Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The album is dead

Graeme Thomson, blogging over on The Guardian, provides a eulogy for the album - not in a 'the sky is falling and so are sales' way, but lamenting the loss of how we used to listen to music:

Does anyone still do this when they get a new release: sit down and physically play it over and over again while giving it their sole, undivided attention? Is the sense of breathless anticipation impossible to recreate in the digital age, when we might already have access to a leaked version, or heard a few songs on MySpace or YouTube? Whether we download or buy CDs, most of our music is instantly fed into a vast swirling swamp of existing music. Do you leave a new album to the Darwinian vagaries of the shuffle function? How many spins does it get before you start automatically skipping one of the supposed weaker tracks? Is there room for "the grower" any more?

I'd argue that the digital age makes music more accessible but somehow less tangible. I've always regarded the cover, the artwork, the inner sleeve, even the typeface of a new album as a doorway into new music, a means to get closer to it, further to understand what is being expressed this time around. When there is no physical element to link us to the music, surely some vital little part of the over-arching artistic statement is lost.

I'm not sure the distinction is quite so clear-cut: certainly, by the 1990s any album you'd want to buy, you'd probably have heard a couple of tracks as singles, maybe one or two on Peel and - possibly - seen some other tracks live, so it's not as if it's ever been that you were coming to a whole slew of unheard music, unless you were buying the album on spec.

For me, I still listen to albums all the way through, but then I'm bloody ancient. I only really managed to overcome my distrust of shuffling the order of album tracks randomly last year.


Olive said...

Jesus Christ! Even for a Guardian CiF piece, that is weak. The ability to play an album's tracks randomly, even missing out filler tracks has been around for as long as the CD player. And as you say, Simon, there's always been opportunities to hear new tracks before an album's release, albeit not as easily as now.
What Thomson is actually saying, in a "me traveller, you tourist" sort of a way, is that *you* don't appreciate music as much as he does. And that band you like? He liked them before you did, but doesn't listen to them anymore.

Anonymous said...

Random play is a godsend! Maybe the ADD just gets worse with age but I really can't be bothered with listening to whole albums these days.

And you hear such wonderful combinations : yesterday I had a Sharam Jay track that segued very nicely indeed into a Jimmy Shand tune.

You don't get stuff like that on albums.

Oh, and don't forget that might discourage people from creating "concept albums" or rock operas has to be good.

Laura Brown said...


1. Isn't the phenomenon of listeners (as opposed to musicians) having a "physical element to link [them] to the music" actually quite a recent development in the millennia-long history of music?

2. Didn't people make similar gloomy predictions about the death of live music (and resulting impoverishment of listeners' experience) back when recorded music first became widely available?

3. Does even Thomson know what he means by "Darwinian" in that first paragraph?

Anonymous said...

What made you press the shuffle button of all things? Are you going through some sort of mid life crisis, do you listen to Radio One and watch 'Skins' and 'Sound' as well? If you don't listen to an album in order, how is track one meant to establish mood and setup the best track on the album on the album (almost always) track two. Anyway, I bet most new music sounds bad in whatever order you play it, maybe the quality of the content should be called into question, rather then how it's distributed.

Anonymous said...

If you don't listen to an album in order, how is track one meant to establish mood and setup the best track on the album on the album (almost always) track two.

I missed these hilariously stringent rules for proper music appreciation. Was there a memo or something?

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