The Truth About Music: Play It Loud

"What's hot, what's not, and whats next in pop music"

Opinion: Give Life Back To Music: How RAM & Yeezus Tell Us Everything We Need to Know About Making A Successful Pop Album

Random Access Memory

What exactly qualifies an album as successful? On the one hand there is critical and word of mouth success. This kind of success is measured by how well an album is received by the professional and general listening community. The other is good old fashioned sales numbers. There are countless albums that fulfill one or the other of these qualifications, but very few that do both. Simply put, it’s about as doubtful My Bloody Valentine will top the Soundscan year end chart as it is Flo Rida will be king of the Pazz and Jop list. While one could quibble about the details, it’s fair to say a healthy combination of these two attributes deem an album a true success. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Yeezus and Random Access Memories, two albums released this year that are undeniably successful, but represent diametrically opposed idea’s of what pop music can be.

First, let’s consider these albums from a purely sonic perspective. Random Access Memories is a painstakingly professional record. Recorded in the most expensive studios in the world, with the best session musicians Daft Punk could find, RAM is a testament to the power of high fidelity. Harkening back to the 1970’s, when producers like credited RAM contributor Nile Rogers were churning out disco hits behind a cavalcade of vocalists-for-hire, the record is almost a concept album about the greatness that can be achieved when the methods of the old music industry are used to power a project of such specific vision. At 74 minutes, a good chunk of that instrumental, RAM is designed as background music, the perfect soundtrack to a mid-summer patio party.

West at Governors Ball Courtesy of OkayPlayer.com

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Yeezus. Opening with a crunching atonal synth line, Yeezus immediately announces it’s intentions, you are going to love this album in spite of it’s difficulty, and if you don’t Kanye could really give a shit. Clearly recorded with a fly by night intensity, Yeezus sounds like the work of someone who wanted to hand in the finished product of his vision before anyone had a chance to second guess it, himself included. Clocking in at 40 minutes, easily Kanye’s shortest effort, Yeezus is a brief, intense blast of industrial punk energy, aiming to prove that almost 60 years on, the concept of pop can still be shocking and innovative.

Secondly, let us consider the very different commercial marketing of the two records. After showing a few short teaser trailers during Saturday Night Live, Daft Punk released the full promotional clip for RAM at this year’s Coachella festival. Playing an abbreviated clip of soon-to-be smash “Get Lucky,” Daft Punk became the stars of the fest without even having to show up. This was followed by extensive behind the scenes interviews on Pitchfork, as well as an old fashioned radio campaign that resulted in “Get Lucky” becoming the hit of the summer.

For promoting his new release, Kanye decided, well, let’s just not promote it at all. Aside from a two song set on the suddenly very musically relevant SNL, Kanye did no promotion for the album. A release date was announced, but no singles, not even a promo clip. Playing at the Governors Ball a week before Yeezus’ release, Kanye plowed through several new tracks assuming the audience would love it, and if not, the exits are clearly marked. At the show, he went on a subdued rant about not wanting to be a part of the industry right now, even making a not too veiled crack about marketing during the NBA Finals. “We just wanted to make an album for y’all to jam to this summer” Kanye said with explosive glee, and by simply letting the album drop without a hint of promotion, he did his part to back up those words.

Now, it has to be noted that both Kanye and Daft Punk are titans of the music industry. While they haven’t had the same chart success as Kanye, Daft Punk are almost universally respected, and being so reclusive has given them the buzz they needed to launch a project like Random Access Memories the way they did. On the other side, while Yeezus has been a sales “success,” it is his lowest selling album to date, in some way’s proving that Kanye can have a hit even when he actively tries not to. The point is that a scrappy 4AD singer/songwriter probably isn’t going to go gold following either of these models. In the end, Random Access Memories and Yeezus are perfect examples of the opposing sides of pop music. The desire for broad success, juxtaposed with a desire to push the boundaries of music, regardless of public opinion. 2013 has been a damn good 7 months of music so far, and while it can be argued whether either of these albums are the “best” of the year, they are certainly the most important.

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