Music Albums Went Away for Streaming. Now They’re Back

This article is taken from the July 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

When the Spotify app told me Billie Eilish’s new album had landed, the announcement was surprisingly dictatorial: “Stream HIT ME HARD AND SOFT front-to-back now.” It wasn’t just the imperative that took me aback. It was the insistence that I listen to the whole thing as, well, an album.

This is kind of counter to the whole promise of streaming, one of the benefits of which is that it turns all music into a pick ’n’ mix from which you can pluck only the tastiest morsels. Freed from the physical constraints of CD, tape or vinyl, you can skip at will: no more hovering over the skip button, clicking between fast forward and rewind, or delicately trying to drop the needle in the right groove. 

And even better (or at least, it was supposed to be better), as a listener you’re no longer corralled into paying for the filler. Not every artist has enough music to fill two sides of a 12-inch, but that never stopped labels from shipping the merchandise and collecting the cash — leaving the purchaser to resentfully calculate how much they’ve spent on the duffers between the bangers. 

But the death of the album wasn’t quite the triumph of pure bliss I’d hoped for when I made the switch to streaming. Turns out there’s a limit to how much pick ’n’ mix I can eat in one go before I’m glutted on sugary choruses. I started to miss the commitment that listening to an album took.

Yes, sometimes you were left to fume your way through fluff, but often a record would reward attention with an unfolding, the less obvious tracks hooking their way in with repeated plays. Tracklisting itself was an art, and sometimes the gaps between songs with their promise of what’s next could be nearly as thrilling as the sound itself. 

The shift to consuming songs as atomised units was depressing for artists too. Cynically, there’s the financial hit sustained when you only get paid for a handful of songs with heavy rotation. But it also forced acts into delivering the narrowest refinement of what audiences expected: why bother with musical experiments or playful pacing when only the most obvious stuff pays the bills? The filler could become even more filler-y.

critics ditum taylorWithout any material constraints on length, bloat sets in. Taylor Swift’s latest, The Tortured Poets Department: The Anthology, runs 31 songs and two hours long. You can take this as generosity (and her fans do), or you can take it as a failure to edit. Inevitably, quality control falls down. Somewhere in there is a decent album, but it seems unfair to leave me the job of trimming it into existence. The result is that so far I’ve only found one song I like (“I Can Do It With a Broken Heart”).

The Billie album is a different proposition. Ten songs, just under 45 minutes — the perfect album length, and coincidentally the amount of music that fits comfortably onto a 12 inch. You can still dip in and choose favourites if you want to (“Lunch”, a slinky celebration of a girlcrush, is the album’s standout, with twice as many plays on Spotify as some of the other songs), but every track here has been given its place with careful thought. 

Songs pick up motifs from each other, change shape halfway through (“L’Amour de Ma Vie” shifts from being a breathy ballad about a coercive ex into nervy electronica, with a distorted Billie singing, “You were so mediocre/ And we’re so glad it’s over now”), merge tantalisingly into each other. That’s especially true at the end of the album, where the disjointed “Bittersuite” transitions into the swooning, urgent melody of “Blue”. 

On its own, “Blue” is nice — but the relationship with “Bittersuite” is what turns it into storytelling. The penultimate song is about the fractured experience of a breakup; the finale is a melancholic acceptance of the pain that comes of loss. “I tried to live in black and white but I’m still blue,” sighs Billie, who is still only 22 but sounds like she’s lived decades of heartache. 

For artists, making an album like this makes space for play: “‘Bittersuite’ is one of those where … me and Finneas [her brother, cowriter and producer] were just messing around, no one’s ever going to hear this … but we kind of had this realisation that the coolest, the bravest, thing we could do is just put it out exactly how we made it and not try to make it better so that people like it …” 

a revival of the classic album format gives you the structure in which to take chances

“Not making your song better” is a ballsy choice to make, but it’s also a decision to free yourself from the relentless scrutiny of metrics: when success is continuously digitally monitored, it can be very hard to resist obsessing over plays. It’s a way of thinking that can enclose artists in an ever narrower field, working to deliver more of what the algorithm wants long after the original idea is exhausted.

That’s certainly how I feel about TTPD, although with seven weeks at number one on the Billboard charts and counting at the time of writing, the rest of the audience doesn’t seem to agree with me. Swift is a juggernaut: she is too big to fail. But if you’re an artist whose creative life involves more risks, a revival of the classic album format gives you the structure in which to take chances.

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