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Long live the album – WSJ

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Vinyl copies of Adele’s album ’30’ shortly after its November release


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tolga akmen / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Weeks before the November release of Adele’s “30” album, Variety reported that the British singer’s label had pressed 500,000 vinyl copies of the record. This number is remarkable not only because of how it overshadows recent top sellers in the format – Harry Styles’ “Fine Line”, the best-selling vinyl LP of 2020, moved by around 232,000 units – but also due to the well-publicized production problems at the baling factories. Independent artists who are far from Adele’s industrial might have described delays of a year or more in obtaining physical copies of their albums. The demand for vinyl records far exceeds the supply, which is one of the many markers suggesting that the album as a musical format is still very much alive and will continue to endure into the future.

Since the emergence of file sharing and the end of the CD era at the turn of the millennium, it seemed like the album’s days were numbered. In 1999, music critic Greg Kot wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune predicting that the format’s relevance would decline dramatically in the digital age. “Concept-conscious musicians, like the turntables they used, became anachronisms,” he wrote, expressing an opinion that was becoming more and more prevalent. It was one of the earliest examples of the kind of piece that would prove to be mainstream in music journalism over the next 15 years or so – the album’s death was approaching and fans were turning to individual tracks, which they could organize into their own playlists. The year following Mr. Kot’s play, the alternative music bible SPIN ranked “Your Hard Drive” as Album of the Year.

To some extent, Mr. Kot and the journalists who followed in his wake were right. The rise of the CD in the 1980s happened at the same time as the single’s demise. In the early 1990s, consumers who wanted to own a hit song they loved often had to purchase a full CD album for $ 15, which meant huge profits for the record companies and a lot of people out there. had never heard a song on “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt ‘Em” beyond its second track, the hit “U Can’t Touch This.” Until the late 1960s, pop music was decidedly a genre of singles. It made sense during the radical change in listening that accompanied the first two decades of this century to think that the album would fade into the background.

But the album’s format turned out to be remarkably resilient. It is true that they no longer sell the numbers they used to sell, although with streaming comparisons between the past and the present are almost impossible (in 2014, Billboard and the RIAA began to compile gold and platinum records according to a formula that combined sales and flows). The persistence of the album comes from both the fans and the artists. For the public, the album becomes a place of practical attention, a way both to build listening time and to subdivide an artist’s work into eras. While many people are content to flip through playlists in search of great songs, like the devoted radio listeners of yesterday, the more engaged fans like to have larger units of work to do. absorb and analyze.

Drake in concert in September


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Wire picture

For artists, the album has become a prestigious marker, a signal to the listener that this release should be taken more seriously than the collections published under other headings. They use albums to build their own canons and to create a context where their work can be easily compared to the greats of the past.

This year Drake released “Certified Lover Boy,” his sixth LP, and over the past few years he has released “Dark Lane Demo Tapes,” a collection of singles and tracks unreleased in 2020 that he called a mixtape. , and “More Life” from 2017. which he dubbed a “Reading List”. Of these three releases, “the album” is clearly the record that matters the most to Drake and that he considers part of his canon, although the similarities between them, including their quality, outweigh the differences. .

Lil Nas X live in May


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NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Drake’s friend Adele is much less prolific and takes years between feature film releases, so unsurprisingly, “30” plays out like an author’s album in the classic sense of the word perfected in the 1960s. and 1970. This is a collection of carefully sequenced songs designed to take the listener on an emotional journey. Rapper / singer Lil Nas X found viral fame thanks to his No.1 hit “Old Town Road”, but the success of his ambitious album “Montero” helped him be taken seriously. For most artists, singles, videos and viral content online won’t get you far. You have to prove yourself in the album format to be considered great. The album remains a three-way crossroads where artistic ambition, listening comfort and historical weight converge, and its heavy traffic in 2021 suggests that it still has good years to go.

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