The Last Album?
I think it was a couple albums ago that Radiohead announced they would no longer release albums. A couple albums ago I think I said the same thing. And yet here we are at it again, releasing music in a form that has supposedly outlived its usefulness. People can now very easily purchase songs willy-nilly and barely have the time and concentration span to listen to them, so why drop an hour of music out there all at once?
Lots of reasons. Many of them are technical. You gear up to create and record music and, while in that mode, it makes more sense to make a batch rather than a one-off. This made more sense in the big studio era, but even working in a home studio as I do, you have things configured a certain way when you’re really cranking out the music.
Then there’s the fact that musical distribution still strongly favors the album. There are many aspects to this, but I will save them for another post because I’d like to focus on the most important reason for albums to exist.
I have always loved albums and still believe in them as an art form. I grew up listening to music as sets of songs recorded and conceived together and sequenced in a (hopefully) thoughtful way. An album of songs creates a larger artwork that a single song alone cannot achieve. (Maybe that is the definition of a music album! My definition, anyway.)
Any album worth its salt is more than just a bunch of songs thrown together. Good albums are rooms, houses, fields, clubs, rivers, or streams. Dank basements or sterile hotel rooms. These are places your sonic mind can inhabit, spend some time there, and return there when needed. The songs speak to each other, bounce off one another, and meld together in our minds. Good albums create a cloud of images, impressions, ideas and emotions that we carry in our memory. Our favorite albums are like close friends with which we sustain long-term relationships with all the ups and downs that go with them.
Songs are poems, albums are short stories or novellas. Having typically been recorded together over a focused period of time, an album of songs are the result of intense artistic obsession. Without that obsession, the album probably would have not been finished. We all try to act like it was an effortless process, but finishing a whole set of songs requires a sustained push through all the creative ups and downs that occur during any big project. For many musicians, an album is the largest kind of project they will ever take on. It’s a big mountain to climb, and it’s not for wimps.
I know there are a lot of people who just want to get that one song that they know and like and never think twice about it as a part of a larger work. But should we trust the future of the music industry to those people alone? Frankly, I’ve always thought of such people as strange. Ok, not strange (there are the vast majority as far as I can tell) but it is a mindset I simply cannot understand. Yes, I’ve often enjoyed listening to singles–but I am always, always curious about the artist’s larger body of work. Was that one great song a fluke, or are they frequently just as brilliant? Does the song define their style, or was it just a little digression or stylistic experiment? I must know these things when I hear a song I like.
Yes, I’m a musician and as one obsessed with music and sound from a very young age, am prone to thinking about music this way. But I also know a lot of non-musicians who have a similarly active relationship with their music collection. (And bless them because without them it would be just us musicians patting each other on the back.) It’s a given that real music fans look at their collection as a series of albums. How can you think of it any other way?
Having just finished an album that I’m finally releasing into the world, I sure hope it isn’t my last. And I hope that the art of the album is with us for a long time to come.