If you listen to music on the internet — and I’d assume you do, since you also apparently read about music on the internet — there’s a cycle we’re all intimately familiar with. A band or performer, we’ll call them Band X, announces that the hiatus between today and their last album is over in those most mundane way: They change the branding on their social media. Then, usually within a week — and sometimes using a countdown clock — Band X announces that their new album, worked on for one, three, five, or 15 years, is going to be out in a few months (or sometimes in a week). Band X will usually accompany the announcement of said record with an announcement of a new single, or, if they’re really going for it, will release that single right away with the announcement, across social media platforms and DSPs. These singles then become the main tool with which people decide to feel “hyped” about any given album. “The new Band X album will be out in July, but the singles haven’t grabbed me” you’ll say to your Twitter feed. “The Band X singles have left me feeling cold” you’ll tell your 87 Facebook friends. Your post about Band X’s new single being [five flame emojis] will get 4 likes.
That last bit, about how people judge albums based on pre-release singles and very little else is the issue that brings us here today. Because I, dear reader, avoid pre-release singles like the plague. The singles from the new Gorillaz album? Haven’t heard them. I didn’t hear “Nice For What” until I heard it in the most old fashioned of ways: on terrestrial radio (I still haven’t heard “God’s Plan”). Multiple albums I’m anticipating for later this year have singles out, but I won’t add them to my queue on Spotify. In a time when music is the most easily consumable it’s arguably ever been — I can add the entire Michael Jackson oeuvre to my phone through a half-open eye while lying in bed in my underwear — I refuse to consider any song specifically made to fit on an album without it being played on said album. It’s possible to carry thousands of albums on my phone; I refuse to listen to singles released in advance of the album removed of their specific context. I want the whole picture before I decide if I like The Future and the Past; I don’t want to judge whether or not I should listen based on (the admittedly amazing) “Short Court Style.”
When talking about this preference with my Vinyl Me, Please co-workers, I was called a variety of things, but crazy was the most prevalent. “Who can wait for the full album when [RANDOM SONG] is so good,” they all ask. But it turns out I’m not alone: I Tweeted that I was looking for people who avoid pre-release singles, and got dozens of DMs from others who felt the same way I do.
“I once heard Elton John say something to the effect of “Listening to one song off an album is like looking at one brushstroke of the Mona Lisa,” Nathan D. Zacharias told me. “I think he was being interviewed by Conan maybe 7 or 8 years ago. Hearing that is what first got me listening to full albums and eventually starting a vinyl collection. Context is so important. I won’t watch movie trailers either.”
I don’t know that a specific event lead me to my anti-singles stance, but for most of the people who responded, they could trace their anti-single stance to one specific event.
“The last time I remember seeking out and being excited about a lead single was when Kings of Leon released ‘On Call’ before Because of the Times,” Michael McAndrew told me. “Me and my buddies all worked at a pizza place and I was about to leave for a delivery when the premiere came on 101.5 and I yelled into the pizza shop and everyone came out to listen. Shortly after that time, I started feeling like lead singles were misleading me.”
For others, it was realizing that some albums are constructed specifically to be resistant to being cut up into singles.
“I realized that a lot of albums are meant to be listen at one time (Dark Side of The Moon, etc.) and that by listening to pre-release singles I wasn't experiencing songs in the right context of the album, which could sometimes completely change the meaning of the song,” @Bdm105 told me.
Just look at the way people treated the new Arctic Monkeys album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, which was announced weeks in advance, but which came without singles before the album’s May 11 release date. There were rumblings all over social media about how that probably meant that the new album was going to be “difficult,” but what that strategy actually did was prevent people from leaping to wild conclusions about the album based on a single slice of it. It isn’t a difficult album; it’s just one that is entirely different than you’d ever assume the follow-up to AM would be. The Arctics didn’t get blown out by hype, and they maintained that their album was meant to be heard in full; they didn’t release a music video until after the album was out for a couple days. I don’t think you’d find anyone who claims their experience with Tranquility Base was harmed by not getting a single they could hear before the album. And same goes for ye-who-shall-not-be-named dominating every Friday with a new album release.
I’m not crazy enough to suggest that everyone should follow my lead and stop listening to pre-release singles. I’m not out here trying to yuck your yum. But I’d suggest you really consider what your life could be like if you waited to hear the new single from a band you love in the context of the album, where it belongs.
Andrew Winistorfer is VMP’s Classics & Country Director, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Philadelphia International Records, The Story of Quincy Jones, The Story of Impulse and the VMP Classics release of Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying, and executive produced the VMP Anthology The Story of Vanguard. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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