The Lost Art of the Non-Album Single

In the glory age of rock music (mid 1960s-early 1970s), the single was conceptualized as its own entity, separate from long-playing records. Particularly in Britain (where arguably the best music was being made), the album was a unified unit, not to be disjointed by an out-of-place single. Bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones crafted their most commercially-appealing work for the singles market and AM radio airplay, leaving their more “artistic” exploration to the long-playing format. Led Zeppelin honored this distinction to such an extent that the group did not officially release singles from its monolithic albums (some of the band’s songs were released as singles without its consent). American labels, constantly thinking about ensuring profits, often insisted on including singles on albums or reconfigured the albums themselves (see the American versions of the early Stones and Beatles LPs). Along with the rock titans from across the Atlantic, American artists like the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and the Byrds crafted radio ready 7” sides between LPs as well.

This notion of between-album major works must have both excited and jaded listeners. This business model ensured constant saturation from your favorite bands. Imagine obtaining Rubber Soul in December 1965 and hearing the “Paperback Writer”/”Rain” single only six months later — which itself was merely a stopgap until Revolver’s August 1966 release. This kind of output is remarkable considering major contemporary artists routinely take a half-decade to release follow ups. The great rock bands of the ’60s were so prolific that many of their albums stand up as the greatest of the genre while lacking their most popular concurrent works. Imagine “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” replacing “Within You, Without You” and “Good Morning, Good Morning” on the Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. How nicely would Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited look with “Positively 4th Street” replacing “From a Buick 6”?

After recently getting into physical vinyl as my main source of audio, the rarity and uniqueness of the non-album 45 have imbued those by my favorite artists with a certain mystique. Thinking in these terms has allowed me to fully appreciate the trajectory of the ’60s giants. The Beach Boys’ “The Little Girl I Once Knew” baffled audiences with its stop-start technique while highlighting where Brian was preparing to go with the monumental Pet Sounds. “Good Vibrations” took the pop single to its furthest extreme (I am aware it is on Smiley Smile, but as after-the-fact filler). The Rolling Stones released two of their greatest works in between albums: “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women”. Consider the Byrds’ criminally overlooked “Lady Friend”, which hinted towards The Notorious Byrd Brothers.

The music industry is suffering economically for a myriad of reasons, many out of its control, but more alarming is the decline in quality. As a fairly informed person, I could not tell you what songs have been lighting up the singles charts these days (or even this decade). I find myself nostalgic for a time in which I never lived; when creativity, ambition, artistry, and commercial viability all coexisted on the radio dial. The album is a phenomenal format, don’t get me wrong, but there was something truly magical about Motown, the Brill Building, and the British Invasion simultaneously giving you the best two minutes and 30 seconds they had. And for those great singles which escaped inclusion on LPs: may your ethos continue to allure those in search of the complete story.