It’s Hard to Listen to Albums Now
R.I.P. to the long play.
I was driving home last night at around 2 AM, and I had the radio on as I often do when I’m taking the ride from Manhattan back to Staten Island. Usually I just sort of flip up and down the dial until I find something I like, but as has been the case the past few months, there was nothing on that I really wanted to hear. Even on Q104.3, which is good for great classic rock songs you want to turn up loud at that time of night, there was just nothing worth listening to.
So I flipped to the CD player— I’ve an old car (cause I’m kinda poor… or something)— and turned on Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. By the time I crossed the Verrazano Bridge I thought to myself, “Gee, I’ve listened to this album in its entirety every single day since May.” That’s a lot of times to listen to the same record. Then I thought, how is it that I keep replaying this album— one from 1978, no less— and yet there are so many albums that drop these days that I can’t stand to listen to even once?
When I think about listening to albums now, it literally feels like a chore. Like holy shit, I need to really sit here and listen to this thing and invest an hour or more of my life. What a massive undertaking. Way to monopolize my time and attention. I just can’t do it, man. Like, I literally cannot listen to full albums these days. It’s fucking painful. Brutal.
It didn’t used to be that way. And that’s what I was thinking while I was listening to Darkness… The album is only 10 songs and clocks in a little over 40 minutes long. I can listen to it without giving up too much of my time. And it makes me feel better for 40 minutes or whatever. I thought about Nas’ Illmatic and how it follows a similar format. Ten songs, about 40 minutes long. Illmatic, in my mind, is probably the best hip-hop album ever. It’s very succinct and tightly wound. The artistic vision on it is very refined, reigned in. It’s not messy and all over the place.
When I think about so many great albums— they don’t even have to be classics or anything— they all follow a script of sorts. They really lend themselves to the album-listening experience, someone dialing in for a little while, trying to listen to an artist’s musical vision. Most of the songs have a similar vibe. They’re cohesive. That’s not to say there aren’t great albums that stray from the formula, but it’s kind of rare.
The thing is, over the past 15 years or so, the album format as a way of presenting music has really lost its way. Without really getting into technology and how that has completely altered listening to music, a lot of why albums are crap these days has to do with a fractured idea of what an album as a collection of songs is supposed to be.
When I think of songs, I think of paintings. And then I think of albums almost like art exhibits, with the format you choose to listen to the album— record, tape, CD, mp3, streaming, whatever— as the gallery its housed in. I’m not an expert in any respect on visual art, but I get the sense that when an artist is preparing for a show, they’re often making the work in their studio and they have some sort of central idea in mind for what they want the exhibit to be. Or, they make the art and then find a way to make sense of the different pieces, bringing it together in some way. The idea being, these are these pieces of art that represent what I was doing here, how I was thinking then, where my head was at blah blah blah.
Music used to be like this. The album wasn’t some bloated affair, loaded with 20 songs that have nothing to do with each other. Remember, at one time the album format was not even popular. Albums really didn’t get popular until the late 60s and 70s. Until then, music was a singles-driven business. When you think of Motown, for example, often you’re going to zone in on specific songs and artists, but not whole albums. Can you tell me off the top of your head what album “My Girl” is on? Probably not. There are so many great songs from that era, but not so many great albums. At least not with the super popular artists. The album experience was a bonus. It was saying to fans, hey, if you like this song, perhaps you’ll like a few more. And oh yeah, you have to pay a bit more for it.
But then albums kind of took over. The singer/songwriter type of artist became the prototype and tin pan alley methods of making records fell out of favor. If you couldn’t write and play your own songs, you were kind of a dinosaur. That’s not to say those artists weren’t still around, but the ones who lasted were real acts who had a vision and put forth something a little more serious than a 3-minute single. And things stayed that way for a while.
By the late 90s and early 2000s, though, everything had changed. The whole strategy was all fucked up, it seems. Because the music industry was getting fat on album sales— remember, a CD used to cost around $17 in a chain store— all artists wanted to do was sell albums. They needed singles and music videos and radio play to help them reach the inflated expectations that were set forth. And so the album became much less about a creative vision and more so about a specific goal in mind for each song.
“This song is for the clubs.”
“This is my song for the ladies.”
“This is street record.”
“This is my collab with so and so.”
Albums started to suck when artists started trying to please everyone. You could listen to albums and hear the songs being plugged into the format. It was boring. It still is. What kind of artist are you, really, when your music is trying to do… everything? What do you stand for if you stand for… everything? And I’m not saying that ultimately this is a bad way to live or anything. I don’t think people should stick themselves in a box. You should want to do everything, reach as many people as possible with your music. But there has to be a way to do it where it makes sense within the grand scheme of your artistic vision. There’s a way to do it where it becomes uniquely “you.” Whatever a “club” song is nowadays (seriously, what the fuck is that?), your club song should sound like what it’s meant to be. But sonically, that club song shouldn’t deviate that much from the next song. Because you’re taking your listener in too many different directions. A person can’t listen to an album like that. It may make for a good song, but if it pops too much it will just sound weird. It fucks up the flow, makes it difficult to listen to. To use the art exhibition analogy again, it’s like having one painting in the gallery that has nothing to do with the others. Why is it even in the gallery? And that’s why people just cherry-pick the songs they want from a project and leave the rest alone. Which is cool, too. It’s nice that you’re at least grabbing people for 4 minutes. But it would be better if you could bring them into your world for 45 minutes, no? Wouldn’t they understand you that much better if they were engaged with you for a longer period of time?
Only very recently, within the past five years, have artists gotten back to delivering solid LPs. It’s like someone finally shook these guys up and said hey, there is no more TRL, you’re never going to get played on the radio and nobody gives a fuck about a collaboration if the song isn’t good. Further, mixtapes and EPs and street albums and whatnot, they’ve sort of displaced the traditional album. People aren’t really waiting around for a label to help them drop anything. And the idea that there will be this massive campaign around a single or whatever, that shit is over. It’s just become about delivering a solid body of work and hoping people will listen to it.
But even in that space, things are cluttered. Whether it’s a mixtape or album or random project or whatever, there’s just so much music on these projects now. It’s really a mess. What artists need are great executive producers. Someone to just come in and boil down whatever they’re doing to a solid 10 songs. Then adding what they need to do, sonically, to make those 10 songs sound like they belong together. Like there’s some symbiotic relationship between everything that is being presented. That’s one of the great things about a guy like Kanye. You never listen to anything he’s involved with and feel like his sonic blueprint isn’t all over the album. The beats vary, but they very much sound like a Kanye West production. Even if it isn’t your particular flavor, you know it’s uniquely his.
Albums used to be shorter, obviously, because they needed to go on vinyl and records could only hold X amount of minutes per side. If you wanted a longer album, the grooves in the record had to be cut tighter together and the sound quality was sacrificed. Tapes and CDs, too, had time limits for how long they could be. Time constraints, I feel, really help reel in the music. But space is infinite now with digital technology. And so we have albums and mixtapes with 20 songs on them, only 5 worth really listening to. And because music is largely free and in abundance, there is much less emphasis on making sure that everything counts. It’s just like, hey, let us throw a bunch of shit out there and see what sticks. It makes for a pretty terrible listening experience.
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