Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why I Like Albums, And Why I'd Like To Keep Them Around

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m prefer full albums over individual songs. There’s something about the feeling I get when I listen to a great album that shuffling songs on the iPod can’t replicate (not that the random smattering of music doesn’t have its place...I generally listen this way at the gym). It’s not just about the music either. The packaging of music used to be an art form. The digital age has made it too easy to buy (or steal) songs on the fly without having to worry about the context they fit into the album.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve read about the “death of the album” as an art form. Music industry prognosticators predict that soon, all of our music will be released in a singles-only format. I guess it makes sense, though I think a lot of those predictions are because much of the music that is gaining attention now doesn’t fit into the “album music” category. As we are starting to see an abundance of year-end best albums lists hitting the internet, I thought it was a good time to write a post to convince anyone who cares to read this, how important it is that artists continue to make albums.

My first reason for fighting to keep the album alive is this: songs may be the soundtrack to people’s lives, but albums can change people’s lives. I remember where I was and what I was doing the first time I heard “Stairway to Heaven,” but when I listened to Led Zeppelin’s IV (ZOSO), it changed my life. Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” turned the music world upside down, but Nevermind showed a lot of kids that felt like outcasts in their towns that maybe there was a place for them in the world.

Another reason is some of my favorite songs are album tracks that probably wouldn’t get many listens in a singles-only environment. “Going to California” from the aforementioned Zeppelin album is an example (it isn’t on the most recent “hits” package and it’s only the band’s 25th most popular song on Itunes). The song isn’t exactly rock and roll bombast, but nestled between “Four Sticks” and “When the Levee Breaks,” it becomes an album standout (and one of my 5 favorite Zeppelin songs). Most people probably wouldn’t hear that song for the first time by itself and think ”that’s a hit,” but in the context of the album, it's incredible. Same goes for Radiohead’s album OK Computer. None of those songs would make me think they are one of the greatest bands in the world, but the album does (so does In Rainbows).

Here’s a good reason to keep the album around. Have you noticed that a great band will sandwich a mediocre EP between two fantastic album releases? I think much of this stems from the fact that some bands need an extended time together in a recording environment to make something special. Just getting together to record a song now and then doesn’t allow a band to find the same cohesive sound and vision that spending time creating an entire album does. Bands have been known to do some pretty interesting things to create the perfect artistic environment to make an album (rent a beach house/farmhouse, try different producers, hire a spiritual advisor, grow beards, etc.), and I just don’t see them going to all that trouble to make a song or two (hey, a beard takes a while).

An album is the perfect length for focused listening. Songs are meant to be played, while albums are meant for listening; active listening. Active listening implies putting the album on with the sole intention of listening to that album. Are you going to make yourself a drink, get a comfortable chair and kick back just to listen to a song or a playlist? Probably not, but you might for a great album. Great albums are like movies, with a sequencing and cohesiveness that makes prefect sense.

What about the benefit to songwriters an album provides? In genres that heavily rely on outside songwriters (pop, country, etc.), an album of 10 songs may only have 2 or 3 potential singles. Without the album format, those 2 or 3 songs may be the only ones to be recorded (and certainly the only ones to achieve any commercial success). Many of these songs are really good, and may become fan favorites, but just don’t fit in with radio. Getting a song on a successful album helps songwriters pay the bills while they continue their craft.

For the most part, when I use the term “album,” I’m referring to a group of songs released together, not a vinyl record. An album can be digital, on CD, a cassette, or on vinyl; the medium is irrelevant. Here’s one area of my argument that demands a physical product; packaging. After all, they do give a Grammy for packaging. Whether it contains lyrics, an essay or pictures, the packaging can add to the album listening experience. Some of the best albums have a record sleeve or booklet that you want to sift through as you listen. One trend I've noticed lately that I really like is selling a vinyl version of an album with a code included that allows the purchaser to download an MP3 copy of the album at no extra charge.  This gives you the best of both worlds; the portability of an MP3 with the superior sound and excellent packaging of vinyl.
I predict (hope) that the best artists will continue to make albums well into the future, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Although the music industry is rapidly changing, the fact that an album is still the best way to hear music won't change. An album is the perfect length for focused listening, and for true music fans, and the quality of their albums is the true measure of a band.

What do you think? Do you ever take the time to evaluate an entire album, or do you prefer your music in single serving packets? What are some of your favorite albums?

I'll be following in in the coming weeks with a few posts about my favorite music of the past year.

1 comment:

  1. I, too, love albums. And yes, I mean vinyl, specifically. I agree that so often, it is the songs not played on the radio that are so inspiring and refreshing and beautiful. Thanks for the post!