Video never ended up killing the radio star. While the music video remains a valid medium in its own right, broadcast and satellite radio still reach millions. Similarly, mp3 did not kill the album star. Even though music fans can download single tracks all they want, they can also download full albums. Sure, this would affect the sales of top 40 hit factories whose albums are just one or two hits plus padding, but the greatest artists have always had a mind for the full package and they aren’t showing any signs of change there.
On July 14th, 1996, the file extension ‘.mp3’ was created and music listening would never be the same. The format provided a compressed, digital copy of a song that music fans could obtain at the click of a mouse. As internet speeds increased and hard drives became bigger, people could have thousands of songs (or albums) in one very convenient location. Furthermore, they could pick and choose exactly which tracks they wanted.
This, of course, led to a decline in album sales and left many questioning what the point of releasing full length albums was. Sufjan Stevens, arguably one of the greatest album composers of this time period, wasn’t sure what the use was of releasing another album in the five year period between Illinois and The Age of Adz, but he came back around, realizing that the power of a unified collection of songs almost always outweighs the power of a single.
And that’s really where the strength of the album lies. Much like a novel is much more rewarding than one well written chapter or a film is often more powerful than a single scene, a song can have a powerful meaning or message, but an album can go far beyond that. An album can have a central message, a linear concept, a thematic concept, or it can simply be a collection of songs that deal with various feelings the writer was having at a specific time/place. An album is multifaceted, but it has character, it has a sound, it has a voice. It can establish recurring themes (words or music) and it can have more dynamics than the average song. It’s the modern-day equivalent of a symphony. And we are still studying, performing and listening to symphonies written centuries ago. They will never die. It stands to reason that the album will do the same, only now we have definitive recordings that will last virtually forever.
So, here we list 100 albums that rank among the greatest of their time (spanning July ’96 through today) and prove that the format is here to stay. Then we try to sum up said greatness in about 150 words. You’ll find some surprising entries and some equally surprising omissions, but there’s no denying that the albums that did make the list have had a sizeable effect on music and culture and will be remembered for many years to come.