“[iTunes has shown that] the natural unit of the album is the track.”
This is a quote (more or less direct) from David Weinberg, and I was reminded of it while reading Chris Anderson’s article “The Long Tail” in Wired magazine, when he discusses the online music industry, since he appears to assume a similar viewpoint to what Weinberg stated explicitly.
Put briefly, they are both wrong. The natural unit of the album is the album, and the track relates to the album as a chapter relates to a book.
Now, I’ll concede that there are a number of “albums” for which Weinberg’s statement would hold true. Compilation albums come to mind, and there are many records and CDs whose tracks have nothing in common with each other besides the date of their recording. Really, though, I’m hesitant to refer to these as albums at all, because the term “album” refers to a collection of songs and there is no reason to collect a bunch of songs together unless there is some significant relationship between them. For instance, the tracks of an album may all further a common story (as on Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Startdust and the Spiders from Mars), theme (such as Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon), or even just a style (such as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). However, there is no term that I’m aware of for thrown-together compilations of music, so I must refer to them as albums.
What Weinberg and others I’ve spoken to on the topic of iTunes and online music stores (or, more commonly, piracy) don’t seem to appreciate is that a talented artist is able to make the most of his medium. The Beatles generally get credit for figuring this out regarding the LP. Put simply, if a band is going to have a bunch of songs collected together on a single disc, shouldn’t the songs relate to each other somehow? So, following Paul McCartney’s idea, the band put together Sgt. Pepper, and other bands followed their lead and took the concept further.
Sgt. Pepper uses a very loose concept, but the album does work best when listened to as a single unit. Simon & Garfunkel employed a similar idea on Bookends, on which every song relates to friendship and nostalgia – some more so than others, admitedly, but again there is a definite effect created by listening to the album as it was intended that is lost when the tracks are split up. A few years later, The Who released Tommy, in which every song tells the next part in the titular hero’s story. Tommy is likely the best example for my argument, because it quite simply does not work when split up or rearranged. One may as well split up the chapters of Babbitt or The Scarlet Letter. It just does not function as a work of art anymore.