what is a “record album” and where did the term come from?

Es­ti­mated reading time is 7 min­utes.

THE WORLD TURNS AND WORDS EVOLVE. Some­times the evo­lu­tion of a word is gradual and log­ical and few no­tice the change. Some­times it hap­pens quickly—often through ig­no­rance and misuse—and the change is jar­ring. Today, a word can go through a tremen­dous up­heaval if one in­flu­en­tial person mis­uses it one time on the internet.

That one in­cor­rect usage can be picked up and re­it­er­ated lit­er­ally mil­lions of times in a matter of days. Tens of mil­lions of people then think that ‘this’ is ‘that’ and pro­ceed to in­cor­po­rate the in­cor­rect use into their everyday lan­guage. If the misuse is picked up by enough people and used long enough—Voila!—it’s in the dic­tio­naries (which are, alas, de­scrip­tive rather than pre­scrip­tive) and ce­mented into the language.

Most record col­lec­tors will think you’re an idiot if you say ‘vinyls.’ Why not just say ‘LP’ or ‘album’ like everyone else?

For ex­ample, somehow someone some­where con­fused lit­er­ally with fig­u­ra­tively and now people use the former when they mean the latter. So, when someone tells you that some­thing they are saying to you is “lit­er­ally so,” they may not lit­er­ally mean what they are lit­er­ally saying.

Or a clique—whether an in-group (“I’m in with the in-crowd and I know what the in-crowd knows”) or an out-group—can take a well-known word, phrase, or an ini­tialism and give it an­other meaning, turning it into jargon. The problem with this is that many people in that clique don’t re­alize that ‘their’ term has an­other meaning to other people out­side of that clique.

In the world of record col­lecting, the word vinyl refers to the com­pound used to make most 33⅓ rpm and 45 rpm records in most of the world since 1948. It is a short­ened ver­sion of polyvinyl chlo­ride, the world’s third-most widely pro­duced syn­thetic plastic polymer.


FrankSinatra TheVoiceOfFrankSinatra C 112 78 600

In 1946, Co­lumbia Records re­leased the first Frank Sinatra album, The Voice of Frank Sinatra (Co­lumbia C-112). The book-like jacket housed four 78 rpm records. Each record had one track per side, so the album fea­tured eight tracks. As Frankie recorded all eight, es­pe­cially for this set, The Voice of Frank Sinatra is also an “album” in the sense of the term that many modern users misuse it. (But that’s an­other story.)

Vinyl versus vinyls

Only a few years ago, I could prob­ably safely have said that everyone who knew any­thing about records knew ex­actly what vinyl meant. Today, that may not be true. Re­cently, a young record col­lector asked me a ques­tion on-line and re­ferred to “vinyls.”

I asked, “What are ‘vinyls’?”

It turns out that it’s is a hip­ster term for LP albums.

So I said, “Look, son. Most of the people who col­lect records will think you’re an idiot if you say vinyls. Why not just say LP or album like everyone else?” 1


Columbia CL 6001 600

Columbia ML 4001 600

In 1948, Co­lumbia Records in­tro­duced the 33⅓ rpm, long-playing, mi­crogroove record. The first pop title was a ten-inch album, The Voice of Frank Sinatra (CL-6001), a reissue of the 1946 album of the same title. The first clas­sical title was a twelve-inch album, Mendelssohn: Vi­olin Con­certo in E Minor per­formed by soloist Nathan Mil­stein (ML-4001).

What is an album?

And this brings me to the word album as it is used in ref­er­ence to records. The term pre­dates the in­tro­duc­tion of the modern long-playing record by decades: It was used in the hobby of col­lecting pho­tographs as far back as the 19th century. 

Since Co­lumbia Records in­tro­duced the 33⅓ rpm, long-playing, mi­crogroove record in June 1948—which is the an­swer to the second ques­tion in this ar­ti­cle’s title—the word album has re­ferred to that format since.

Columbia’s ini­tial ten-inch and twelve-inch LPs were housed in thick paper—not cardboard—jackets without an inner sleeve. So for a few years, an album con­sisted of just two parts:

•  a record
  a jacket 2

Card­board jackets with pro­tec­tive paper inner-sleeves quickly be­came the norm. At first, the inner sleeves were plain white paper but com­pa­nies soon began adding their com­pany name or logo to them. Even­tu­ally, com­pa­nies started printing ad­ver­tise­ments for other al­bums on those sleeves. For die-hard com­pletists, the cor­rect inner sleeve is part of the album as a whole.


Dylan BlondeOnBlonde s shrink sticker 600

Beatles WhiteAlbum magazine ad 600

Elvis FromMemphisToVegas shrink sticker 600

De­spite the fact that it feels like the term “double-album” has been around for­ever, it has not. In 1966, Co­lumbia ad­ver­tised Bob Dy­lan’s Blonde on Blonde as a “Deluxe 2-Record Set.” In 1968, Capitol ad­ver­tised The Bea­tles as a “two-record album.” In 1969, RCA Victor re­leased Elvis Pres­ley’s From Mem­phis to Vegas / From Vegas to Mem­phis, a two-record album with a sticker on the cover that refers to the album as just “this album.


There can be more than one record in an album but not more than one jacket. Let’s look at the 1946 Voice of Frank Sinatra album in the photo above: It con­sists of a binder-like jacket that opens like a book with four card­board leaves (or sleeves) that hold four 78 rpm records. It re­sem­bles a photo album, which is where the term record album orig­i­nated. In 1946, no one called the Sinatra set a quadruple-album; it was just a plain old record album.

I don’t know when the term double-album came into use, but it’s been around for a long time. It is usu­ally used to refer to an album that con­sists of one jacket with two records. Tech­ni­cally, it’s not a double-album at all, but a single album with two records. The same ap­plies to the term triple-album. Col­lec­tions of four or more records are usu­ally pack­aged in a box and are re­ferred to as boxed sets. 3

While these terms may be tech­ni­cally in­cor­rect, just about everyone in the field of buying and selling used and col­lectible records uses them. So they are prob­ably here to stay.


Beatles WhiteAlbum record 1000

This is a typ­ical copy of The Bea­tles album after years of han­dling and hun­dreds if not thou­sands of trips to the turntable. The glossy finish of the jacket readily picks up ink from being stacked against other al­bums. Here the owner added ad­he­sive tape to the bottom of the inner sleeve to keep the record from slip­ping through it.

The White Album

Using the Bea­tles’ two-record album from 1968 The Bea­tles (known uni­ver­sally as “The White Album”), the sim­plest ver­sion of this album would con­sist of the gate­fold white jacket with the two records and nothing else—just like with most two-record al­bums. (Al­though al­most every­body wants those pro­tec­tive inner sleeves.) 4

But John, Paul, George, and Ringo in­tended The Bea­tles to be a very spe­cial af­fair and in­cluded much more than a jacket with two records. The com­plete album con­sisted of ten parts:

•  one jacket
  two records
•  two inner sleeves
  one poster
•  four photos

In the US, Capitol pack­aged the records with white paper inner sleeves. The bonus poster is ad­dressed in the Fea­tured Image sec­tion below. The four photos were high-quality, glossy, color photos of the in­di­vidual Bea­tles. A com­plete copy of The Bea­tles with all of the above is what every col­lector wants in his col­lec­tion. 5

This brief ar­ticle was kicked off by this ques­tion on Quora: “What Did the Bea­tles Feel About the Second Album of the White Album?” Click on the link in the title to read a dif­ferent ver­sion of this ar­ticle. Please note that I am not trying to change cur­rent usage with this ar­ticle; I’m just pointing out a few things . . .


Beatles WhiteAlbum poster 590 1

FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page was cropped from the fold-open poster that was in­cluded with mil­lions of press­ings of The Bea­tles. The col­lage was as­sem­bled from snap­shots and con­tact sheets by artist Richard Hamilton: “As the music con­tained within was less a col­lab­o­ra­tion and more the re­sult of three dis­tinct song­writers in John, Paul, and George, so too did Hamilton’s de­sign, with its uti­liza­tion of solo shots of each band member, focus on The Bea­tles as in­di­vid­uals rather than a group.” (The White Album Project)





1   Yup, I’m ac­tu­ally starting to talk and act like one of those old geezers in the movies that refer to young whip­per­snap­pers as “son.”

2   In the UK and Eu­rope, jackets are re­ferred to as sleeves.

3   In the ’60s, Co­lumbia ex­per­i­mented with is­suing two dis­tinctly dif­ferent al­bums in the same shrinkwrap. For ex­ample, in 1968, Co­lumbia pack­aged Moby Grape’s Wow with a “free” bonus album, Grape Jam. While the package of two al­bums had one cat­alog number (CXS-3), each album had a sep­a­rate cat­alog number (CS-9613 and MGS-1, re­spec­tively). Some people re­ferred to these as double-albums, some as two-record sets, and others as two-fers (as in “two-‘fer’-the-price-of-one”).

4   The Bea­tles was is­sued by Par­lophone Records as Apple PMC-7067-7058 (mono) and PCS-7067-7068 (stereo) in most of the rest of the world. In the US, by Capitol Records is­sued it only in stereo as Apple SWBO-101.

5   Most col­lec­tors do not con­sider the shrinkwrap to be a part of the album proper, even if it in­cludes stickers unique to the album. It’s more of a pre­mium and it usu­ally adds a pre­mium to the value of the album.



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