For better or for worse, it seems like we won’t be getting any new Blake Shelton albums for a long time … or maybe ever. Whether that possibility bums you out or makes you sigh in relief — keep in mind that Shelton isn’t going anywhere.
In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Shelton admitted, “I don’t want to put out another album, I really don’t.” Instead, he hinted that his plan is to keep releasing music as it comes to him, to just put out single after single. “Do people care about (albums) anymore?” Shelton asked himself during his decision-making process. “I don’t know,” he concluded. But in an industry where streaming reigns supreme and singles drop like wildfire, Shelton can’t be alone in having doubts.
At the same time Shelton was swearing off releasing albums, his single “God’s Country” was climbing to its eventual spot atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Dark, moody and more southern rock than country pop, “God’s Country” was a departure for Shelton. Then came “Hell Right,” a nauseating return to his usual, featuring Trace Adkins. As of Jan. 21, his latest single is “Nobody But You,” a pleasant yet forgettable duet with Shelton’s girlfriend Gwen Stefani.
One read on Shelton’s latest offerings is freedom. Another is chaos. Unchained to curating a group of songs into an album, Shelton can release whatever he wants, whenever he wants. As a listener, I was refreshed to hear “God’s Country.” I thought that I was being introduced to a new side of Shelton — the serious side. But I was misled. His next two singles sound nothing like “God’s Country” and the promising direction suggested by that song became a missed opportunity.
This is precisely what Shelton is losing out on by forgoing albums — the chance to dive into a new sound, to be pulled in an artistic direction and stick with it long enough to explore where it could lead him. Making an album has the ability to improve the overall quality of the singles. More importantly, this prevents listeners from getting whiplash every time they hear new music from an artist. Albums are meant to anchor. They contextualize, constructing a world the singles can thrive in. In order to really sink your teeth into a new sound or idea or artist, you need more than three minutes with them.
Blake Shelton’s unique position within country music, and the greater music industry itself, cannot be ignored when analyzing his business strategies. Shelton holds the record for the most consecutive number ones on the country airplay chart. He’s a beloved personality inside and outside of the genre with gigs like hosting the American Country Music Awards and judging The Voice. Shelton could release static to country radio, and it would get airtime. Maybe that’s why Shelton is actually the perfect candidate to experiment with how he releases music — he doesn’t need an album to glue his songs together, his brand is enough.
Shelton isn’t the only country artist to have challenged the value of albums. In 2017, up-and-comer Hunter Hayes decided that he would simply release songs when he felt their stories needed to be heard, without any kind of album agenda. “It’s gonna be a little bit of everything,” he announced at the CMT Music Awards that year, “the big singles and the songs that just matter to me.” But none of the songs he ended up releasing, single or not, ended up catching speed. Eventually, Hayes relented. In October of 2019 he released his first album in five years, Wild Blue, and found himself further back in his country music career than where he left off with his sophomore record.
Pop artists have tried the same technique with great success. Selena Gomez released a string of hit singles in 2017 with “It Ain’t Me,” “Bad Liar,” “Fetish” and “Wolves” before eventually placing them on the Target edition of her album Rare two years later. Gomez’s success points to the artist being the key to pursuing the “single strategy.” Additionally, because of country radio’s dominance in determining what gets heard by which country artists, country music may be an even more conducive format to releasing album-less singles than pop — if you’re the right artist.
At the end of the day, I will always root for albums. Listening to a carefully crafted collection of songs from top to bottom is an experience; one that isn’t worth sacrificing for an already popular artist to boost their streams. Many of my favorite songs are album cuts — experimental tracks that wouldn’t quite make it on radio but still deserve to be heard. Albums set the tone for artists’ subsequent tours and live shows. I think the best concerts create an atmosphere where an artist’s latest album and biggest hits can exist together. Playing a set of detached singles doesn’t have the same affect.
While researching this article, I came across the names of a few of Shelton’s latest tours. There’s the incredibly creative “Blake Shelton 2016 Tour,” the cringeworthy “Doing It to Country Songs Tour” and the downright odd “Country Music Freaks Tour.” And then it hit me. Just releasing singles is perfect for an artist like Shelton. He isn’t interested in making any grand artistic statements, he’s interested in singing the songs he likes, entertaining crowds and making money. And maybe that’s OK. Maybe there’s room for all kinds of artists and release strategies in music.