Who Needs Albums?

NPR’s “All Songs Considered” blog has an eye-opening series entitled “You’ve Never Heard…”, in which they get their young interns to listen to classic albums in their entirety that they’ve never heard before, and write down their opinions on said album. The latest is Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd, and it isn’t the interns thoughts on the actual album/songs that shocked me, but rather the following paragraph:

“Dark Side of the Moon seems more like something you have to listen to in its entirety, looking to have some sort of “experience” with it or to make a connection — not only with the artist who made the album, but with other listeners who enjoy it. I’ve never really had that with a record or felt the need for it. The idea of the album is somewhere between waning and obsolete. I and others my age are all about buying singles from Sam Goody’s by bands no one would ever hear from again, like the Danish duo S.O.A.P. Remember them? Today, I think the average music listener around my age would rather buy the hits off of iTunes than invest in a whole album.”

I’ve had an idea that younger listeners have no need for the album as a concept, or even a whole piece, something you listen to in its entirety. That concept started to die with CD’s; their longer format and the propensity of artists to fill the whole 80 minutes at any cost. In other words, there’s no quality control. Most albums are now the length of what we old folks would have considered double albums and, if we’re honest, there were very few ‘classic’ double albums released since the birth of rock and roll. If we’re totally honest, we could probably count them all on two hands. So this young intern’s disregard for the album as a whole doesn’t shock me; it just makes me a little sad.

There was a pretty wonderful article in Entertainment Weekly, of all places, entitled “Who Needs Albums?” way back in 1995, that started thusly:

“The album itself — that revered, long-standing way of absorbing music — has never meant less in (our) culture. And I have to admit that I’m of two minds — or should I say ”sides” — about the situation. You remember albums, don’t you? I’m being cheeky, of course, since truckloads of new releases arrive every week. By ”album,” though, I don’t mean just the concept of a cohesive set of songs by a band or a musician. I also mean something — LP, cassette, or CD — that gives you the experience of being engaged from beginning to end. In the MP3 era, the long-playing format, which begat everything from Rubber Soul to Blood on the Tracks to 3 Feet High and Rising to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, feels like a primordial beast from an unnamed prehistoric era. Those who champion it sometimes seem like citizens cheering on doomed soldiers in an unwinnable war.”

The “experience”. That word, in my opinion, cannot be applied to downloads, or even single songs. It is, and should be, reserved for whole albums and whole albums only. I’ve always thought of songs as a piece of a puzzle, not the puzzle itself. Kind of like a short story versus a novel. Short stories can be entertaining, but the’re often fleeting and very rarely stay with you or have that big of an impact. I can count on my fingers and my tows how many short stories have made an impact, but the amount of novels is simply legion. It’s the same regarding movies vs a 22 minute sitcom. Sure, there were many Seinfeld episodes I remember but far more movies have stayed with me over the years. A good novel, on the other hand, is something you remember for the rest of your life. The more time you spend with anything the higher the chance of emotional, long term impact. Songs can still transport us to wonderful places, but only as long as they last.


Here’s another excerpt:

“The album has been dying a slow, agonizing death for years. The downfall of the album isn’t another tiresome example of boomer nostalgia: Gen-Xers curled up with their Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails CDs with the same relish that an earlier generation had devoted to Blonde on Blonde or Running on Empty. Instead, the decline is part of a new, larger trend in the culture — the customization of everything. With iTunes, we’ve become our own DJs, with the implication that we no longer trust musicians, producers, and record companies to make good albums — and that even if they do, we’re going to mess around with them as we see fit.”

So it’s this “on-demand” culture that has a played a huge part in the death of the album. We as a people have no patience anymore to stop, sit down and listen. Really listen.
And, again, the artist’s inability to self-edit, is a major contributor. Albums used to be 40 minutes and about 10-12 songs, max. Now, in 2011, when an artist like Sloan releases a new album that’s 35 minutes long we complain that it’s “slight” and that we’re not getting our money’s worth. The album of old is now considered an “EP”.

There’s more:

“Yet as much as I can see how the album experience may no longer have a place in a BlackBerry/iPod world, part of me doesn’t want to see the single reign supreme, either. It’s hokey — and, okay, very boomer — to assert that the album transformed pop music into art, since plenty of discs I return to over and over — Beck’s Mellow Gold, The Best of the Spinners, Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Pour Down Like Silver, R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, Madonna’s Ray of Light — aren’t rock operas. The album is where we get to settle into a musician’s brain and let him or her take us on a journey.”

I have admitted on this blog before that even I have a hard time “settling into a musician’s brain” and letting him or her take me on a journey. Time (or lack thereof) and responsibilities as a parent and husband have dictated that that is now a very real luxury, but I still get to do it occasionally and it is still a pleasure when I do. I buy way more “reissues”, “remasters” and “deluxe” editions of old favorites than I do new releases nowadays, but it’s not due to the supposed lack of quality new music. It’s that time thing again. If I am going to take an hour or so out of my hectic schedule and listen to an album I prefer rediscovering the familiar. The Beatles remasters and their excellent sound and packaging reignited my interest in that most familiar of bands. Nick Lowe’s Jesus Of Cool and Labour Of Lust have been on heavy rotation for years now, and they were originally released in the late 70’s! It’s not that I’m saying my generation’s music was the best, I’m saying that it was the best for me.

The article ends with a question, and it’s a good one:

“After listening to Brian Wilson’s new album SMILE recently I realized I’d experienced something rare — the album as a sprawling, ambitious artistic endeavor. I’m sure there will be more such aural encounters ahead.
But I wonder how many.”