Sunday, September 20, 2009

Oh Where Has The Album Went?

In this age of digital music distribution, iPods and quickly fading singles, there is an art form in music that has been lost: the album. No, not vinyl records (the big, black discs that your parents used back in the day), but the complete, structured music album. Classics like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and OK Computer are perfect examples because they demand the listener to hear the album uninterrupted, focused on the music playing.  The reason this form may be lost can be attributed to a number of things, whether it be shorter attention spans, different tastes in music, the relative ease of getting singles through iTunes or [yikes] torrents, or the iPods themselves, but there is no debating that we need to see more from it.
Here’s a quick history lesson for the unacquainted. Instead of being a bore giving tales of the origin of vinyl records, I am just going to throw some recommendations out there. For jazz, one of the first genres to truly exploit the art of structured music, players like Miles Davis and John Coltrane revolutionized the field with masterworks like Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme. These albums and many more are widely listened to today, and they laid the groundwork for many popular albums of the 60’s. From this decade, all of the Beatles’ work is worth noting for its artistic approach to continuous play. This is an interesting touch because many of their songs were widely popular singles but they managed to strike a balance between being solitary hits and part of a continuous work. Few artists can say that they can do the same, before or since.
The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and The Beach Boys Pet Sounds relied on a unified theme throughout their entirety, giving the listener an immersive experience by basing all the songs around the same subject while freely changing the sound and style from track to track. During this same time, a man named Bob Dylan was changing the perception of songwriting and his two masterstrokes, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, changed music forever with their emphasis on thoughtful lyrics instead of disposable ditties that carry little emotional weight. The former album, my personal favorite of his, contains so many different musical styles, whether it be woozy bar band, rock shuffle or thoughtful poetics, that it is quite disorienting upon first listen.
In the next few decades, there were so many albums worth noting that I could ramble for pages on end, but I will give a few choice recommendations. Pink Floyd experimented with progressive rock and they reinvigorated the rock opera genre of music. Also popularized by The Who with the masterpieces Tommy and Quadrophenia, the rock opera is self-explanatory:  it is an opera with many rock elements, so guitar solos and riffs are plentiful. The Wall is one of the best examples of an album that must be listened to in one sitting; it is close to impossible to do it any other way.  Songs like “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” flow seamlessly into others, such as “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”, that the album feels without edges; it just flows. Jethro Tull also tested out this field with Thick As A Brick, which is actually just one song, about 45 minutes long.  It is a very complex and wild piece of work and I still have no idea what it really means even after listening to it countless times.
Hopefully most of us are aware of the grunge movement of the 90’s with bands such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana and the later rise of Radiohead, so I won’t get into that. However, there is still the fact that albums are not nearly as popular today as they were years ago. It is quite sad because, as my explanations have shown, there is some great work that has been released over the years that shows how music can be appreciated without need for a “next track” or “shuffle songs” button. There has been no Sgt. Pepper or London Calling of our generation. Instead, we get Sean Kingston and Lady GaGa shoved down our throats until we think that music is meant for nothing more than providing a basis for grinding a significant other at a dance. Oh, and don’t get me started on the Disney crew. The fact is, look at the top albums being sold right now. There are occasional glimmers of hope (yeah! Dave Matthews is back…Kings of Leon!...Eminem?) but for the most part, it is not pretty. How long is the soundtrack for Twilight going to sit at the top of the charts? Until the next one, of course, when that will take its spot. And people consider Rihanna music? Well, I can lament about being a murderer with a non-existent melody too, so get me a record deal. My point is, we need a generation-defining magnum opus to arrive, especially in this time of economic recession. I have loved U2 and Metallica’s latest efforts, but they pale in comparison when the 80’s got Joshua Tree and Master of Puppets. I could just listen to old music all my life (and I would probably be content) but I want there to be something that will get YOU to listen to all this stuff. Something big and fresh, new and exciting, creative and innovative AND commercially successful so this new maelstrom of ingenuity will not cease. Only then can we have a run like any other previous decade did. Remember, Born To Run, Led Zeppelin IV, Who’s Next, Exile on Main Street and Electric Ladyland all came out in the same decade. What do we have to show for ourselves? And if you have no idea what any of those albums are, go look them up and get cracking. I will be waiting here, tweaking my time machine. Woodstock is approaching its 40th year anniversary very soon.

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