The other night, some friends and I discussed our favorite 2004 albums over dinner. Someone brought up The Postal Service's Give Up. After anally pointing out that it was actually a 2003 release, I explained that, while I thought the CD had some wonderful moments, it didn't hold together as an album, especially at the end. She responded, simply and directly: "I don't care." Instead of appalling or offending me, the comment made me think. If there are people who don't care if an album works as a cohesive experience, then am I wasting my time thinking of them in that way?
I've always been an entire-experience sort of fellow. I like to see movies from beginning to end, uninterrupted. I can't read one book in a series; I've got to read them all. And that yearly top 10 CD list I always make such a big deal of? Almost every criterion for that list is based on the album in its entirety. A CD that's too long, or with an unfortunate reggae experiment, or with poor cover art will surely be knocked immediately out of contention. So to actually consider that the album is not the ultimate form of musical expression is radical thinking, for me.
This sort of thinking jibes well with a couple of recent developments. For one, I am now an iPod owner. The iPod is not inherently album un-friendly; you can put entire albums in there, and there's even an album category on the menu. But that's not the most exciting feature. That award goes to the Shuffle Songs option, wherein wonderful mixes of your favorite songs present themselves effortlessly. It provides some great juxtapositions. For example, Johnny Cash's acoustic version of Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus segues right into Bourgeois Tagg's 1988 acoustic gem I Don't Mind At All.
The other recent development is an article by critic David Browne in the January 14th issue of Entertainment Weekly. The two-page piece is called "Who Needs Albums?" and in it Browne postulates that the album as an artistic form is reaching its nadir. This sort of doom-saying is nothing new. How long have we been hearing about the novel being dead? The troubling thing is that Browne brings up some good points.
At least Browne is smart enough not to blame the decline of the album on the younger generation. He points out that there are still younger people becoming obsessed with the works of their favorite artists. No, he blames two things: CDs and artists. He explains that the longer format of the CD has allowed artists to indulge, ignore quality control, and create bloated albums stuffed with filler. No argument there.
The vital point Browne is missing is that albums usually take time to reach classic status. Of course it seems like the '60s, '70s, and '80s have produced more classic records, because we know what has endured. I can see why he misses this point, because he's forced to listen to so much crap for his job. But, the production of crappy music is not a modern development. Just take a look through the bargain vinyl section of your local record store some afternoon. There was plenty of crap put out in the '60s, '70s, and '80s too. So, I'm not at all concerned about the album dying.
More troubling is the changing way we experience music. Downloading has allowed us to cherry-pick our favorite songs and leave the filler untouched. In some ways I love this development. No more buying greatest hits packages for the one or two new songs, no more shilling out for a whole soundtrack just to get one song by an artist you like, no more buying an entire Europe album just to get The Final Countdown. Likewise, CDs make it so easy to find a song you like on an album, but it also makes it very easy to skip ones you aren't willing to give a chance.
Maybe I'm just naive, but I tend to trust that the majority of albums, given the right amount of time and effort, will reveal themselves as worthwhile. I don't need the songs to speak to each other, or some big over-arching story (though I do enjoy that quite a bit). All I need is a collection of worthwhile tunes.
In fact, one of the most thrilling experiences of listening to albums is finding that non-single that just knocks you out. And I'd never discount the power of repetition. Sometimes I regret having so many CDs and wonder if my relationship with music was much stronger when I only owned a few tapes that I listened to ad nauseum. I still hold great affection for those tapes I had: Collective Soul's second album, a K-Tel compilation called Chartaction '83, They Might Be Giants' Flood, the best of the Monkees, and almost all of "Weird Al" Yankovic's output. None of those items would be considered classics by any right-minded person, yet I love them because I nearly wore them out in my car.
Somewhere I lost that willingness to play every single album until it was ingrained into me. I'm much more likely to make a snap judgment and dismiss a CD. That's a little sad, because I may be missing out on some really good stuff. I worry about that. I'm consoled by the fact that when I find an album I like, I can still get really into it.
So if as a music-listening society we are moving toward that mindset expressed by my friend ("I don't care"), then I can roll with it. As many different kinds of iPods are invented and as many shell-shocked critics hold up their "REPENT" signs there will still be artists dedicated to the artform, and listeners who believe.