The album: are reports of its death exaggerated or even relevant?

Image from dreamstime.com
Image from dreamstime.com

Are albums still relevant? This week, one of the last holdout bands showed up on iTunes. AC/DC had refused to have their music sold digitally for years. but finally made their catalog available.

For years, the band claimed that they release “albums”, and would not be a participant in killing that art form by having their music available by the track. This always struck me as bullshit. First of all, iTunes allows tracks to be excluded from single purchases, and second, let’s be honest: when was the last time that AC/DC released an album that wasn’t just a few good singles, and a lot of filler? I’m thinking we have to go back to Back in Black to find a work of theirs that holds up as a whole.

So last friday, Rolling Stones reported that in their first 3 days of availability, they sold 48,000 albums, and a staggering 696,000 tracks! And 15,000 of those albums were the aforementioned Back in Black. So it looks like most people preferred single tracks, and had no interest in most of their “album experiences”. One could argue that if they’d released a proper Greatest Hits before (the idiosyncratic Who Made Who and the Iron Man 2 soundtracks don’t really count as they’re not trying to be a career overview), people wouldn’t have been clamouring for individual tracks so much. Basically the customers created their own, made to order, Greatest Hits. And I’d venture that a sizeable number of people could distill down their interest in AC/DC to 10 songs.

So, are AC/DC right? Is the album dying? I’d answer with a question: Has it even been that strong all these years? What’s an album? I see 3 answers to that.

  1. A group of musical pieces that belong thematically together. This can be a concept album, where the songs come together to form a whole (and it doesn’t have to be a story). Examples of this would be Pink Floyd‘s The Wall, Queensryche‘s Operation: Mindcrime or Green Day‘s American Idiot.
  2. A group of musical pieces issued from a single artistic endeavour or moment in time. For example, U2‘s Achtung Baby, where the band isolated themselves, and wrote and recorded in Berlin, or The Travelling Wilburys, which came out of jam sessions between friends.
  3. A group of songs gathered to be released together, in a more commercially profitable product. Usually created in a specific frame of time, they may share a sound, or influences. Usually built by writing many songs and picking the best 10 or 12 for the album. I’d venture to say that most albums being released fall into this category.

So to me, the pseudo sanctity of the album experience doesn’t hold much sway because I don’t think that many albums are really meant to be listened to as a complete package, especially in pop (but it’s true in any genre). For sure they’re meant to be SOLD to you as a whole, but playing the album on shuffle has no significant impact on the listening experience. (One thing I lament from the switch to digital is the loss of the album flow. I think artists should still sequence their albums as if there were 2 sides.)

In the end, does it matter if someone enjoys listening to Another Brick in The Wall, Part 2 by itself, out of context, and not have to endure the more experimental second disc of The Wall ? Back in the 50’s and 60’s, artists released singles, and then albums which did not feature the singles, instead of the single being a commercial preview of the album. Maybe it’s time to try that again. The days of the “2 good tracks backed by filler” albums are over. And it’s about time.

What do you think?

Jean-Frederic Vachon
Follow me

1 Comment

Comments are closed.