What Exactly Is An Album? The Definition Is Definitely Changing

Having studied both classical and popular music extensively, I’m well versed in the constant pushing of boundaries and fight to keep things the way they are. I have studied how Beethoven made people question what a symphony was because he added a chorus to the fourth movement of his Symphony No. 9. I learned how John Cage strove to have people question the very nature of music. Professors read to us excerpts from scathing reviews of music by Bach, Mozart, and Wagner, among others. Yet, as I learned all this and know that there is a constant struggle between musicians trying to evolve and a portion of the public that wants to keep things the same, there are still articles that I read that raise really good questions that I have never thought of before. Questions that really make me think.

One such article is a great think piece posted on Stereogum by Ryan Leas. It’s a bit lengthy, but I definitely recommend the read.

Right from the beginning, Leas talks about so many big artists dropping surprise albums that they’re no longer really a surprise. He also speaks about the sheer number of album releases so far this year. I’m nodding along, agreeing with what he’s saying, and then he drops this:

“And the deluge of surprise releases has also distracted from another question that 2016 has continually put forth, oftentimes with these same releases: What even is an album in the first place?”

Growing up in the 90s and early 2000s when CDs were the major way to consume music, I had never considered this before. To me, an album meant a CD or a cassette or a record that an artist has released where the songs are organized in a coherent and purposeful manner. I considered digital-albums releases as well, but in my mind, those were just extensions of the physical copies that you could buy in one of the slowly-dying CD and record stores or online. For whatever reason I never thought to question the concept of the album.

My vision of the album, which isn’t all that uncommon, is something Leas discusses.

“Our notion of what an album is has always been tied to the technologies at hand, but much of the traditional concept is rooted in the LP. That’s the format that gave us the A- and B-side structure, in which an album could rise and fall in two separate but connected acts. It’s a format that allowed for the album-as-artwork approach, rather than a random smattering of songs anchored by singles. The latter has never gone away, really, but the albums we tend to prize are the ones that hang together as a complete work over a prescribed amount of time, often roughly in the 40-50 minute range, as records allowed”.

Thinking about this, it’s not all that surprising to me. Technology has changed so quickly in the past fifty years that we’re barely able to keep up, so keeping with the LP idea of an album was a way to stabilize things just a little bit. Even as cassettes allowed for young music lovers to make their own mixtapes, CDs offered bonus and hidden tracks, and mp3 tracks made it seem like there was no point for artists to release “albums” any more, we were still stuck on the traditional idea of an album.

As Leas points out:

“While there’s a certain weight and logic to the traditional 40-50 minute listening experience, there seems to be little point to an album when the music is delivered in a batch of files that listeners can rearrange and sample at will. What’s the point of asking a listener to devote the attention and time needed for a traditional album in that landscape?”

Up until just recently, there might not have been a real point to releasing a traditional album, but we were stuck in our ways. It was the “way it’s done”. How it’s “always” been. We are creatures of habit, even if those habits aren’t particularly old.

Leas mentions Radiohead’s 2007 near-surprise release In Rainbows where the band had a “pay-what-you-want” approach to pricing. At the time, that was a huge thing for the band to do. Afterwards, the band spoke of doing away with the traditional album approach to making music entirely. They thought of releasing single tracks and EPs instead. The King of Limbs from 2011 sounded like two EPs mashed together into one album, but Leas argues that their recent follow up, A Moon Shaped Pool is “one of the most traditional album-as-artwork-type records amidst this year’s blockbuster releases”. When comparing Radiohead’s recent album to Drake’s Views or Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Leas’ argument makes a lot of sense.

The whole concept of what an album is has definitely begun to change. Obviously, there are those pushing against it, such as with criticism towards Kanye’s continual minor changes to The Life of Pablo. As a whole, however, I think the industry — and even the public — is overdue for a shake-up. To have our notions challenged. I want to see what artists can come up with and how they can begin to slowly change our ideas of how things “should be”.

I have no qualms against the traditional album and album-listening experience. Listening to a full album from start to finish should never not be a thing that people do. It can be fun and relaxing. However, art is all about shaking things up and pushing the envelope.

Leas concludes his essay perfectly:

“With the technology at our fingertips right now and the erosion of the rules that used to govern the music industry, who knows what could happen when artists are able to go beyond scratching the surface of new album formats, delving into surprising and unforeseen new ways to present their work. Surprise releases may be status quo, but there are still countless surprises ahead of us”.

After reading the Leas’ piece and having time to think about it, I am excited for what the future holds.

Have any thoughts? Leave a comment!

3 thoughts on “What Exactly Is An Album? The Definition Is Definitely Changing

  • June 23, 2016 at 12:15 pm

    I favour the LP idea of a body of work that is released at one time. Sometimes the artist strives for a concept, a common thread between tracks (some of my favourite albums are concept albums; The Wall, Tommy, Operation: Mind crime & Nostradamus to name a few) other times the music is disparate and each track is like a sonic painting that bears no resemblance to what came before or after yet somehow is still very much that artists music.

    I get how daunting it can be to release an album. Some artists must experience great stress to release something as good or better than before. I’m sure that can be crushing. It’s also interesting what doesn’t get released. Many more tracks are recorded than ever make it on a given album for whatever reason (only to surface later when the artist has died and people demand more.)

    I also appreciate singles. Having grown up when 45s were still a thing it was a savvy business move to release a single (a misnomer as it had a b-side and thus a second or third track) prior to an album’s official release to whip the public into a frenzy. I loved the 12″ singles which had remixes and even more tracks. Kind of an album add-on if you will. It became a game to try and collect them all. Def Leppard and Ramstein were famous for this. You also mentioned CD singles both in their 3″ & regular format.

    Nine Inch Nails took it to the next level offering digital files online that you could download and do your own remix. They even took submissions back and even released the Remixes album. How cool is that!

    I don’t think I’ll get releases as single tracks. Old fashioned I guess. It seems incoherent to me or just plain random. Too easy for a track to get lost in a tidal wave of other music. An album is like a vessel for tracks where there may be hidden gems. I’m always surprised at what gets airplay versus what doesn’t. Without the album you are less likely to discover that gem hidden amongst the intentionally commercial stuff that appears to be driven by deadlines & contracts.

    • June 23, 2016 at 12:40 pm

      Just finished the Leas article. Some interesting ideas with the mini releases or transitions between narratives as he says. I abhor the idea of changing an album after its release. That kind of thing drives me crazy. It’s annoying like the the Deluxe versions of albums that are cropping up. The suggestion being that the regular version is somehow a lesser product. I remember when it was a requirement for artists to provide bonus tracks for an album’s release in Japan and subsequently you had to hunt down the Japanese import version of an album and pay an arm and a leg for those one or two extra tracks that never quite lived up to the hype (and probably still don’t.)

    • June 25, 2016 at 10:41 am

      Thank you for your comments. I definitely agree with you that I’m also skeptical of releases as single tracks. It does seem like they would be easily buried by other releases.
      That is really interesting about NIN and the fan remixes. I never knew about that! Definitely unique.
      As to your second comment, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about changing an album after its release. Mostly, I don’t really agree with the idea, but part of me does want to see what a really creative artist could do with it. I definitely don’t think that all musicians should go down that route, though!


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