It would certainly be melodramatic to speak of the “death of the album” — but with Taylor Swift’s 1989 being this year’s only new release projected to sell a million copies, the death of the platinum album may very well be on the way.
This downturn can be attributed to a number of factors: free viewing of music videos online on sites like YouTube, online streaming, outdated business models in the record industry and of course the ever-growing popularity of downloading individual songs rather than entire albums. The last factor is evident when noting that while no full albums have received platinum status yet this year, 60 individual songs have.
While Hugh McIntyre of Forbes Magazine points out that this year’s decrease in sales can also be blamed on the absence of new releases from platinum-capable artists such as Lady Gaga or Adele, a turning of the tides is no doubt taking place.
So what does this mean? Apart from an assumed increase in collar tugging among record executives, it marks another milestone in the death of the album as an art form. Throughout the years, many albums have simply been a handful of songs put together for the sake of compiling an LP’s worth of material. But at its best, the album has represented something far greater than the sum of its parts. Under the right circumstances, the album as a medium has had the ability to become a work of artistic achievement in its own right.
A great album obviously has great songs, but it also presents them to you in a sequence that makes them even more enjoyable.
The Beastie Boys’ 1992 album Check Your Head provides a perfect example of this. Nearly an hour long, the sprawling 20-song epic draws from genres as disparate as hip-hop, hardcore punk, jazz and Latin music, deftly gluing them all together with humor and inventiveness. Half the fun of the songs comes from their positions in the tracklist and how they juxtapose each other. Repeat listening ingrains the album’s sequence in your head and soon enough you can’t listen to one song without then expecting to hear the next one when it ends — and it just isn’t the same when you don’t. Even the songs you don’t enjoy or would never listen to on their own become a crucial part of the listening experience.
Far from being limited to expansive multi-genre buffets like Check Your Head, this same dynamic can come from elements as simple as changes in tone or volume. David Bowie’s Young Americans moves from upbeat to somber to hard-hitting at every turn and pretty well any Pixies album is a clinic in sound variety.
Then there’s the artwork. Just like the track lists themselves album artwork can be arbitrary and irrelevant but it can also enhance the experience immensely. Think about the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. I mean really, even the cover of The White Album complements and contributes to how you react to the music. It makes me feel like a two-year-old to say it, but even a color is enough to impact how the listener feels about the music.
I recently read an interview in the Alternative Press with Rivers Cuomo, Weezer’s lead vocalist and guitarist, in which he makes a deliberate point of saying that the band’s new album will not be issued in any kind of deluxe edition or have any iTunes bonus tracks. He elaborates on this choice by explaining their desire to make a “classic album” and arguing that multiple versions of the same record with extra songs that only some will hear serves to erode its meaning and concreteness. I would have to agree. It seems that great albums are a uniform entity and a universal experience for all who listen to them.
Though it seems die-hard album lovers still have their place. The last decade has seen an unprecedented resurgence in vinyl, for questionably legitimate reasons. Nonetheless, at a time where albums are increasingly seen as impractical or unnecessary, renewed interest in vinyl can be seen as a backlash or return to traditional values.
Vinyl LPs represent the ultimate commitment to the album. One has to get up, put the record on and stay in the same place as they listen and even get up halfway through just to be able to hear the rest of it. While the novelty — and dare I say hipster-esque qualities — of vinyl are no doubt a factor as well, its return seems to represent a renewed or remaining loyalty to the art of the album.
To declare the death of the album would be far too frivolous, but its decline is all too real. This of course leads to a fading appreciation of just how satisfying an experience a great album can provide — I wouldn’t hesitate to use the word romantic to describe it. Times change and so do business models, but there’s no reason that the album needs to go in the trashcan of history because of it.