By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Steve Brennan
By Joseph Hess
By Allsion Babka
By Kelsey McClure
By RFT Music
By Christian Schaeffer
By Gabriel San Roman
The natural unit of measurement in a streaming library is the song, and the next level up isn't the album, it's the playlist (albums mostly just make search results a little less intimidating.) It's hard to see that changing, and more intrusion on the album's old turf from streamers is inevitable in 2013. Streaming is the most casual way there is to listen to music, and most people — most of that vanished audience that bought ten million copies of Tragic Kingdom and Cracked Rear View — are casual music listeners.
The retreat of the casual listener has left some embarrassing album numbers behind it; the record for worst-selling album ever to top the Billboard 200 has been set multiple times in the last two years. The best-selling album in America frequently has little or no relevance on a broader cultural stage, unless I missed Cake's massive renaissance during the week of February 5, 2011, or Christian rap vet TobyMac's long-delayed mainstream breakthrough this past September. Adele's unstoppable 21, for all its cultural power — it was the best-selling album of 2011 and 2012 — has sold about as many copies as Creed's Human Clay.
But does it matter, to remaining album devotees, that the people who bought four million copies of Big Willie Style in the mid-'90s are now replaying "Gangnam Style" in a background tab on YouTube? Cake and TobyMac's niche success might prove that the Billboard 200 is no longer a cultural bellwether, but they also prove that the people who still think in sides and sequencing and albums are still out there buying them.
Even the latest version of iTunes — as responsible as anything else for crippling the indivisible album — reflects the shift. With downloading music itself — the very concept of owning music — under attack, the default view in iTunes 11 has moved from the iconic playlist to an art-heavy album collage, where clicking on Merry Christmas reveals a red-and-green track list carefully color-matched to Bing Crosby's jolly face. It looks more like a record collection than most peoples' record collections, and it rewards the compulsive organizer, the eschewer of Now compilations, the completionist. The person who took an efficient means of distributing recorded music and drew meaning from it in the first place.
There's no second track in American pop music, then, but that there ever was is a fluke, an accident of music technology and logistics. It's 70 years too late for the anonymous sad sack who first broke "Jingle Bells" b/w "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" on his way to the phonograph, but the decline of physical media has done something wonderful for every class of music fan. Whether you love the smell of worn vinyl or not, our new choices mean that in 2013 we don't have to pretend it makes sense to listen to Christmas music, novelty dance songs and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the same way.