Culture Trips

Instant replay: how the pandemic gave albums time to breathe | Music

In the CD era, a new album could keep pop stars busy for the best part of a half-decade. Beyoncé eked nine singles from 2008’s double-disc opus I Am… Sasha Fierce, and Katy Perry brought her whipped-cream bazooka – that’s not a metaphor – to the UK twice on her globe-lapping tour for Teenage Dream, scoring seven Top 10s in the process. A pop era did not seem finished until the album was stripped to its carcass, and sometimes the juiciest bits came at the end: after two years on the road, Janet Jackson capped her Janet album with 1995’s remix collection, which turned If into heaven-sent piano house.

A good record deserves breathing room, something that artists, like the rest of us, have had their fair share of recently. After Covid put the kibosh on planned tours from the Weeknd, Lady Gaga and the Killers, they will (hopefully!) be taking their 2020 albums on the road this coming year instead. At best, these shows could feel like a victory lap for albums that had, through necessity, time to breathe in a fast-paced streaming world. It has created an inadvertent yet welcome return to the elongated album era of the 90s and 00s.

An increase in time to refine and rethink was all over pop last year, most prosaically with the uptick in deluxe album editions, a 2020 trend as omnipresent as smugly homemade sourdough on Instagram. Jhené Aiko released and rereleased her Grammy-nominated Chilombo in the span of a few months, while the young R&B veteran JoJo’s May-released album had three versions by the end of the summer.

Yet as album eras extend and tracklistings expand, tour setlists gain elasticity: Ariana Grande’s 2019 jaunt evolved into a showcase for both 2018’s Sweetener and its hasty follow-up Thank U, Next. And when Billie Eilish returns to the UK for her yet-to-be-rescheduled 2020 dates, chances are she will be armed with at least some of the 16 songs she says she’s made during quarantine. The release of Taylor Swift’s companion LPs Folklore and Evermore felt like era-stretching at its most organic, created in the headspace freed up after her summer tour for Lover was cancelled.

And Dua Lipa’s ever-evolving Future Nostalgia era proves that more can also be more. Not content with releasing 2020’s best pop album, Lipa spent the year vividly reimagining its cosmic-disco dreamscape in real time, with the help of both underground dance producers, via August’s Club Future Nostalgia remix project, and livestreamed duets with Kylie and Elton. She is planning a B-sides collection and September tour in 2021. “I don’t feel like an album should finish once it’s out,” she recently told Billboard. “Yes, people can hear it, but you can still create such a fun world around it.” She added: “We love to milk it.”

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