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Slow Death of the Classic Album?20 Feb 11

“I can’t believe Mumford and Sons got best album” moaned a friend of mine recently after the Brits. “Tinie Tempa’s been all over it this year!”
“Have you heard the Mumford and Sons album?” I queried
“No but I’ve some of their stuff on the radio”
“Come to think of it, have you actually listened to Tinie Tempah’s album, from top to bottom”
“Well no, but Pass Out is a tune! And then to follow it up with Written In The Stars!”

This was an education for me! I had previously been unaware that one could judge the Best Film at the Oscars by checking out the trailers on IMDB. Or that the Booker prize judges are presumably forwarded the blurbs photocopied off the back of the paperbacks and left to their business.

With a heavy sigh, and a heavier heart I left it that. Of course this little exchange typifies the current buying patterns of the average music consumer today. It’s not our fault really, we’ve beaten into a corner by itunes, ipods, playlists and shuffle culture. The concept of what we think of as an album came about through the technical limitations of the long-playing record and thereafter the CD. But in the digital age it all seems a bit arbitrary. Plus record labels are so focused on “hits” that they seem to accept nothing less than an album completely full of them (such as can be heard with Rihanna’s latest offering). It’s a great testament to the skill of the megalithic gestalt of writers, producers, executive producers, engineers, programmers, teaboys and fluffers who put their genuine hard work, talent and time into such an ambitious project (and making an album full of nothing but hits is ambitious) but it ebbs and flows with as much fluidity as a hand shandy from the Venus de Milo.

Universal's new CEO showcasing his pioneering new initiative.

Popular music always has and always will be dictated by artistic and commercial considerations in varying proportions. But from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, to make a great album, does every song need to be a potential monster-hit?

The truth is that access to individual tracks is so easy these days that labels want to fill albums with as many tracks as possible that people will want to download individually onto their playlists, but I fear for the humble old-fashioned “album track”. Take Radiohead’s “Fitter, Happier”, a bizarre robo-voice rant stuck in the middle of “OK Computer” (incidentally one of the biggest selling albums of the last 20 years). It’s unlikely to make anyone’s playlists, and even less likely to stay on for any longer than 10 seconds after being selected by shuffle, but in many ways it’s the centrepiece of the album; a kind of lynchpin that summarises the themes of social disaffection despite material satisfaction that permeate the record as a whole, whilst also serving as an interval between two acts.

For me a great album isn’t just a collection of great songs. There has to be a little something else. A certain cohesion, and a kind of macro dynamic and rhythm across the whole record. A push and pull of tension and release, inhale and exhale. And for me, slamming together a hodgepodge of the most likely #1s from a battery farm of writers and producers just doesn’t cut it. But then, maybe that’s just me.

“Congratulations Mr Prince. You’ve
just made a classic album! What
would you like to do about the cover
art?”
“Er… Here, just use this photo”
“Really?!”
“Yes, really”
“Oh”


x3 Comments to “Slow Death of the Classic Album?”

  1. Jimmy Badrat says:

    I’m afraid I’ll have to beg to differ. Unless the world really has been taken over by the Lord of the Flies, I for one still buy and download complete albums from artists. You’ve got to be twelve to dip into your pocket to find only 69p for one track. Belief in the artist is alive and well. Sure, occaisionally we’re disappointed by 2 tracks that shine and the rest is awful (Goldrush is my example).

    Anyway, Mumford and sons? Utter shite. Like R.E.M. on Guinness.

    Cheers.

  2. momochii says:

    Superb blog post, I have book marked this internet site so ideally I’ll see much more on this subject in the foreseeable future!

  3. Kwesi says:

    I agree with you, but I hope that we will all do what we can not to lose sight of that organic sense of what an album can do for us, whether we’re actively or passively listening. Having said that, maybe it’s all a case of a few hardy people, Canute-like, trying to hold back light pollution, the death of privacy, the death of silence, the death of death…;-)


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