See The Music: The Evolution of Visual Albums

From the Beatles to Beyoncé, longform music videos provide a powerful canvas

Last week MTV announced their 2016 VMA nominees and with it, a chance to legitimize visual albums as the natural successor to music videos. Long regarded as a gimmicky afterthought not unlike director’s commentary on DVD releases, visual albums have always existed on the periphery of the music industry.

It’s no small secret that music videos have been nearing extinction for quite some time now. We fondly remember MTV for making music videos popular, but they stopped broadcasting them in the early aughts. And with the exception of a few meme-able moments (“Hotline Bling,” “Gangnam Style”), music videos have become less of a necessity for churning out a mainstream hit.

Musicians today understand the need to create “events” around their albums, capturing our digital “fomo” and giving us reasons to interact. It’s why we’re dealing with an exhaustive number of surprise albums — they force us to pay attention, at least for now.

But Beyoncé changed the conversation by making her latest album a must-watch event, not a must-listen. It may seem obvious, but it’s an important distinction. By capitalizing on our obsession with TV, Lemonade was treated to the same coverage you’d expect to see for Game of Thrones.

Though visual albums have existed conceptually for the past half-century, we’ve never truly defined what these albums actually consist of. The VMA’s clunkily-named “Breakthrough Long Form Video” is a testament to the cultural impact of Lemonade and provides us with an opportunity to understand and appreciate how visual albums have evolved over time.

Musical Films

The Beatles — A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Here’s where it all began.

The plot loosely involves Paul McCartney’s grandfather convincing Ringo to leave the venue and “experience life”— which leads the other Beatles on a frantic hunt to find their missing drummer. The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night wasn’t the first film to use a band in order to sell movie tickets (see: Elvis), but it’s influence on music videos warrants a mention over the likes of Love Me Tender.

Serge Gainsbourg — Histoire de Melody Nelson (1971)

Best described as “elegant filth,” Serge Gainsbourg’s visual album is arguably the first of its kind. Part autobiographical, part Nabokov — Histoire de Melody Nelson is an album about a Frenchman who crashes into a young girl riding a bicycle and the love affair that ensues.

Accompanied by the lush string arrangements of composer Jean-Claude Vannier and featuring his then-wife Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg’s Histoire de Melody Nelson is a highly influential concept album that will still challenge modern listeners.

Pink Floyd — The Wall (1982)

Released three years after Pink Floyd’s album of the same name, The Wall is a musical film about a rock star who builds a “wall” as a coping mechanism for his insanity and depression. The film developed a large cult following despite being written by vocalist and bassist Roger Waters after he began to feel disconnected from his fans.

Prince — Purple Rain (1984)

It’d be a shame not to mention the film based on what is widely regarded as Prince’s magnum opus, Purple Rain. Even if it doesn’t technically fit the model of a visual album, there’s enough narrative in here to separate it from being a glorified concert film.

Modern Visual Albums

Daft Punk — Interstella 5555 (2003)

Conceptualized during recording sessions for Discovery, Daft Punk teamed up with their childhood Leiji Matsumoto (of Captain Harlock fame) to create a sci-fi film about alien pop stars who are captured by a music executive and forced to play on Earth. Though there is a story, the film has no dialogue and few sound effects — which makes this visual album hard to enjoy if you aren’t a fan of their music.

Noah and the Whale — The First Days of Spring (2009)

A testament to the power of DIY, frontman Charlie Fink convinced his label to fund this project to go alongside the release of their second studio album of the same name. The First Days of Spring is one of the more cohesive visual albums on this list, but whether it’s considered required watching depends on your thoughts on mumblecore.

Animal Collective — ODDSAC (2010)

Animal Collective were the first to coin the term “visual album” with their 53 minute film that doubled as the only way fans could access the soundtrack. It’s heavy on imagery and doesn’t feature any dialogue — but deserves credit for introducing the concept of visual albums into our mainstream lexicon.

Kanye West — Runaway (2010)

Written and directed by Kanye while he was still in exile from the 2009 VMAs, Runaway was originally designed to be a full visual album for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Over five years later, it feels like the prototype for modern visual albums.

Girl Talk — Girl Walk, All Day (2011)

This one’s a stretch considering Gregg Gillis of Girl Talk didn’t actually have anything to do with this film — but it’s certainly a blast to watch. Funded through a Kickstarter campaign, Girl Walk, All Day follows “the Girl,” “the Gentleman,” and “the Creep” as they traverse NYC and scare unsuspecting tourists.

Dirty Projectors — Hi Custodian (2012)

Drawing inspiration from the likes of Kanye’s Runaway and Prince movies, Dirty Projector’s Hi Custodian combines surreal imagery with musical performance to create a story about spiritual death and rebirth.

Beyoncé — Lemonade (2016)

There’s not much more to say that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. Beyoncé’s Lemonade is without a doubt, the new standard for visual albums and a realization of the true potential of the format.

Honorable Mentions: Michael Jackson — Moonwalker, TV on the Radio — Nine Types of Light, Bon Iver — Bon Iver, Bon Iver, Nightwish — Imaginaerum, Suede — Night Thoughts, and Justin Bieber — Purpose

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