The two big formats that have long ruled over popular music are the single and the album. They have a great duality between them: the song and the collection; the sliver and the whole; the appetizer and the main course. Albums are the full-length format long considered pop music’s ultimate artistic medium, while the hit single is the galvanizing force that sells albums while blaring from millions of radios, televisions, YouTube windows and cell phones. I’ve long been fascinated by a slightly more ephemeral concept that exists somewhere in between: the singles campaign for an album. The way an artist or label chooses which songs are released to radio to promote an album, and the sequence in which they’re released, often forms a kind of narrative just as much as the running order of the album itself.
Of course, that narrative is often largely about how successful those songs are as singles, and they are often chosen and judged purely by their charting potential. But at its best, a singles campaign is as much an art form as it is a marketing tool. There are formulas and clichés—lead with the stylistic curveball and follow it with the surefire hit; start with an uptempo first single, then bring out the ballad second; and, of course, throw songs at the wall for the fourth and fifth singles if the artist has the profile and the promotional budget to go that far.
Just as sports fans often play Monday morning quarterback, analyzing how their home team did in the big game and how they would’ve made better choices, music fans are prone to imagining a more ideal world, one in which their favorite albums had better production and their cult favorites were worldwide superstars. For me, that often means speculating on and critiquing which songs were released as singles from an album.
In the pre-Internet age, I used to enjoy buying a new album still on its first single and taking note of what other songs were listed on the sticker on the cover, then waiting to see if those did indeed become the follow-up singles. Now, it’s a little easier to find out what the next single from a given album will be, but even that decision can be switched at the last minute. Here’s a look at some of the 2010 and 2011 albums that have been spinning off hits for the past few months, and an analysis of their singles campaigns as both commercial accomplishments and artistic statements.
The Foo Fighters’ Wasting Light and its leadoff cut “Rope” have been among my favorite albums and singles in mainstream rock this year, with only a couple of momentum killers scattered through the album’s otherwise wall-to-wall run of anthemic, uptempo stadium rock. When I first got the album, I would’ve been happy with just about any song from Light as a single—except the sappy buzzkills that were actually promoted by the label. Both the second single “Walk” and the recent follow-up “These Days” are overly sentimental tracks with long guitar-and-vocals intros before the rhythm section kicks in. Who really wants to listen to the Foo Fighters without drums? Here’s hoping the current U.K. single “Arlandria” gets released here, or that they throw a bone to hard rock radio with “Bridge Burning.” The chances of that happening are slim, though; pretty much every Foo Fighters album has had three big radio hits, and not four.
Lady Gaga’s album cycle for Born This Way is winding down, and she seems somehow far less exciting and important than she did a year ago. It’s tempting to blame the album’s singles. But in retrospect, I’m not sure what I would’ve done differently with Born, which is consistently enjoyable even if it doesn’t contain any four-minute masterpiece on the level of “Bad Romance.” The divisive title track and largely despised “Judas” were just fine by me, and “The Edge of Glory” is one of my favorite songs of the year. I think instead of “Yoü And I” or the upcoming “Marry The Night,” I think “Hair” might have been a better release, but that may be affected by how much I enjoy the Gaga/Clarence Clemons dynamic on that song and “Edge.”
A successful singles campaign I’ve been pretty confounded by is the one for Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch The Throne. The album was launched so poorly with the initial lead single “H*A*M,” which awkwardly matched the two superstars with producer of the moment Lex Luger, that the follow-up, “Otis,” seemed more like a calculatedly reassuring return to familiar Roc-A-Fella soul beats than an actual good song. When the album was released, “That’s My Bitch” immediately leaped out ot me as an obvious hit, but I thought maybe the explicit title would keep it from being released to radio. That seems like an irrelevant concern now that “Niggas In Paris,” which I still regard as flat-out annoying, is played on urban radio around the clock.
There’s a huge gap between my enthusiasm for Lloyd’s great summer release King of Hearts and its latest single, “Dedication To My Ex (Miss That).” After two great R&B radio hits, “Lay It Down” and “Cupid,” preceded the album, “Dedication” was crass in every sense of the word, matching profane lyrics to a kitschy retro soul track in a shameless attempt to make a formula from the success of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You.” It didn’t work too well—the track only got to No. 30 on the Pop 100 while faring no better than Lloyd’s other recent singles on the R&B chart and the Hot 100. Meanwhile, the album is still ripe with would-be urban radio hits like “Jigsaw” and “Shake It 4 Daddy,” if his label hasn’t already given up on the record.
I have an even wider enthusiasm gap for Beyoncé’s 4 and what I consider probably the worst singles campaign of 2011. The underperforming lead single “Run The World (Girls)” was widely regarded as a lousy choice, but I’ll go further and say that the more warmly received follow-ups “Best Thing I Never Had” and “Party” are both among the album’s worst and most unrepresentative songs. Now that the wonderful “Countdown” is finally a single, it’s still lagging behind the more popular “Party,” leaving me to grumble that perhaps it would’ve had enough momentum to be a serious hit if released earlier in the album cycle. Meanwhile, great songs like “Love On Top” and “1 + 1” have had videos and minor radio airplay, but never really felt like they had major hit potential.
You know something’s wrong with 4‘s run of singles when Beyoncé, one of the most reliable hitmakers of the past decade, can’t get a top-ten hit. Five of her seven previous albums, as a solo artist or as a member of Destiny’s Child, featured at least one chart-topping Hot 100 smash, and the other two had songs that reached No. 3. By comparison, the highest any single from 4 has gotten is “Best Thing”‘s modest peak at No. 16. Beyoncé has always taken chances flooding the market—2006’s B’Day spun off a new single every two months for nearly a year—and this was back when most pop artists were still obeying the old three-month standard—and singles from 2008’s double album I Am… Sasha Fierce were released two at a time, one from each disc. But those albums had huge overnight smashes like “Irreplaceable” and “Single Ladies” riding high while the follow-up singles made smaller waves. When it became clear “Run The World” wasn’t going to be that kind of song for her this time around, it doesn’t seem like Beyoncé had a backup plan.
If the music industry let me loose like a kid in a pet store, setting all my favorite songs of the year free to be heard on the radio, there are countless others I’d happily send directly to the airwaves. Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV has only been out for a couple of months, and already feels like it’s been bled dry of any halfway decent singles it had in it. I came around to somewhat enjoying “How To Love,” but lately I’m just disappointed that its counterpoint on the album, “How To Hate” featuring T-Pain, wasn’t released as the follow-up. J. Cole’s “Nobody’s Perfect” is a standout on Cole World: The Sideline Story, and its great Missy Elliott hook would help clear the path for her impending comeback. Kelly Clarkson’s fiery “You Can’t Win” would make a nicely aggressive change of pace to promote of her relatively mellow new album, Stronger. Similarly, the only really uptempo song on Incubus’s If Not Now, When?, “Switchblade,” would sound great on rock radio.
And of course, some albums that deserve hits have none at all. We’re big fans of Fall Out Boy singer Patrick Stump’s solo album Soul Punk around here, and it’s been dispiriting to watch the album’s underwhelming commercial performance. The single “This City” with Lupe Fiasco is a low point of the album and perhaps a bit too on the nose as a pop single, seemingly calculated as Chicago’s answer to “Empire State of Mind” (“Sears Tower of Mind”?) with an obnoxious little pinch of Jefferson Starship. I’ve heard “This City” on my local pop station a couple times, but it’s just not doing much damage on the charts, and I’d like to imagine that “Everybody Wants Somebody” or “The ‘I’ In Lie” or “Run Dry” would have better luck. “Greed” could possibly capitalize on the Occupy Wall Street zeitgeist for a left-field hit. Even if Stump’s solo work doesn’t have much rock radio potential, the album’s most aggressive cut, “Explode,” could still stand to be pushed to the alternative stations that still play Fall Out Boy’s early hits. In any event, Stump shouldn’t languish outside the Hot 100 while the likes of Gym Class Heroes and Cobra Starship are celebrating top ten hits.