Do we need to rescue the album?

And, how 1970 was a crazy year for The Beatles

Earlier this year, Taylor Swift pulled her music from Spotify. Tidal launched and promptly faded to the background. From Pono Music, Apple Music, Rdio, and Google Play, one thing is for sure, we haven’t nailed down the commercial side of recorded music.

Yet, whether it’s streaming, downloads, CDs or records, artists are still releasing their music generally 10–14 songs at a time. Albums might not always be the best commercial product, but they’ll always be around for one reason: an album is not a collection of an artist’s work- the album is their work.

A movie is a collection of scenes in a specific order. An album is a collection of songs in a specific order.

Why the album?

It has taken a while for technology to catch up to appreciate the album as an artistic product rather than songs, prepackaged playlists or algorithmically curated mixes. Spotify only allowed you to save playlists or songs before you could save an album.

Some say by listening to a record, we listen to music how it’s meant to be heard. I don’t think this has as much to do with the sound quality that vinyl produces. I think the act of putting an album on, starting with the first track, and actively listening to the songs in sequential order is the most compelling part.

Albums give context to the music. It tells us a clearer story about the artists and their songs whether intentional or unintentional. Everyone loves “Another Brick in the Wall pt 2”, but misses out on the two song build up it takes to get to that song on The Wall.

The Beatles in 1970

Albums are important because they tell us a story, both by the songs in them, but also by the events surrounding their creation and release. A great case study for this is to look at what happened with The Beatles in 1970.

In 1970, not only did The Beatles release their final album, but each of them released their own solo album (Ringo actually released two and they weren’t very good). In 10 months, 6 albums by a Beatle were released.

A quick timeline:

  • March 10, 1970 — Ringo Starr releases Sentimental Journey
  • April 10, 1970 — Paul McCartney releases a statement announcing the breakup of The Beatles
  • April 17, 1970 — Paul McCartney releases McCartney
  • May 17, 1970 — The Beatles release their final album, Let it Be
  • September 25, 1970 — Ringo Starr releases Beaucoups of Blues
  • November 27, 1970 — George Harrison releases All Things Must Pass
  • December 11, 1970 — John Lennon releases John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band

Let’s expand on these debut albums by each of the Beatles.

Sentimental Journey

Ringo Starr, age 29

The first post-Beatles solo album comes with a whimper, rather than a bang. This is a bit of a silly album. It’s Ringo singing some of his mom’s favorite songs with a jazz orchestra backing. None of the songs are original. None of the songs on this album would sound out of place at an Olive Garden. Ringo is an affable guy and one of the most unique drummers in rock history; but, this one doesn’t stand the test of time. He released another album in 1970 filled with country songs which John Lennon basically referred to as “less embarrassing than his first album”.

McCartney

Paul McCartney, age 26

Although not universally seen as the best Beatles solo album, this is one of my personal favorites. Paul played every instrument on this album. Listening to this album front to back tells an incredible story. This feels like the demo tape for an album that he never recorded. Many of the songs are just sketches- he’ll start to sing them, trail off and fill the rest of the words either ‘La’ or just stop singing altogether. “Every Night” sounds like a Beatles song, but the recording has an emptiness to it. There is no George Harrison to fill out the music and no John Lennon to harmonize with. “Maybe I’m Amazed” is the standout track on the album. It’s as good as any great Beatles song. The incredible part of it though is knowing that he played all of the parts on it. But, his drums sound like Ringo and his guitar solo is something George would have played. The album shows how much of the Beatles DNA was Paul and his writing, but also how very much in transition he was into something new.

All Things Must Pass

George Harrison, age 26

During The Beatles’ final years, it became apparent that George was an incredible songwriter as well. Songs like “Something”, “Here Comes the Sun”, and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” are as good as any Lennon/McCartney song. After having limited creative output for so long with the Beatles, George had a lot to say in his first proper solo album. All Things Must Pass is a sprawling 18 song triple album. This is a hard album to grasp fully. This list of people who played the album is just as impressive as the songs. Eric Clapton, Ringo, Phil Collins, Ginger Baker, Phil Spector, Bob Dylan, and many many others contributed to the writing and recording of this album. It’s not so much a cohesive album with one point of view as it is a long-overdue unbottling of a talented musician celebrating with some of the most talented musicians of the time.

John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band

John Lennon, age 29

This is one of the more revered Beatles solo albums. It exists as an incredible snapshot of the time, both for what the public wanted to hear about The Beatles and what was going on in John’s personal life. It’s the musical expression of the intense therapy he was going through at the time. John goes for shock value on some of these songs by using profanity or exclaiming both “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” and “I don’t believe in Beatles” in the song “God.” He lets his voice go hoarse shouting “Mommy don’t go, Daddy come home” over and over by the end of the first song. John needed to get this album out of his system so by the time he released his next album less than a year later, it could have the song “Imagine” on it. Listening to both this album and McCartney I individually is an incredible experience. They’re both great albums that highlight two of the greatest songwriters of all time. But, both of the albums have this sparseness to them that feels like the growing pains of learning how to perform without each other.

Homework

Pick one of these albums and listen to it. All of them are available on Spotify. Get a good pair of speakers or headphones, start with track one, turn off shuffle, and listen. Music has never told a story this clearly.

If you enjoyed it, let me know. Write a review of one of the albums above, or just tell me about any album you love.