THE ERA OF SINGLES: WHERE DO ALBUMS BELONG?

By Joshua Jackson: Music Columnist

The idea of ‘the death of the album’ has been prevalent since the early 2000s. Declining album sales began with the rise of digital downloads and have been accelerated by the growth of streaming. Engagement with the album format, even on streaming platforms, seems to be falling as well. International hit rapper Drake’s 2017 album Scorpion may have topped the UK and US charts but the album’s streams, at least on Spotify, were dominated by three hit singles: God’s Plan, In My Feelings and Nice for What. These tracks topped three billion listens, exceeding the combined streams of the album’s other twenty two songs. Listeners seem to have left by the wayside much of the album’s content. The album was treated not as an artistic statement but as a musical lucky dip, from which hit tracks were to be sifted.

So, as sales collapse and listeners switch off from the format, where does the album sit today?

The album has been held as the pinnacle of musical artistry for decades. Publications from NME to The Guardian present much anticipated ‘Best Albums of the Year’ lists every January. While websites such as RateYouMusic.com, which create ranked lists of albums based on user submitted reviews, boast hundreds of thousands of users. Looking at these lists highlights what can be achieved with the album format. RateYourMusic listeners selected Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly as the best release of the 2010s, and it serves as an excellent example of
the power of the album. Lamar explores the complexities of the African-American experience, travelling from funk infused basslines in opening track Wesley’s Theory to heartfelt spoken word in 12-minute closer Mortal Man. This expansive soundscape is essential to the artistic aims of To Pimp a Butterfly, without such sonic variety Lamar’s attempt to encapsulate broad social topics would feel hollow, it’s a depth close to impossible to fit into a single. The Guardian’s choice of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black similarly shows the strength of the format. The sultry and soulful sounds of the defiant Rehab start the album, but by the closing track: Addicted, Winehouse talks frankly of her cannabis use expressing ‘I’d rather have myself and smoke my homegrown, Its got me addicted’, the veneer of soulful cool evaporating into misanthropic loneliness.

The power of both of these albums come from how they immerse the listener, in two individual experiences, fostering real emotional connections. It’s records like these that make clear why the format has been so revered.

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However, it is important not to ignore that singles have great potential too. The 2010s had brilliant releases, such as Robyn’s Dancing on My Own. A poetic vignette of a woman dealing with lost love disguised in an upbeat electropop hit. It uses the format of the pop single to show the saccharine nature of the faux-happiness that often tops the charts, inspiring a melancholic pop trend seen in artists such as Lorde and Sam Smith. Dancing on My Own makes the single format key to its success, and shows how playing with format is a key part of writing and inspiring good music. In this way, while the single may be bringing the commercial success, artists will, as they always have done, continue to experiment with varied formats, such as the album.

After all, the album has not always been at the centre of popular music. Before the 1960s, artists such as Elvis made their name (and money) through singles.

The album itself, and particularly the idea of ‘concept albums’, is often traced to The Beatles. Rubber Soul found commercial success without a hit single, shifting the music industry to promote the LP format. It’s telling therefore, that more than the musical content of Rubber Soul, it was it’s financials that put the album format centrestage. Artists, such as The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan, then took advantage of this new lucrative format’s long running time, producing albums with complex messages and musical themes. The popularity of the album was secured by its monetary, not artistic, success. Streaming, and it’s economics have pushed a singles era in a similar way. In a quest to get as many plays as possible Drake’s hit focused approach makes more fiscal sense than Kendrick Lamar’s release of twelve minute spoken word tracks. Talk of the decline of the album is important, however it is key to judge it as a financial change not necessarily an artistic one.

The death of the album is ultimately more a re-balancing than a cataclysmic shift. Singles may be taking the limelight but the previous decade show us that the album format still holds incredible potential, and that there remain artists committed to exploring it. While it’s hegemony may be over, the album remains the best platform for artists to engage in long-form musical exploration and for that reason, it’s likely to
live on.