A.V. club: A brief history of visual albums from the Beatles to Beyoncé

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Beyoncé is but one of the musical artists of ambition whose records have offered treats for the eyes as well as for the ears.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — By now, almost everyone is well aware that Beyoncé has recently released her sixth album “Lemonade,” a successor to her groundbreaking 2013 self-titled visual album, “Beyoncé.” Like the previous album, it was released as somewhat a surprise (fans were already speculating that the album will drop when teasers for the short film were released online). But unlike its precursor, which featured 14 tracks accompanied by 17 standalone videos, it comes with only one 60-minute video that’s divided into sections, which premiered on HBO to coincide with the release of the album.

Response to “Lemonade” has been positive. It has garnered praise particularly for being more personal and politically charged than “Beyoncé.” The singer goes from smashing things with a baseball bat in one clip to somberly singing about forgiveness in another — spawning numerous think pieces on the recurring allusions to being cheated on. The latter half provides a sobering switching of gears when the themes shift to grappling with one’s roots, womanhood, and race; there’s an audio sample from Malcolm X’s speech, “Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?” — “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman.” — and there are appearances by the mothers of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin, all African American men killed by police.

That said, the accompanying video definitely puts a direct perspective on the songs they’re meant to encapsulate and drives each point home. On an album as message-driven as “Lemonade,” they’re not just welcome — they’re necessary.

Still, as innovative as the Queen has been, the visual album, or the concept surrounding it, had already existed in some form since at least as far back as the 1960s. Through the years, videos for singles have been useful for cross-promotion purposes and as creative outlets for the artists, especially in the heyday of MTV in the 1980s. For the listeners, they become a chance to take in the music in a whole new way. Being able to use two senses on something that only used to require one must have been revolutionary at the time.

The visualization of an entire album, then, is a challenging creative undertaking. What narratives tie it together? What imagery is consistent with and aesthetically appropriate for the music? It’s a chance for the musicians and singers to prove their vision, explore their depths, connect with people, and assume complete control of what they put out there. And many before Beyoncé have had the same idea all along.

The following is a list of selected artists that have largely contributed to the history of visual albums. As with any field, the path is paved with both hits and misses — not all of them really needed to have moving images spell out their meanings for the listeners.

                                                                          The Beatles

Like so many other aspects of music, for better or worse, the beginnings of the visual album can be traced back to the Beatles. For the better part of the 1960s, the quartet dabbled in the making of movies to accompany or be accompanied by their albums, to varying degrees of success. The first, and the most iconic, of these was “A Hard Day’s Night.” Released to critical acclaim at the height of Beatlemania, it’s a comedy in which the band played fictionalized versions of themselves. The “Can’t Buy Me Love” segment was particularly important, as it paved the way for modern music video techniques such as the cutting of images to the beat of the music and the montage style of showcasing the Beatles’ misadventures. The film would later inspire similar efforts from other bands and artists, including the Spice Girls, with their 1997 movie, “Spice World,” which corresponded to their second album, “Spiceworld.”

“Yellow Submarine,” the animated fantasy film that featured the Fab Four (as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) on a mission to protect an underwater paradise, was also well-received and even credited for advancing the perception of animation as a serious art form. The cartoonish style provided wonderful images for the more upbeat, cheerful songs.

Less loved were “Help!” from 1965 and “Magical Mystery Tour” from 1967. The former featured a villain in the form of an evil cult and the appearance of wild animals — more chaotic than “A Hard Day’s Night,” but it failed to jibe thematically with the featured songs for this same reason, and the visualization became more of a hindrance than anything. The latter, meanwhile, was a far-fetched and surreal (think a tiny tent that’s gigantic on the inside and an ending in a strip club) unscripted film that ran into a lot of hitches during production.

                                                                Michael Jackson

At some point in time (and to a considerable amount of people, even now) Michael Jackson was the innovator of the music video. It was through his doing that actual storylines began to make their way into the medium, and he considered his own work more like short films than anything else. The single “Thriller” would be the most obvious point of reference, but Jackson’s 1987 release, “Bad,” although not marketed as such, might actually be considered a visual album as 10 out of 11 tracks were given the visual treatment, and most of them appeared in “Moonwalker,” the anthology film released in 1988 to promote the album. Although it was entertaining and visually appealing, some segments depicted Jackson transforming into a claymation rabbit and even a car — understandable, since the movie was marketed for the younger crowd, but a bit on the farcical side for an album built on themes of more mature romance, paranoia, racial profiling, and the invasion of privacy.


Jackson’s contemporary Prince is also of note, having released his sixth album, “Purple Rain,” as the soundtrack to his 1984 film of the same name, in which he starred as a tortured young musician who must overcome the pitfalls of following one’s dreams. The movie captured the 80s in all its gaudy, ruffled, purple (of course) glory: Visually, it comes across as an unintentional period piece, but its true strength lies within its music, which remains timeless, fervent, and galvanic, more so following the untimely death of the icon behind it.

                                                                       Animal Collective

As a whole, the idea behind the visual album is surprisingly a relatively new concept. There’s no definitive list of musical works that can be classified as such, and Wikipedia doesn’t even have an article for it yet. A Google search for “visual album wiki” garners 38,000 results, and Beyoncé dominates the first page among a handful of other artists, one of which is Animal Collective.

“ODDSAC,” the quartet’s 2010 release, is arguably the first to be marketed as a visual album, and the band is even sometimes reported to have coined the term. Laconically speaking, it’s an experimental film set to experimental music. The two complement each other: The music reflects the video, and the video reflects the music. More specifically, it’s a sensory overload of psychedelia — flashing lights, distorted imagery, zero plot, and lo-fi footage of the band alongside other actors — with a soundtrack of equally distorted, melodically complex songs.

                                                                           Kanye West

The influence of Jackson and Prince are very apparent in Kanye West’s 2010 short film, “Runaway,” which acts as an all-encompassing music video for songs from his album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and uses magical realism to tell the story of a doomed romance between a man (West, also the director) and a woman that happens to be half-phoenix. Visually compelling, “Runaway” combines images of an exploding car, a carnival, ballerinas in tutus, stargazing, and the phoenix herself to tie together a surreal graphic depiction of West’s music that, however frenzied and scattered, does it justice. It is, indeed, a beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy.

                                                                     Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab for Cutie took a different approach. Following the release of their major-label debut, “Plans,” in 2005, they made a call for video proposals for every song on the album and made sure to give the would-be directors a wide berth for creativity. A worldwide response resulted in the selection of 12 finalists who were awarded budgets that would allow them to make their visions for the songs a reality, and in 2006, “Directions” was released. Despite being a mishmash of input and interpretation from several people outside the band itself and being devoid of the members’ personal handiwork and presence in the videos, the video anthology is consistent and, more importantly, true to the essence of “Plans.” The project’s goal to curate videos that are able to stand both as individual pieces and as parts of one unifying concept was realized.

                                                                  Noah and the Whale

The now-defunct English band Noah and the Whale made attempts at mixing music and filmmaking as well, the first of which was 2009’s “The First Days of Spring.” The album painstakingly detailed the breakup between Charlie Fink, the singer and guitarist, and Laura Marling, a former band member who now has a career of her own. The accompanying film, despite being somewhat incomplete, mirrored the album’s narrative and emotional depth, and the imagery was equal parts buoyant and nostalgic.

Meanwhile, their 2013 album, “Heart of Nowhere,” which also happens to be their last, was conceptualized when Fink returned home after touring and found out that one of his friends had gotten engaged. The feeling of disconnect drove him to write songs about youth, the passage of time, and the loss of innocence. These are accompanied by a 40-minute film of the same name, about a dystopian island where teens are stripped of their memories for integration into society, with the plot focusing on a young band’s last hurrah. “Heart of Nowhere” is more solid and more plot- and message-driven than “The First Days of Spring.” Only two of the songs on the album are featured in their entireties, while the rest are deconstructed to become part of the musical score, but the emotions Fink wanted to evoke are in full force, and the visuals — mixing edgy, nondescript city exteriors with the soft, iridescent hues of youthful abandon — reflect the starkness and poignancy of these feelings.