Commenting on Guns N’ Roses’ long-delayed Chinese Democracy album in 2008, music critic Chuck Klosterman proclaimed it “the last album that will be marketed as a collection of autonomous-but-connected songs ... This is the end of that.” The album, it seems, is still ending: Sales dropped another 17.7 percent in 2017 as streaming services allowing listeners to easily curate their own playlists displace the last of the mid-2000s iTunes boom and single-song downloads.
With album sales no longer a premium revenue driver, top artists have been freed to release steady streams of singles without even the expectation of eventually releasing proper albums to host them. (See: Selena Gomez, “Bad Liar” and “Back to You”; Calvin Harris, “One Kiss” and “Promises”; and Charli XCX, “Boys” and “1999.”) “Despacito,” the longest-reigning Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 of 2017 at 16 weeks, has yet to appear on a full-length from Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee or Justin Bieber. Albums are no longer a necessity for mainstream success in the pop world. But they’re not irrelevant -- or, more to the point, unadaptable.
Indeed, artists are thriving more than ever by experimenting with the form. Kanye West commanded headlines in May and June with his promise of five separate seven-track LPs from his stable of G.O.O.D. Music artists -- he produced them all, and Ye and the Kid Cudi collaboration Kids See Ghosts featured him as a lead artist. The albums were anomalies both in their length (at just seven tracks, they would’ve been dismissed in past eras as EPs or mini-albums) and their last-second creation and delivery, with West still tinkering with each set up to the moment of release. (He famously snapped the cover photo for his own Ye during his ride to the album’s live debut in Wyoming.) The five LPs drew a range of responses from critics and fans but consistently managed strong first-week numbers. All but Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E. debuted in the top five of the Billboard 200.