Wow bow Wu-Tang

With more than 612,000 copies of its latest album ringing retail registers last week, rappers Wu-Tang Clan topped the album sales chart and scored the second biggest debut of 1997.

The Loud/RCA Records disc “Wu-Tang Forever” fell just shy of toppling the tally logged in April by “Life After Death,” the posthumous bow by Notorious B.I.G., which moved 689,535 units in its first week.

Country crooner Tim McGraw nabbed the chart’s No. 2 spot on sales of 224,000 copies of his Curb Records disc “Everywhere.” The bow also simultaneously topped the country albums sales chart and boasts a hit single “It’s Your Love,” which features Faith Hill.

But the Wu-Tang Clan first-week tally (for the period ended Sunday) is impressive, as it was achieved with little or no radio airplay or musicvideos being repeatedly shown. The disc also is the Clan’s sophomore disc and is a double CD.

The release also follows weeks during which chart-toppers slightly exceeded 110,000 copies sold and lower berths of the top 10 hovered around 70,000 units apiece.

“There was such strong word of mouth on this album that even if you didn’t know about hip-hop, you probably knew this record was coming,” Loud Records exec veep Randy Roberts told Daily Variety.

McGraw’s total was sufficient to significantly outpace the Spice Girls’ 145,000 unit movement of its “Spice” disc which was pushed from the top spot — which it held for four consecutive weeks — into the No. 3 spot by the two new debuts.

Bob Carlisle’s “Butterfly Kisses (Shades of Grace)” showed little sign of a slowdown, rising one notch to the No. 4 spot on sales of 125,000 units. The tune remains a radio staple and the Diadem Records/Jive artist also is getting tons of ink in consumer press about the song’s crossover success.

The Wu Tang sales blast helped give distributor BMG a 15.2% market share, landing it a solid second behind WEA’s 17.29% and ahead of EMD’s 13.32%. Polygram and Sony checked in with shares of 12.60% and 12.68%, respectively, and slightly ahead of Universal’s 11.57% share.

Mercury Records’ teen trio Hanson, which is seeing its U.S. popularity translate overseas, moved 104,000 copies of its debut “Middle of Nowhere” to earn the No. 5 spot. The disc outpaced the 102,000 copies logged by the No. 6 selling album, B’Rite/Interscope Records’ “God’s Property From Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation.”

More than 80,000 copies of “Life After Death” crossed registers and helped the Bad Boy/Arista disc cross the 2 million unit mark for the No. 7 post; while Paul McCartney, whose reps suggested Wednesday that the former Beatle may take his act on the road for a few select shows to promote “Flaming Pie,” dropped six notches to No. 8 on sales of 77,000 copies.

The Wallflowers’ “Bringing Down the Horse” held the No. 9 spot on sales of 75,000 copies while George Strait’s “Carrying Your Love With Me” closed out the top 10 on sales of 73,000 copies.

“The Oprah Winfrey Show” continued to prove it can help sell albums, as even a rerun Friday of Celine Dion’s appearance on the talker helped goose the numbers for the singer’s “Falling Into You” disc.

Dion’s Epic Records disc jumped two posts into No. 14 on sales of an impressive 62,000 copies, a tally up considerably from her usual weekly totals of around 42,000 units.

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