Saturday, September 5, 2009

Michael Jackson and the Concept of the Album

One of the oddest, and most deceptive, facts of Michael Jackson’s career is that in the 80s, the decade that stands as the pinnacle of his achievement, Michael Jackson released precisely two albums: Thriller in 1982 and Bad in 1987. When you consider his entire domination over the 80s, it’s really difficult to reconcile that fact: can it be true? There’s so much 1980s Michael Jackson material out there, isn’t there?

But the reason why I call it a ‘deceptive’ fact is precisely because of his ubiquity during this era (plus the fact that he released major albums in 1979 and 1991). One of Michael Jackson’s least considered, but ultimately perhaps one of his biggest, effects on our consumption of music is the way he caused us to reconsider the very concept of the album. The ridiculous sales figures generated by those four albums have much to do with they way they were conceived for maximum impact. The facts are astounding: Off the Wall: five singles in ten tracks, Thriller: seven singles in nine tracks, Bad: nine singles in eleven tracks, Dangerous: nine singles in 14 tracks. A particularly amazing feat: in the 1980s, Michael Jackson released a total of four songs that weren’t singles (excluding work with his brothers).

Nobody had ever constructed albums like this before, and nobody except his sister has really done it since. I once heard it said that each of these four albums function like ‘greatest hits’ sets, and there’s some truth to that, really: his one-time father-in-law Elvis Presley put out volumes of his ‘greatest hits’ “Golden Records” collections with a comparable frequency in the 1960s: Michael Jackson just elected not to release the other stuff, the filler ‘album tracks’: with those reports of Michael Jackson choosing album tracklists from 50 or 100 recorded tracks, the comparison becomes even more exacting. Michael Jackson could have released more albums than he did: he just seems to have arrived at the decision that a song not worthy of single status doesn’t deserve to come out at all. After a decade or more of horribly bloated albums of 75 or 150 minutes in length, we’re kind of entering a post-album era, where what primarily remains is the one-song download (or YouTube clip): the ‘single’ has returned.

Michael Jackson was made for this current era just as much as he helped to make it. Pity he won’t be here to take advantage of it.

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