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.
Meanwhile, Drake and Migos took a more-is-more approach with Scorpion and Culture II, respectively. Sets that would’ve been side-eyed as overcooked double albums during the CD age, the tourmates’ two albums combine for a whopping 49 tracks and over 200 minutes. But they had their own utility for the 2018 market. Rather than insisting on a single-listen experience, they flooded the zone with dozens of songs that not only boosted their own streaming totals but allowed listeners to up-vote their favorites. Drake’s “In My Feelings” wasn’t even tabbed as a single until fans began streaming it off Scorpion and it spawned a viral dance challenge. The song received a video and promotional push soon after and eventually became the year’s second-longest-running Hot 100 No. 1, with 10 weeks on top, behind “God’s Plan.”
The Beyoncé-style element of surprise also kept the album relevant. After failing to generate a hit with Revival in 2017, Eminem unexpectedly dropped Kamikaze in August and outperformed Revival’s first week by 167,000 units, recapturing old fans and even setting off one of the year’s most high-profile rap beefs with Machine Gun Kelly. Similarly, after five years of contractual drama with parent label Cash Money Records and estranged mentor Bryan “Birdman” Williams, Lil Wayne released Tha Carter V just two days after announcing its release date. An immediate streaming blockbuster, it debuted 22 of its 23 tracks on the Hot 100 and reintroduced the superstar to the mainstream’s center. Surprise wasn’t the only trick pop stars successfully borrowed from Beyoncé this year, either — Janelle Monáe also turned her Dirty Computer sci-fi opus into a visual album, garnering the best first-week numbers of her career.
Other major artists reached new heights simply by making the strongest, most coherent albums of their careers and giving them traditional rollouts. The sun-baked ache of Kacey Musgraves’ unanimously praised Golden Hour landed her in the top five of the Billboard 200 (for a third time) in April, and even won the Country Music Association Award for album of the year in November — a rare victory for an album without any Hot 100 hit singles. And Ariana Grande affirmed her place atop pop’s A-list in August with Sweetener, its velvety soul and meditative melancholy transitioning her from a former teen-pop star to a best-selling adult artist.
Grande has expressed impatience with the album format and how it tends to divide an artist’s career into rigid segments. She has vowed to move more quickly with her releases in the future, tweeting “i love music i ain’t waiting another 2 years to drop it” in October, following through on her promise in November with “Thank U, Next,” a surprise and surprisingly gracious breakup single that she dropped in the wake of her split with fiancé Pete Davidson. The song became her first Hot 100 No. 1 and has held on for four weeks and counting.
Grande has also announced an album of the same name to go with her latest smash. It might not come in a traditional (or even physical) package, it could be interminably long or conspicuously short, and we may not know anything concrete about it until seconds before it drops. But whatever form it arrives in, it’ll confirm what we should know by now as a culture: We’re not “thank you, next”-ing the album anytime soon.