What Is An Album Anyway?

It was interesting to read Michael Corcoran bigging up albums (and Jake Bugg‘s new album in particular) on the Village Voice site.  He concludes “The album is far from dead, it’s just that they’re not making very many great ones anymore”.

Artists work hard on producing albums and get peeved when everyone mixes the order, skips tracks or (heaven forfend!) just downloads the best songs. They feel like a director whose latest film is judged on a few clips watched out of order on Youtube. And yet most albums are NOT ‘complete artistic statements’. Think of it like this. Have you heard of an artist recreating an album live on tour from start to finish? Still rare enough to make headlines isn’t it? But when an orchestra plays Beethoven’s 5th symphony they NEVER drop a movement, change the running order or stick something from one of the other orchestral works in the middle. Why? Because it really is a unified work. Most albums just ain’t.

That said what we call an album can basically be one of three things. A photograph, a painting or (shifting from metaphor to description) a playlist. The first two are truly worthy to be called an album. The last isn’t.

The Album As A Photograph

Most photos are snapshots of a specific time and place. The archetypal musical ‘photo’ is a live album. But a focused period of time in a studio gives the same result. Albums like Back In Black, Whatever You Say I Am That’s What I’m Not and Revolver capture a band in a particular place and a particular headspace.

The more time, producers, studios or guest musicians you use, the less it becomes a unified photo and more of a collage where the elements might have been put together in any number of different ways with no real difference.

The Album As A Painting

A painting might have been worked on by an artist on and off for decades but it has a unifying overriding concept. It is a painting ‘of’ something even if that ‘something’ is abstract. The most obvious musical example is the concept album – The Wall, Operation: Mindcrime, Tommy – but the the album doesn’t have to have a narrative text to be a unified whole. It could be a response to the death of a loved one (Steven Curtis Chapman’s Beauty Will Rise, Reed & Cale’s Songs For Drella) an album of outtakes (Steal This Album), an unplugged record (Live In New York), a return to roots (Let It Be) or a genre exploration (Ry Cooder’s Jazz, Bjork’s Homogenic).

These two categories are worthy of the the name ‘album’. Perhaps one test would be “could you replace a track with one from another album? Would it sit well? Or stick out like an auto tuned pork pie at a straight to cassette tape bar mitzvah? The third category is …

The Album As A Playlist

A playlist can be well thought out or poorly executed but it is almost always arbitrary – nothing more than “These are my favourite pre-electric Dylan or post-Woodstock Hendrix or Weird Al food songs”. You may hate some songs. You may like the songs but not the running order. And you may be the head of A&R at Sony. But who says your playlist is the definitive one? Even if your ‘playlist’ is set in stone (or at least encoded as a CD) on Beyonce‘s latest record why should I (or anyone else) accept it?

Most ‘albums’ fall into the this category and have for decades. Which is to say they are not really ‘albums’ at all.

So it should come as no surprise to find consumers taking control of the playlist back from the content creators by downloading single tracks, partial albums, remixes and then listening to them in random (or no) order. The digital revolution gave people to tools to take control but iTunes didn’t create the situation. What ‘killed the album’ was 20 years of playlists masquerading as albums (not to mention the ‘2 singles plus 12 tracks of filler’ phenomena).

I love albums. But some bands aren’t cut out for them. Artists may lament the demise of the long player but it’s ridiculous moaning about the death of the album if you’ve never really made one.

About mattblick

Songwriter/Singer from Nottingham, UK. My 2nd EP, Everything In The World Is Fighting Everything In The Sky, is out now. I'm blogging (& podcasting) through the entire Beatles catalogue at Beatles Songwriting Academy. In my spare time I wish I had some spare time.
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2 Responses to What Is An Album Anyway?

  1. Liz Frencham says:

    Nice article Matt, I agree totally.

    I’ve cut a lot of CDs with different acts but I think only about 5 of them were truly albums, and interestingly, a couple of those we DID launch by playing them in order. Truth is, even in the good old days there were plenty of albums that weren’t cohesive or had really weak tracks but strong singles, but we tend to only think of the ‘Tapestry’, “Blue”, “Dark Side of the Moon”-type examples. There are just so many more albums and EPs around now, as recording technology is so much more accessible. Means a lot more noise and a lot more badly produced albums which makes it harder to find the truly great ones.

    I want more albums, and some good artists are making them, even now. There is nothing like listening to a cohesive creative statement from beginning to end, getting absorbed in an artists vision. I may be throw back though.

    • mattblick says:

      You’re right! There have always been really bad albums in great amounts! But perhaps in the 60’s and 70’s they were more cohesive as bands had less options to lose the plot – albums recorded over a couple of weeks at the most, with one producer in one studio… Also one thing I didn’t mention was the advent of CDs – a running time of 78 mins verse around 45-50 for vinyl meant more fillers and longer time between releases (giving a lot of songwriters the opportunity to get rusty spending years not writing anything)

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