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Holding the original version of Bing Crosby's Merry Christmas will remind you just how important physical constraints have been to the way we listen to music. It's heavy, for one thing, and it's awkward, and it's an actual album, a book filled with records. Listening straight through means walking laps to a record player and flipping and switching discs.
Holding it reminds you that "record" and "album" weren't always synonymous, and makes it abundantly clear why most artists who were not Bing Crosby, and not working with so clear a concept as Christmas, didn't immediately see a set of ten-or-so songs written and recorded over the same period of time as the natural and obvious format for popular music.
It feels nice to sit Christmas-sweatered in front of a fire and contemplate your Bing Crosby album, but it's not actually a nice way to listen to Christmas music. Swapping sides interrupts your conversation with your fellow sweater-wearers, and a book of five records gives you five chances to lose or break one of them, which you're probably going to do. (And it's probably not going to be the one with "Faith of our Fathers" on it, because nobody's that lucky.) It demands active listening, but it's undermined by the way the last Andrews Sisters chorus of "Jingle Bells" gets you shifting toward the turntable in your seat.
The first Merry Christmas recording was not the ideal way to listen to Bing Crosby, but it was the only option available in 1945. Moving into 2013, completely unconstrained by questions of revolutions per minute or material, there's nothing limiting the way we listen to music. So how should we do it? How will we?
Eventually everybody remembers his first musical experience with Vaseline over the camera lens. Cassettes have become a cult object for people who aren't quite old enough to remember how terrible cassettes were, and the eight-track's tenure as a clunky-but-beloved failure has doubled, by now, its tenure as an actual medium.
Pull a first-generation iPod out of your pants pocket sometime — it will have to be a large pocket — and you can watch, in real time, as people develop a weird unexamined reverence for the way they used to physically interact with music.
But record albums were so ubiquitous and so perfectly timed with and instrumental to pop music's development that their features have been handed down as sacred to people who've never had to pull the White Album out of an album, even if they've done it anyway.
So at the edge of 2013, after cassettes and CDs and mp3 players and minidiscs, for a second, there, a record-or-album is about as long as one 45-rpm vinyl record, usually. It has two sides. It has liner notes and a cover that seems much too detailed, sometimes, to fit inside a jewel case behind a bunch of Wal-Mart promo stickers.
Little changed while those formats competed with and complemented each other. But as the word "album" becomes entirely figurative and physical media disappears entirely those ten-or-so song sets, with their coherent sounds and unifying ideas and album art and release dates, have been forced into an unwinnable competition with individual songs.
If buying a single always seemed a little wasteful in physical space — it'll just sit there, taking up one of the spots on your six-disc changer — digital music stores have inverted the question. Why buy a song you're not sure you want? It'll just take up space on your iPhone.
Pop music is more atomized now than it has been since those old 78s were first competing with sheet music and you thinking really hard about a vaudeville show you went to a few months ago. People who were raised on albums sometimes draw moral conclusions about this: Albums are dying because music isn't as good as it used to be, because attention spans are receding backward toward 140 characters, because Something Something Justin Bieber.
But it's an easier question than that, really — answering it doesn't require a piercing gaze into your little cousin's Directioner heart. Albums aren't the only way to buy music anymore, so they're not the only way to conceptualize music. That's it. To figure out what the future holds for the album, then, you have to go back to the way people will consume them in 2013. Spoiler: increasingly through streaming services, which is bad news for albums as we know them.
Let me date myself. I bought my favorite album at a Best Buy, with half of a Christmas gift card, and I got into my car that day vibrating at exactly the right teenage-angst wavelength for loud guitar pop. When I realized how good it was, how right it felt, I drove circles around my neighborhood until it was over.
If I'd heard it for the first time on Spotify, I would have been at home, puttering around on Twitter, and tracks one and two, which are supposed to be gapless, would have been split by an unpleasantly loud advertisement about Facebook-Liking a maker of brand-name condoms.
Streaming services ruin albums, but that's neither their fault nor an inherently bad thing; the act of streaming itself just obviates all the old advantages albums had over singles you had to leave your house to buy. There's always more free music on a streaming service — almost all the music your generation and your parents' and their parents' generations have ever made. And since you didn't spend money on anything in particular there's no spilt-milk feeling compelling you to squeeze 99 cents of enjoyment out of a bum track, let alone twelve dollars. Why listen to the worst song on a Lady Gaga album when you have exactly the same right to listen to the best songs on each Madonna album?
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.