Artists choosing a familiar route to the top of the festive album chart

KEEP your wits about you when you next go shopping for music - a lot of the current new albums aren't really new at all. Taking a lead from Hollywood's desire to prolong the life of an existing success rather than investing in fresh ideas, the expanded album is currently more prevalent than ever. The cover art and the title may be different, but the content is largely the same.

This Christmas, you can take your pick from Ellie Goulding's Bright Lights (Polydor), which ups the wattage of her March debut Lights with seven more songs and an extra-glitzy sleeve, or French dance producer David Guetta's One More Love (Virgin), which follows on from his hit summer 2009 album One Love with a second disc of 13 extra tracks. Florence and the Machine is also attempting to extend her ubiquity into 2011 by transforming her album Lungs into Between Two Lungs (Island) and Alexandra Burke is doing something similar with Overcome: Deluxe Edition (Syco).

Lest we sneer too quickly at this as a cynical marketing ploy, the year's biggest breakthrough band from the world of indie rock, The National, are also in on the act. Last month the Brooklyn-based group's top five album, High Violet, reappeared as High Violet: Expanded Edition (4AD) with three live recordings, an alternative version of the album opener Terrible Love and four fine new songs.

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Re-releasing an album with an extra hit on it isn't particularly new. What's new is the volume of additional material being offered at once - songs that might previously have trickled out as B-sides over a couple of years or been forgotten about completely until the 30th-anniversary special edition. It allows record companies to pitch an expanded album as a major sequel instead of a slight tweak, prolonging its shelf-life far beyond what was previously possible.

It's also a much safer commercial option than a completely new album. Pop is moving faster than it has since the punishing workloads of the 1960s, with a year to 18 months the standard gap between long-players and a singer still standing every chance of being forgotten or superseded in between.

When a brand new album does appear, it's likely to be judged unfairly against a smash hit predecessor - James Blunt's double platinum All the Lost Souls was considered a flop in 2007. Putting new material on a tarted-up version of the same album gives the new music that same aura of unstoppable success instead.

Coldplay appear to be the band who attempted this trick first, tacking their eight-track Prospekt's March EP on to their last album, Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (Parlophone) in 2008.But as is standard in pop these days, it was Lady Gaga who really showed how it should be done. Last November, 15 months after the release of The Fame, she unveiled The Fame Monster (Interscope) at the exact moment her debut album was slipping out of the UK top 40. Its eight new songs produced three more hit singles to go with her existing three, including the inescapable Bad Romance, and also managed to make the singer look like an adoring philanthropist who is interested only in giving the fans as much new music as possible.

"I think re-releases are unfair," she said. "Originally (my label] only wanted me to put out three songs and now it's much more than that."

For the consumers, these revamped albums are the musical equivalent of a Twix Fino or Chunky KitKat - different but essentially still the same.

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Won't familiarity breed contempt? Let's hope we're not moving to the land of Meat Loaf and Mike Oldfield, who repeatedly name their albums Bat Out of Hell or Tubular Bells in a bid to ensure sales (Tubular Bells 4 by Meat Loaf - there's a guaranteed smash).

But they do offer more music, faster, and with pick'n'mix downloading there's no need to invest in every last live recording and dubstep remix. While the musicians are working ever harder to keep our attention, the fans with the bulging iPods are the ones who win.