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Julian Sanchez writes about how the iTunes playlist concept is leading to the decline of album-listening: "I was struck with the realization that I own entire albums, mostly ones I've gotten in the last few years, from which I basically only know three or four songs--in a few cases more like one or two." People have various feelings about this, but everyone knows where he's coming from. What I think often goes missing in this conversation is an appropriate appreciation of the contingency of the album concept.

In the domain of popular music, the song suggests itself as an obvious, natural unit of consumption. What's more, since songs are short, the idea of bundling them into larger units also suggests itself as obvious. This works on two levels. On the one hand, from the pure point-of-view of commerce, it makes sense to bundle the product. On the other hand, there's an aesthetic idea of a group of songs arranged in a specific order for a specific purpose. The actual convention of the album represents a merging of these concepts. Given the technology of the era, the best way to package music was to combine roughly as many songs as would fit on an LP record. This was a purely commerical consideration, but a strong and compelling one. Given that commercial reality, artists would shape aesthetic impulses around that commercial imperative and try to product roughly LP-length series of songs that had some level of aesthetic integrity.

The rise of digital music ought to allow us to decouple these ideas. Under the current order, it makes perfect sense for an artist to envision a more-than-one-song product, intended to be consumed in a block, without that block necessarily containing approximately as much music as can fit on an LP record. This, I think, could be a very positive development. Realistically, it's actually rather rare for a band to release an album wherein the album per se has a ton of aesthetic logic. Relaxing the length constraint would make it easier for bands to construct song-packages ("albums") that served a real aesthetic rationale. Probably my favorite recent album-qua-album is Set Yourself on Fire by Stars. This comes very close to being a well-conceived conceptual and thematic whole. But "He Lied About Death" and "Celebration Guns" (which I love as a song-qua-song) clearly don't fit with the overal scheme, and I'm not sure that "Calendar Girl" does either. Absent the pressure to make albums rather than series of songs of arbitrary length, the band could have done a somewhat-shorter-but-more-reasonable package on the love-and-loss theme and then just released a few more songs that they thought were good but didn't fit the scheme.

July 24, 2006 | Permalink


i think the death of the album is largely a good thing, because very few bands/performers can produce 15 good songs every few years, as CDs demand. it was easier back when you really only needed 8 or 9 songs for a record (though they were released more frequently), though even then there was a lot of filler (side 2 of zenyatta mondatta anyone?). whereas, many, many folk can write one brilliant song. and if that's all they can do -- which is still more than enough -- why should people buy another 10 mediorocre songs from them? regardless, the gig was up once you could listen to the songs on a CD before buying, so that you could no longer be suckered into buying a mediocore album based on one good song.

Posted by: dj superflat | Jul 24, 2006 11:55:08 AM

To say nothing of the CD bloat that came of artists feeling they had to fill up all 74 minutes just because the disc could hold that much info. To pull an example out of shuffle, Supertramp's best of CD is about half nifty 70s/80s pop. And the other half is teh suck. Reconfigure that puppy as a playlist, and it's pleasurable listening again (assuming pleasure in Supertramp in the first place, but still).

Another unmentioned bit is the old aesthetic unit of the album side. There was an ebb and flow to each side. You can hear it on older albums that were converted to CD, or on albums that were made during the vinly-to-CD transition period. Plus there were lots of albums where each side had a title of its own and functioned as a conceptual unit as well. Jethro Tull's Broadsword and the Beast has one side titled Broadsword, and the other is Beastie.

One more phenomenon that didn't have aesthetic justification, I think, but technical: two-record sets in which one record had sides one and four, while the other had two and three. You'd cue up two records on the spindle and let 'em drop, then turn over the set.

Posted by: Doug | Jul 24, 2006 11:56:16 AM

Look, to the extent there's a market out there for albums-qua-albums, then we will continue to get them. All we are losing is the oversupply of albums-qua-albums created by the prior technological constraints. Let the market sort this out.

Posted by: Al | Jul 24, 2006 12:45:25 PM

I recently began regretting the extreme shuffle I've been listening to on my iTunes. I download (legally) roughly 8 albums per month on eMusic.com, in addition to whatever I buy at the local record store and/or from Amazon.

Last week something was regurgitated from the deep, dark part of my brain that contains software preferences I've always seen when looking for something else, but never tried:

You can set iTunes to shuffle albums instead of songs.

Also, check out http://mog.com. It's a blogging site, tailored for people who love music. Perhaps the future of blogging is in specialized sites like this. Someone should make one about progressive politics.

Posted by: John | Jul 24, 2006 12:56:14 PM

for the historic record, the first "albums" were nothing more than a boxed set of 78s. speaking as a jazz fan, the interesting thing about lp technology is that it released performers from trimming down 5-7 minutes of material to 3 minutes, and indeed, some of the most popular early jazz lps were nothing but extended jam sessions.

that said, julian is, of course, committing the error of thinking that what he and his friends and fellow demographic do is an actual representation of music listening as a whole in this great land. at this stage, most people, most of the time, still listen to the CD and not to shuffle, for the simple reason that most people still don't listen to their music entirely in a digital way.

however, the future clearly points to the continued increase of digital listening, and as Al says, for those artists for whom there is demand for a full CD, we'll still see full CD sales. otherwise, bring on the individual song!

Posted by: howard | Jul 24, 2006 1:17:20 PM

Back in the day of the vinyl LP, the real unit was the album side: 5 or 6 songs of about 17-18 minutes in length. Lots of bands could come up with one great album side.

The Clash's "London Calling" was widely considered the best album of the 1980s (although it was released in Dec. 1979) because it was a double albume with three outstanding sides, before weakening at the beginning of the fourth side.

Posted by: Steve Sailer | Jul 24, 2006 5:27:43 PM

To me, the ultimate music listening experience is something like Pandora, playlists feel restrictive to me now. OTOH, I mainly listen to chill-out electronica so I don't have a big need to re-hear stuff, I get off just as much on a new creative beat as I do on a recognized one.

Posted by: miguel | Jul 24, 2006 5:32:23 PM

"You can set iTunes to shuffle albums instead of songs."

Yup. And I'm always shocked that anyone uses iTunes/iPod any other way.

While I've got plenty of loose singles that come in handy for party programming or impressing late night guests with rare cuts, 95% of my listening is done by full album.

Why kind of musical cretin does it the opposite way? Do they all wear polyester and eat lots of mayonnaise too?

Posted by: Petey | Jul 24, 2006 6:54:31 PM

well, petey, even as we speak, i'm listening to my new orleans playlist (980 songs), shuffled. there are very, very few great new orleans albums; there are hundreds of great new orleans songs.

one could go on....

Posted by: howard | Jul 24, 2006 7:32:51 PM

Am I the only 28-year-old in the world who's too old for an iPod? Is there a Gen-x/Gen-Y gap here? Part of it is that I just don't use headphones much. I listen to music in the car and at home, usually very loudly. But I've collected too damn many CDs to start with something else. And get off of my porch, you damn kids!

Posted by: Steve | Jul 24, 2006 10:08:36 PM

Which CDs are you going to take next time you get in the car? With the iPod and a connection to the car stereo, the answer is "all of them." Admittedly, my collection is only hundreds not thousands, but then I didn't spring for the 60GB version either, which should hold heaps more. Getting the CDs onto the iPod is not too time consuming, and the process can run in the background while you do other things with the computer.

Posted by: Doug | Jul 25, 2006 4:41:09 AM

"well, petey, even as we speak, i'm listening to my new orleans playlist (980 songs), shuffled. there are very, very few great new orleans albums; there are hundreds of great new orleans songs."

You have my blessing as long as you're not simultaneously wearing polyester and eating lots of mayonnaise.

Posted by: Petey | Jul 25, 2006 1:33:02 PM

as a former Uplister.com user, let me assure you all that lists are a fad and that if you make an album good enough, cohesive and interdependent enough, people will wanna buy that shit, look at it, feel it, and listen to it the whole way through.

Posted by: Greg | Jul 25, 2006 1:33:06 PM

Well, Steve, I'm 27 and I don't have an ipod; in fact I just got itunes a few weeks ago and am still figuring out how to use it, although I did enjoy listening to mixed cds I made on my recent road trip.*

Of course, I deliberately avoided music from about 12 years old until recently, because developing what other people would consider good taste in it seemed like far too much work. Now that I'm more comfortable with myself, I'm discovering I actually do like some music, and itunes is facilitating that better than having to buy a whole damn cd (because I'm also still the cheapest person in the world).

As far as playlists go, I think wanting to arrange songs to one's own tastes and moods and desired effects rather than listening to pre-made albums is a sort of natural impulse, but digital music technology just makes it easier. I remember my sister and her friends slaving over mixtapes for all occasions and themes from elementary school on, and most of what they listed to is still mix CDs they made for each other.

*Speaking of which, Neil, if you are reading, when I was listening to Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy" the other day, the last lines made me think of your comments on numbers.

Posted by: flippantangel | Jul 27, 2006 12:11:00 AM

Am I the only 28-year-old in the world who's too old for an iPod?

Since I'm 35 and have an iPod, and most of the 40 somethings I work with have iPods, I would say yes. I finally broke down and got an iPod a year ago after noticing that on every business flight I took the middle-aged gentlemen next to me would have an iPod, so dragging my CDs around was getting embarassing. It's possible you may belong to a 'tweener generation that is the most resistant to iPodization. My younger brother has also refused to get an iPod thus far. Maybe you guys are too conscious of aping teen-age behavior but we oldsters don't think about it.

Posted by: Vanya | Jul 27, 2006 11:39:11 AM

Ha! I invented the concept album over a hundred years ago.

Posted by: Ludvig Van Beethoven | Jul 28, 2006 7:03:37 PM

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