I’m sure I’m increasingly in the minority in this regard, but I’m an album guy. I’m not really fussed about how it’s delivered, really. I mean, rewinding cassettes was horrible, but I don’t privilege one format over another. It’s the full-length album that I value above anything else in music.
Writing a great song is really hard, just like painting a great portrait is hard or writing a great article is hard. Any piece of art can impact an audience - I believe something asseemingly frivolous as a single tweet can change a person’s life. But the power of the album is that it is a journey, a set of songs by a single artist placed in a specific order. Because of this, albums can be exponentially more powerful than an individual song.
Albums carry a lot more information than singles do. You get a better idea of where the artist or band is at, what part of their artistic trajectory they are on and what the story there are trying to tell is. The best albums feel cohesive while having peaks and troughs; different moods, different scenes, moments of tension and points of release.
All of this adds extra creative pressure on artists. More time to stretch out means more time to wander off track. Maintaining consistency and quality over the length of an album tests an artist in different ways to writing a great single: writing a single is seems to me to be like a sprint whereas putting together an album is more like a marathon. To write a great record you need inspiration, ideas, drive and discipline.
When an artist makes an album that I love, they earn my affection for a long time. Even if all the others are so-so, I’ll generally keep checking back for quite a while just to see whether they’ve recaptured the magic. I’ll almost certainly want to see the live show to hear my favourite tunes played by the people who created them. Great albums are like jewels to me and I hold those who are responsible for them in high esteem. They have contributed something to my life and my story. Great albums have defined times in my life better than any other type of art. It is incredible to think something so intangible can have such an impact on a person - memories, weather, friends, emotions.
It's been this way for a long time but the album as a piece of art in it’s own right is certainly not what it was. I’m not bitter or resentful about this. The commercial realities of popular music nowadays are such that the market demands that the customer be able to purchase individual songs on their phones and computers as easily as possible. If another good song is released, great, I’ll get that one for $1.69 as well. I’d argue that the labels exploited the album format as a protectionist racket for many years. Putting a couple of pop hits alongside a bunch of filler and charging $27.99 was a scam that lined the pockets of labels for a long time but turned into one of the key factors in their eventual downfall.
Pop is an industry driven by hit singles and it has been that way for a long time. I’d also like to reassure you that few people enjoy a huge pop single as much as I do. But in the genres that garner most of my attention and enthusiasm, the album is still an important marker for greatness. In hip-hop there has long been debates about what constitutes a classic album, about which artists have better catalogues. Magazines like The Source gave their top picks ‘Five Mics’ and privileged the album in a genre that could have remained preoccupied with four minutes slammers forever. The great rock artists from the sixties, seventies and nineties gave us ‘Abbey Road’, ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ and ‘Ten’. Angry kids around around the world were inspired to start bands after hearing ‘Paranoid’, ‘The Number of The Beast’ or ‘Rust in Peace’. Progressive music existed almost solely on the power of the album and the live show that went along with it. The artists that I respect from the genres that I love value the album as the crowning creative achievement.
An album to me is not twelve attempts at writing a hit single. It is not about frontloading a disc with candy and leaving the second half to rot. It’s about committing to a format that has changed the lives of so many people and challenging yourself to be good enough over fourty minutes instead of four. Next time you put on some music, skip your usual playlist and go straight to the album list on your player of choice. It’s the artform as it is meant to be.