-Selling Classical Album of 2013

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As music critics assemble their best-of 2013 lists, another, probably very different, barometer of musical taste has been revealed. Billboard reported this week that the top-selling classical artists of 2013 were the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, a monastic order from rural Missouri.

The sisters' "Advent at Ephesus" and "Angels and Saints" – collections of ancient chants and hymns – were the second- and third-best selling traditional classical albums of 2013 (the traditional classical category excludes crossover releases, according to Billboard). “Advent” sold about 36,000 copies and “Angels” sold just over 25,000; each have been on the charts for about 30 weeks, according to the sisters' label Decca.

In June, the Benedictines of Mary made headlines when they displaced “Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album,” EMI's musical tie-in to the erotica novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. That album, featuring 15 classical works including Tallis's motet Spem in alium, was released in early 2012. But riding a massive marketing juggernaut, it became the top seller of 2013 in terms of individual copies, with nearly 40,000 sold to date.

WQXR listeners showed a similar taste for the spiritual in 2013: “Angels and Saints” was the most-purchased album through ArkivMusic, the station’s online affiliate retailer. Close behind was “Spheres,” a collection of neo-Baroque, minimalist and soundtrack arrangements by violinist Daniel Hope.

Chant is a cyclical phenomenon in the record industry. The current interest mirrors a time in the 1990s when the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos released a best-selling album of Gregorian Chants and Hildegard von Bingen's music was the latest thing. But there’s another, even broader measurement of popularity to consider: When factoring in crossover music, Billboard's most popular classical album of 2013 was Andrea Bocelli’s love song collection, “Passione.”