The two main kinds of analogue musical recordings – the ones that are being produced to this day – were established in the late 1950s and 1960s. They were albums and singles.
Oh, yes, there were also things like EPs (Extended Plays) and various variations and departures from the standards. But the great majority of music appeared on albums or on singles.
“Singles” is clear enough. One song on a recording. Well, since there are inescapably two sides to a disk, they’d whack an additional “B-side” song on the other side. (Sometimes this would prove to be the hit as well as the intended A-side song, such as Queen’s “We Will Rock You”.)
But “Albums”? Why that name?
To be clear, this was an informal description, organically adopted by means of common usage, into the world of vinyl. But the adoption was from a pre-existing record format.
You see, a vinyl LP (Long Play) can typically hold around twenty minutes of music on each side. An album turns at 33 1/2 revolutions per minute and the grooves holding its recordings were “microgrooves”, much thinner than what had become before. And what had come before was shellac, spinning at 78rpm and employing much wider grooves. (You need a wider stylus to play 78s, such as the one on this cartridge.) 78s had been in use for something like half a century before vinyl made its appearance. Vinyl albums are almost all (but not entirely all) 12-inches (30.5cm) in diameter. 78s were almost all (but not entirely all) 25.4cm in diameter.
So, vinyl could hold around twenty minutes per side – more if the engineers wanted to push it. A 78 typically topped out at just three and a half minutes per side.
In other words, you could put just one song on one side of a 78. Even the equivalent of an EP would be difficult.
Now, let’s turn to the musical, first a stage and later a movie genre. The musical was incredibly popular across the mid-Twentieth century, so there was huge demand for the entire soundtrack of a stage or movie musical. What to do when the only viable music distribution method (apart from the vagaries of broadcast radio) was on a three-and-a-half-minute medium? Why, release the whole bunch of songs on multiple discs. Put them in a book form: contained within the hard covers were sleeves for as many 78s were needed to deliver the experience of the musical. The word “album” was drawn into English from Latin, via German, to mean a book in which “autographs, drawings, poems, etc. were collected”. We of a certain age would very much know of photo albums.
So here, for example, is the “album” version of soundtrack of the 1951 movie version of Show Boat, with Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner and Howard Keel on 78s:
There are four ten-inch shellac disks, each with a single song on each side for a total of eight songs. Likewise, the Original Broadway Cast recording album of South Pacific was recorded and released in 1949. The album contained ten songs on five discs, and concurrently the songs were all released on in the new LP format, ending up in the first position on the charts for 63 weeks.
Names, once invented, often stick. So the next time a new “album” drops on Spotify or some such, you’ll know why it’s called that, even though you may never handle the music on physical media at all, let along in a multi-leafed collection.