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.

Double-albums

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)

 

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FOOTNOTES:

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.

 


 

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

  1. Hello Neal, This article nails it. One point that you mentioned I have to comment on: The use of the word “vinyls” instead of records. They are called records! Call them records. It makes me want to shout it from the rooftops. Also, in regards the Laphroaig ( which I have had only once), how do you compare it to the more common single malt (at least here in the US) that is the ten year old Glenliver (if they can gat away with calling them vinyls, I can make up my own word, too)? Thank you

    Reply
    • G

      I am saving “vinyls” for its own article.

      The Glenlivet tastes like water purified from the most God-blessed bog in Scotland.

      Laphroaig tastes like the bottom of that bog.

      N

      PS: If you are gonna try Laphroaig a second time, the 15-year-old is smoother and easier on the palate. Once you learn to like that, slip on through to the 10-year-old, which has considerably more “character.”

      Reply

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