Where are we?
The music industry gave us plenty to discuss in 2014. It was the year of Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran. It was the year we were “Happy”. The year we reached “peak ass”. Just as interesting, though, is what wasn’t around in 2014.
I’m not talking about trends or fashions or styles. I’m talking about the way albums were presented. I’m talking about the double album.
It’s difficult to track every single double album released, but Wikipedia is giving it a shot. I don’t know whether this list is complete, or how many gaps it has, but used as a rough guide, it will suffice for our purposes.* Based on this list, 2014 saw only three new studio-recorded double albums released, including Swans’ The Seer, and if you’ve ever listened to a Swans album, you’ll understand why they needed so much space.
Now, those weren’t the only double albums released in 2014. There were, by my count, around 12 more, but they were all reissues, compilations (live performances, soundtracks, various artists collections), and the dreaded compilation reissue.
How different was 2014 from the previous few years? It appears to be a low point.
In 2013, there were approximately 50 total double albums released, with about 16 of those new studio productions. In 2012, the story was about the same: 42 double albums in all, with only seven being new, including one by Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Much the same story in 2011, where there were only eight new studio double albums out of a total of around 50.
Can we contrast this with decades past? One could argue that with the rise of digital music and the consumer preference of singles, rather than complete albums, there’s no way to compare this period with any other. But let’s not be too quick to dismiss the comparison entirely. For instance, albums are still sold in stores as either CDs or, increasingly, lately, as vinyl records. So, the double album still exists, whether you buy it online or not. Arcade Fire released a double album, Reflektor, on CD and vinyl, in 2013, for example.
The second argument against dismissing the comparison with earlier decades is one year: 1979.**
Where were we?
If there were ever a year when the first wave of pop music crested, it might have been in 1979. And using our Wikipedia page, I count around 30 double albums released that year. At least half of them were new studio double albums. And unlike other years where the familiar names are mixed in with the very obscure, 1979’s list of new double albums is dominated by major mainstream acts.
This was the year Fleetwood Mac released Tusk, their (somewhat disappointing) follow-up to Rumours. Pink Floyd released The Wall in 1979, and the Clash gave us London Calling. And Frank Zappa released his rock opera, Joe’s Garage, which was originally released as a double album, only to be expanded in 1987 to a triple album.
Added to this list, one could argue that Stevie Wonder’s soundtrack to the documentary film, The Secret Life of Plants, could be counted as well, given it was new material.
That brings the total for 1979 of new, studio-recorded double albums to 16. Two years earlier, in 1977, there were 15 out of a total of approximately 37. Back in 1972, there were 57 double albums released in total – 19 of those were composed of new material.
So double albums were more popular in the 1970’s – so what? So were singles. I couldn’t track down the number of total singles sold in the U.S. for the year, but 1979 was a banner year for sales in the UK, when 89 million were sold, according to the British Phonographic Industry – the “analogue-era peak”. The point being that it’s not as if complete albums were the only thing people were buying in the 1970s, so that’s what people made. These double albums were being produced in spite, or in conjunction with, strong singles sales.
Now? In 2013, there were 186 million singles sold in the UK, and yet, as we’ve seen, only a handful of double albums consisting of new material. It’s still the early days of 2015, but so far there have only been two double albums released, one of which – Juggernaught: Alpha and Juggernaught: Omega by prog metal band, Periphery, is studio-recorded, consisting of new material.
One could argue that a key difference now is the equipment we use to listen to music. These days, it’s a lot easier to skip over songs or even eliminate them entirely from a playlist on iTunes. Even if you buy a complete album, it’s really up to you whether you ever want to listen to it as such. You can even change the order around, if you’re so inclined (and really that much of an asshole). But then, wouldn’t the inability in the late 1970s to skip songs easily be more of an incentive for artists to shorten the albums, rather than lengthen them?
This is hardly a scientific examination of the state of the double album, and it would be irresponsible to conclude there’s a trend forming. For all I know, we’ll see a double album resurgence this year, but looking at recent efforts, it might not be advisable.
Arcade Fire’s Reflektor was hardly a flop, but it was weakened considerably by being too long and wandering. Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience was, for the most part, pretty awful (I’ll admit that I somewhat enjoyed the first half initially – the second, however, was terrible), and again would have benefitted greatly from a good editor (among other things). And despite the success of Stadium Arcadium in 2006, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 2012 follow-up, I’m With You might as well been released exclusively into the cold vacuum of outer space for all the noise it made on Earth. And does anyone remember that Metallica released a double album with Lou Reed in 2011? You don’t, but they did.
So, all that being said, one question remains: Why are artists not making lengthy double albums anymore?
The most compelling answer seems to lie somewhere in our perception of music as a pure commodity, as opposed to commoditized art. In other words, whereas the point of a single release for decades prior to music’s digitization was to get people interested in the forthcoming album, these days the whole point of the single is the single – the album is interpreted as an afterthought, even if the artist doesn’t intend it to be one.
An interesting example was Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled release, which was posted initially as a complete album. It wasn’t simply because the release was a total surprise that there were no singles ahead of it – there just weren’t any at all. Obviously, radio got its hands on one or two, but it was only after everyone had to buy the entire album. It sold somewhere in the range of 800,000 copies in its first week.
Contrast that with other music megastars occupying similar cultural space as Beyoncé’s. As Bob Lefsetz noted in Variety, Katy Perry’s 2013 album, Prism, sold only 287,000 in its first week, despite the popularity and saturation of her singles. Lefsetz also noted that even though Miley Cyrus’ face and single(s) were everywhere in 2013, Bangerz moved a paltry 45,000 units in its first week. Last year, Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” dominated the airwaves, but his debut LP sold only 58,000 copies.
(The exception to this is, of course, Taylor Swift, who has managed to both release singles and direct her fans to the complete album – 1989 sold 1.3 million copies in its first week. Chalk up another achievement for her, I guess.)
But forget the double album, Lefsetz argues that albums themselves are “not even working as a revenue model!” Record labels, he wrote, “are no longer in the record business, they’re in the star business.” To be even more specific, they’re in the six-four-one-five chord progression business, something that was used sparingly through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and has since the early 2000’s, exploded to occupy just about every song you hear on the radio.
Perhaps the death of the double album all comes down to impatience. There is no hard and fast rule to this, but we may be getting to a point where all we think of as music is something that fits to a narrower and narrower formula. Popular music has always had common parameters, but was there once more breathing room?
If a mainstream, established rock band were to release something akin to The Wall this year, what sort of reception would it have? Well, what happened to Reflektor? It debuted at number one on the album charts (140,000 units in its first week), but its singles did nothing. In fact, the first song released from Reflektor, “Reflektor”, didn’t get further than 99th spot on the Hot 100 list.
That’s not uncommon for Arcade Fire, a band (among others) that doesn’t necessarily conform to the mainstream formula as it exists now. As Pitchfork noted in 2013, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse, and Death Cab for Cutie have never seen a single peak higher than 60th spot on the Hot 100, whereas singles from Radiohead and Jack White (as part of the White Stripes) have only managed to hit as high as 40th place.
This isn’t to say we should all be listening to Arcade Fire, instead of other pop music. It is, however, to say that we should be wary of the death of the double album, or, perhaps more specifically, of discouraging those who might make them. Double albums, though often bloated and unnecessary, have also tended to be where experimentation and bizarre tangents happen. That’s not to be dismissed. Those weird moments help accustom us to things we don’t like, or have to develop a taste for – in other words, it encourages active listening, where you’re doing more than simply absorbing.
Look, double albums are often (and perhaps should be) seen as the height of an artist’s narcissism and hubris – it takes a particular gall to think people will sit around and listen to hours of their music. Perhaps we don’t have that time, but maybe we should. There’s plenty of room for enjoyable, perhaps even forgettable, music in our collections. We all love Taylor Swift and Katy Perry – they’re fun to listen to. But why give in to total homogenization? The culture industry, as it exists, has trained us to always demand more, and we’re very good at that. What we’re not good at is asking for less of the same. That hardly seems like a good way to maintain a creative culture.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we need double albums to achieve creative cultural bliss. One could argue that perhaps the overall quality of standard-length records has become so high that the double album has become obsolete. Maybe this is true. But I somehow doubt it. We don't need double albums, but more of them – and more of the off-piste tracks on them – might help things.
So here, at last, I must confess something. As a general rule, I hate double albums. Which means I can scarcely believe I now have to write this, but: Long Live The Double Album.
*It was sometime around midnight on a Thursday when I conducted this count, so please allow for variances on either side by 1-2 units due to fatigue. Whatever, this is not a scientific study.
** 1980 was also an interesting year. There were by my count, 20 original studio recorded double albums released that year, including ones from Bruce Springsteen, Supertramp and Yes. But despite the popularity of these artists, by cursory glance, there appears to simply have been a higher percentage of mainstream artists like them releasing doubles in 1979.