B-sides were once a byproduct of music distribution methods in the mid to late 20th century. Now a purely elective format, some modern artists have chosen to use B-side albums as a vehicle for creative exploration.
The term B-side originates from a time when music was produced only in physical formats, such as vinyl and cassette tapes. The discs would have an “A-side” and a “B-side” that listeners would flip over and play separately. Side A would contain the tracks that the artist wanted to put in the center of the disc, while side B would contain the rest of the tracks that were not expected to perform as well commercially.
In the late 80s, when CD overtook vinyl as the most popular audio format, the need for artists to release music in side A/side B format began to diminish. In the modern music landscape where streaming is the most popular mode of audio consumption, designation of a B-side is no longer necessary, but some artists still choose to release “B-side” albums. Usually, these albums usually feature three types of tracks: unreleased songs, demos of previously released music, and remixes. They can provide an additional source of income during the off-peak period between releases, but they also raise the curtain, allowing listeners access to raw treasures and reimagined tracks from their favorite artists.
Artists who release demos to B-side tracks offer their audience valuable insight into their creative process. Demos allow listeners to follow the evolution of lyrics and instrumentals from the first pass to the final track. Sufjan Stevens’ 2017 B-side album The best gift features a demo of “John My Beloved” which was featured on his album Carrie and Lowell. The lyrics to this version of the track differ in many ways, leaving Stevens fans wondering how “my signature death” becomes “my tongue on your chest” and what differing interpretations are open.
Although the temptation may be to view the demo as the first draft and the released song as the final draft, the demos and tracks released from the album can also be interpreted as two perspectives existing for the artist at two different times. The evolution of “John My Beloved” also provides insight into the additive nature of Stevens’ writing process, as the final track contains an additional verse proving a different narrative ending to the song.
Kevin Parker, commonly known as Tame Impala, is another modern artist using the B-side album format, releasing a corresponding B-side album for each of his studio albums. Tame Impala uses B-sides to release remixes and songs that didn’t align with his vision for his studio albums, serving as an example of how an artist’s subjective opinion of his work doesn’t always align with his commercial success. The B-sides and Slow Rush remixes track “Patience”, which Parker said was just not good enough to chart on The slow racewould have been the 5th most streamed song from the album with 81 million streams to date on Spotify.
Tame Impala clearly expresses her preference for heavily synthesized music through her selection of B-sides. Current B-sides and remixes was a heartfelt breakup song that resonated with many fans, but lacks the maximalist backing of Parker’s usual releases. Beach House uses a similar tactic. Equal Mind, the most popular title of the dream pop duo B-sides and Raritiesfeatures the band’s usual captivating vocals, but its accompaniment is noticeably simpler than their usual tunes.
British hip-hop group Gorillaz have used the B-side format to deftly explore a third category: remixes. Gorillaz’s B-side album is aptly named D-sides as their fourth studio album, features 12 previously unreleased songs, a demo and nine remixes of the five most popular songs from their previous album demon days. This album reinvents what many of the band’s songs could have been. “Feel Good Inc. – Stanton Warriors Remix” gives us a slower tempo rendition of the band’s most popular song to date. In “Kids with Guns – Jamie T’s Turns to Monster Mix”, Jamie T creatively approaches the concept of a remix when he takes the first-person perspective of the song’s subject matter and completely rewrites “Kids with Guns” in preserving part of the original. lyrics as accompanying lyrics.
The B-side’s persistence into the modern era speaks to its creative value. B-sides give fans access to a greater volume of music, but these albums also have functional value. The B-sides, with demos and remixes, refute the song’s position as definitive. While the remix allows the song to be a jumping-off point for others’ creativity, the demo asserts that a recorded song is just an iteration of a concept. The B-sides have become the place to apprehend the song as malleable and the music as conversation.