An album or record album is a collection of related audio or music tracks distributed to the public. The most common way is through commercial distribution, although smaller artists will often distribute directly to the public by selling their albums at live concerts or on their websites.
The term "record album" originated from the fact that 78-RPM phonograph disc records were kept in a bound container resembling a photograph album. The first collection of records to be called an "album" was Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, released in April 1909 as a four-disc set by Odeon Records. It retailed for 16 shillings (approximately £56 or US$101 in 2005 currency).
In 1948, Columbia produced the first 12-inch, 33⅓-RPM microgroove record made of vinyl. With a running time of 23 minutes per side, these new records contained as much music as the old-style album of records and, thus, took on the name "album". For many years, the standard industry format for popular music was an album of twelve songs, originally the number related to payment of composer royalties.
Originally, albums ranged in duration from half an hour to an hour, depending on the genre and record label. American pop albums tended to be around a half hour; British pop albums were somewhat longer, often containing 14 songs instead of 11 or 12; jazz albums were longer still; and classical albums were the longest of all. From the dawn of the "album era" (in jazz, about 1954; in rock, about 1962) until about the mid-1960s, albums were often recorded as quickly as possible, sometimes in single sessions. (Prestige Records and Blue Note Records were famous for this; as well, The Beatles' first album and The Byrds' first four albums were all largely recorded in single sessions.) In the 1960s, many performers issued two or more albums of new material every year.
By the late 1960s, the growing importance of albums and advances in studio recording led many rock groups to spend more time on each release, and through the 1970s, an interval of one or two years between albums became the norm. With the advent of compact discs, even longer periods between new recordings have become common; however, in some genres such as indie rock, groups often continue to produce albums at the rate of one a year.
Vinyl LP records have two sides, each comprising one half of the album. If a pop or rock album contained tracks released separately as commercial singles, these were often traditionally placed in particular positions on the album. A common configuration was to have the album led off by the second and third singles, followed by a ballad. The first single would lead off side 2. In the past, many singles (such as the Beatles' "Hey Jude") did not appear on albums, but others (such as the Beatles' "Come Together" and "Something") were also part of an album released concurrently. Today many commercial albums of music tracks feature one or more singles, which are released separately to radio, TV or the Internet as a way of promoting the album. Albums have also been issued that are compilations of older tracks not originally released together, such as singles not originally found on albums, b-sides of singles, or unfinished "demo" recordings.
Album sets of the past were arranged "in sequence" for phonographs equipped with record changers. In the case of a two-record set, for example, sides one and four would be printed on one record, and sides two and three on the other. The two records would then be stacked up on a spindle especially equipped to handle such albums, with side one on the bottom and side two on the top. The record containing side one would then automatically drop down on the turntable, and the tone arm containing the stylus needle would then automatically play the record. When that side was finished, the tone arm would swing back to allow the record containing side two to drop down on top of the record containing side one, and automatically begin to play. When that was done, the entire stack could be picked up, flipped over (as a stack, without rearranging) and put back on the spindle, and sides three and four would play, without further operator intervention.
Record changers persisted throughout the LP era, but were discontinued after it was discovered that the stacking up of records had the potential to warp them.
Today, with the vinyl record no longer being used as the primary form of distribution, the term "album" can still be applied to any sound recording collection, such as those on compact disc, MiniDisc, Compact audio cassette, and digital or MP3 albums. Cover art is also considered an integral part of the album. Many albums also come with liner notes and inserts giving background information or analysis of the recording, reprinted lyrics, images of the performers, or additional artwork and text. These are now often found in the form of CD booklets.
According to the rules of the UK Charts, a recording counts as an "album" if either it has more than four tracks or lasts more than 25 minutes. Sometimes shorter albums are referred to as "mini-albums" or EPs. Albums such as Tubular Bells, Amarok, Hergest Ridge by Mike Oldfield, and Yes's Close to the Edge, include fewer than four tracks. Other artists such as Pinhead Gunpowder refer to their own releases under 25 minutes as "albums" despite the normal distinction.
If an album becomes too long to fit a single vinyl record or CD, a recording artist may make the decision to release a double album where two vinyl LPs or compact discs are packaged together in a single case, or a triple album containing three LPs or compact discs.
Recording artists who have an extensive back catalog will often re-release several CDs in one single box with a unified design, often containing one or more albums, or a compilation of previously unreleased recordings. These are known as box sets. Some musical artists have also released more than three compact discs or LP records of new recordings at once, in the form of boxed sets, although in that case the work is still usually considered to be an album.