According to conventional wisdom, the internet killed the album. As Rolling Stone pointed out recently, “album sales have fallen about 60 percent in the past decade,” largely thanks to illegal downloading and streaming services. But at a time when the artistic heft of a full-length record has been diminished in favor of the ubiquitous single, some of our best musicians and bands have almost willfully swum against that tide, delivering albums that don’t fit into easily digestible hits-plus-filler compilations. Frank Ocean’s Blonde — released on Saturday after four years of near-silence from the singer — is the latest example, but it’s indicative of the trend pushed by Beyoncé’s last two records, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool.
These aren’t concept albums, per se, but for any of them to really click, you’ve got to hear them from beginning to end, preferably in one sitting. As a result, they’re re-energizing the LP in the internet age, even when the long process of making a terrific album is at odds with fans’ expectations of a regular stream of new content. “It’s about making sure the perfect aesthetic for the situation has been reached,” explained Ocean’s producer Malay when asked about Blonde’s delayed release. “To do that takes constant tweaking, trial and error.”
Blonde proves Malay wasn’t just blowing smoke. Like Ocean’s previous album, Channel Orange, it’s a record that’s more about subtle shifts in tone and feeling than it is a top-to-bottom collection of surefire hits, with contemplative, spoken-word digressions mixing with song fragments and avant-garde compositions. One of Channel Orange’s tracks opened with Ocean singing, “The best song wasn’t the single,” and Blonde seems even more determined to prove that point, forcing listeners to comprehend his artistry over the course of an hour of bits and pieces of sounds and moods. You don’t come to Blonde for a single — you come for an experience.
Part of Ocean’s perfectionism may very well stem from living at a time when the most exciting thing in the music industry is the surprise release — that out-of-the-blue shock of discovering that a Beyoncé or a Black Messiah is available right now on iTunes. This strategy, which has been embraced by everyone from hip-hop artists (Drake) to country acts (Eric Church), has helped re-establish the album as a vital artistic statement, making LPs feel like legitimate events. (Adding to the event-like atmosphere around these releases, acts like Beyoncé and Ocean have supplemented their new records with so-called visual albums; Ocean also put out a collectible magazine that featured, among other things, an interview with his mother.)
But to maximize that surprise, artists have to be sure that they’re delivering the goods, which no doubt puts pressure on the unveiling. In that regard, Beyoncé has been in the enviable position of releasing Beyoncé and this year’s Lemonade with zero buildup — people hadn’t been waiting years for an in-the-works album. By comparison, D’Angelo hadn’t released an album since 2000’s Voodoo, and there was a decade of reports about the follow-up being worked on, adding to the expectations. With both artists, though, the time spent laboring over the albums resulted in focused, thematically rich releases. Beyoncé made records that chronicled her search for self-worth and contentment (Beyoncé) before delving candidly into the darker aspects of marriage and racism (Lemonade). For D’Angelo, the long incubation period generated dense, funky tracks that unpacked America’s racial divide and examined love’s ability to heal those wounds. Beyoncé contained big hits, but all three LPs are meant to be played as complete works, their themes playing out and resolving over their running time.
While these albums have a sense of being fussed over behind the scenes, that feeling was made public with The Life of Pablo, a record that West continued to mess around with even after consumers had a chance to hear it. The album hit Tidal on February 14, but later that day West took to Twitter to announce, “Ima fix wolves” — and, indeed, he later tweaked the album track “Wolves.”
“Life Of Pablo is a living breathing changing creative expression,” he tweeted in March as an explanation. You’re welcome to think West is an egomaniacal lunatic jerk — I love the guy, and I kinda think that, too — but his public wavering on his finished album suggested that he cared less about singles than producing a magnum opus. Pablo is exhilarating precisely because it’s volatile and imperfect, reflecting the fractured, conflicted worldview of its creator. There are great songs on it, but its ultimate strength is the sonic, emotional journey for listeners to the whole album.
Of course, this modern age of the surprise online release was birthed by Radiohead, whose 2007 album In Rainbows was the group’s experiment with eliminating record companies and selling their music directly. Fans could pay what they wanted to receive a download of the entire album, and it’s telling that In Rainbows (like several of the band’s previous records) has a tonal coherence to it. In a sense, Radiohead anticipated the downfall of the album and figured out a way to preserve its artistic importance.
Radiohead’s latest has been brewing for a while, but A Moon Shaped Pool demonstrates that the English quintet continues to think of albums as creative wholes. The opening two songs, the clattering “Burn the Witch” and the dreamy “Daydreaming,” are impressive singles, but the rest of the album flows from one moody, slightly melancholy track to the next, the cumulative impact stronger because of the steady succession of moonlit tunes. Emphasizing its commitment to the album as an art form, Radiohead has taken to performing A Moon Shaped Pool’s first five songs at the start of its current concert dates, drilling into fans’ heads the idea that there’s a spiritual connection between these songs.
The so-called “album era” launched around the 1967 release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ quasi-concept album in which they reinvented themselves as a fictional band, focusing more on an overall sonic strategy, complete with reprises and linked tracks. Since then, artists of all stripes have embraced the idea that albums can tell some kind of story — whether it’s rappers breaking up songs with narrative skits or Pink Floyd charting the ways people go mad in The Dark Side of the Moon.
The internet age was expected to destroy the album era, returning us to an obsession with individual songs that harked back to the time of the 45rpm single before albums took over. This, happily, hasn’t happened. Instead, artists are viewing the album as a creative challenge — both for themselves and their listeners — and continuing to push musical boundaries by insisting that there’s more to life than a catchy three-minute hit.
Commercially, the album is in a lot of trouble—outside of Beyoncé and Lemonade, none of these new records have even gone gold. But artistically, the album is thriving.