Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Is today the beginning of the end for the album?

Still playing.

09/09/09: the day the Beatles thrived and the album died.

As every Beatles fan (which is to say "everyone") knows, the Beatles: Rock Band video game comes out today, in addition to two CD box sets representing the entire Beatles' catalogue - remastered in stereo and mono.

(I wrote about how much I love the Beatles here. Yay for the Beatles!)

We're getting very near the end

But there's a dark lining around this silver cloud.

These box sets are probably the compact disc's last hurrah - a victim of the newest format, which is "no format:" the invisible, intangible digital download featuring no jewel case, no album sleeve, and no liner notes.

While I'm sure that the Beatles will just as handily conquer iTunes, the online world is for singles, the compact disc is for albums.

When the CD dies, will the album die with it?

In his recent review of Guns N' Roses Chinese Democracy, Chuck Klosterman says:
"Chinese Democracy is pretty much the last old media album we'll ever contemplate - it's the last album that will be marketed as a collection of autonomous-but-connected songs, the last album that will be absorbed as a static manifestation of who the band supposedly is, and the last album that will matter more as a physical object than as an Internet sound file."
In other words, there may be more albums in the future, but we're not going to be caring about or perceiving them the same way we used to, if we even perceive them at all.

Will you still need me, will you still feed me

The Beatles helped usher in the album in the 60s; they not only wrote great hit singles, but conceived of them as part of larger musical works with rewarding concept albums like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Abbey Road, the White Album, Rubber Soul, and Revolver.

Remarkably, these were the days of vinyl, when listeners would curl up on the couch and ponder album covers and lyrics - only to have to get up, walk over to the stereo, and flip over the record every 20 minutes.

By today's standards, that's suffering for your art or worse: suffering for someone else's art.

Not only did the songs matter, but so did their sequence and context, so that the whole album somehow became greater than the sum of its parts.

Just listen to Sgt. Pepper's "Good Morning Good Morning" and "Fixing a Hole" in the middle of a playlist, or "When I'm Sixty Four" without the "Ahh-ahhhh-ahhhh...." segue into "Lovely Rita." Even worse, listen to the title track on shuffle. It cuts off just as "With a Little Help From My Friends" is supposed to kick in. Arrgh.

These are crimes against humanity that can only be remedied by joining the album tracks together in iTunes - all of them.

You say goodbye, and I say hello

Of course, there are those, like Steven Hodson, who say that the album died a long time ago, when artists stopped making good albums.
"As the years passed and vinyl changed to cassettes which then changed to CDs, that fair exchange of money for quality music began to shift. Eventually it got to the point where you were lucky if there were two or three songs on that CD that you just paid $20 for were any good. If the musicians want to make more money then they need to start producing better music and less garbage."
I suppose that's true too. Thanks, Oasis.

But sometimes it's not the artist, it's the listener. When I was a kid, the first album I ever bought by the Beatles was Magical Mystery Tour. I taped my favorite song, "Strawberry Fields Forever," and listened to "Strawberry Fields" forever - over and over and over.

I even sped the song up to 45 rpm to better hear John Lennon mutter, "I buried Paul" at the fade out (never mind that he actually says, "I'm very bored").

Five or six years later, I played the Magical Mystery Tour album in its entirety, and noticed a song after "Strawberry Fields Forever" that I'd missed the first 1,000 times I played it: a little ditty called "Penny Lane."

Then I realized that John Lennon's wacky costume on the album cover had something to do with a great song called, "I am the Walrus." Goo-goo-ga-joob!

I even developed a taste for "Flying," the instrumental credited to all four of the Beatles, and George Harrison's "Blue Jay Way," one of his many inscrutable songs that has nothing to do with Toronto's baseball team.

And in the end...

I suddenly realized what I'd been missing five years earlier: the other songs. I'm not sure what's more disappointing: that we may not get the other songs anymore or that musicians may not even try to write them.


  1. I think if a band or group wants to put together a complete "album" where one song complements the other and it all works together, then they still can, of course. These days, however I think artists are more interested in the hit single (or at least their managers are.) I think of the great albums of my childhood/teenage years: Pearl Jam's Ten, Nirvana's Nevermind, Soundgarden's Badmotorfinger (can ya guess what kind of music I was into?) and they all worked as a whole. The songs were great singles, too but there was something to be said about listening to the whole CD from start to finish.

    Some bands are still doing this, though. Green Day's last two albums have been "Rock Operas," much like The Who's "Tommy." (but not really like it. I mean, come on, it's The Who!) But all the individual songs tell a different part of a bigger story, which comes out as you listen through the album.

    But do you think the average teenage Green Day fan cares about that? Probably not.

  2. As another huge Beatles fan Kenton, I definitely sympathize with you.

    That's one thing about the digital versions I don't like. That seamless transition between the songs seems to have disappeared with the built in spacer they put there. Boo!

    I remember when I was a kid, we had a record player and an 8-track player. I hated the 8-track most of all! You had to keep cycling through to hear your favourite song again.

    When I was younger (19 or 20ish) I used to spend up to $100 a paycheck on CD's. It was kind of ridiculous though because at that time I was essentially buying CD's for one song. I rarely listened to the album thoroughly enough to develop a true appreciation for the music.

    I kind of regret that now, especially because I got rid of a lot of those CD's at bargain basement prices. If only iTunes had existed back then... stupid

    Sadly, I now have so much music in my iTunes that I am beginning to do the same thing again. I try to listen to albums in their entirety, but sometimes I just go with what's familiar because it's easier. I like music to comfort me, energize me, and make me generally feel better. And often a familiar song is a necessity to achieving that. New music often requires you to put in the effort of getting to know it better before it opens up to you and leads to true happiness (Note: that sentence was not meant to be either sexual or new age-y).

    Gaining an appreciation for the whole album is something people rarely do these days, in our ever-changing, next-big-thing every five minutes culture. And that is a shame. At least we'll always have Sgt. Pepper, Kenton! My week just wouldn't be complete without listening to it straight through at least once.

    P.S. You know you're long winded when your login times out while you're writing your comment...

  3. Great insights, guys.

    I ended up ordering both Beatles box sets from Amazon...I'm such a sucker...


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