The music industry’s never-ending quest to provide more convenient media has, it can be argued, made music more disposable, more forgettable. Think about it. In the days of vinyl, you sat through a record all the way through. Partly, it must be said, due to the fact that changing the track (with all the faff of lifting the needle and putting it back down in the wrong place without scratching the surface of the LP) was such effort. It almost meant you had to buy the singles when they came out, and pray that your favourite songs off an album got released as a single.
The cassette tape, in commercial pre-recorded guise at least, as bad if not worse. How many of you wrecked your tapes by spending afternoons furiously fast-forwarding and rewinding them to hear favourite songs? I did, countless times. However, the advent of blank cassettes meant people could suddenly make mixtapes off their vinyl collections. Don’t want to sit through records to hear your favourite tracks? Easy! Make a personal greatest hits collection instead. When twin deck tape players and recorders came along you could even do it off your cassette collections. Winner. If you were really cheap (as I was at the turn of the millennium), you could spend Sunday afternoons listening to the top 40 and recording your favourite songs off that. Getting it just right so you didn’t get any talking at the start or end of the song, while not missing a note either, was an art form. I failed dismally. I ended up with as much of Marc Goodier’s voice on mine as I did the music. It could be argued that cassettes were really the start of the whole piracy issue that’s dogged the industry ever since, but that’s not an issue for here and now. Back to the history.
The CD was a godsend for the impatient music buyer and listener. You could skip tracks with the push of a button, and when CD burners came down in price you could make digital equivalents of mixtapes, or merely even burn the tracks you wanted onto your computer. It was the precursor to the current ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ culture that seems to be prevalent amongst the download only brigade.
The danger in all of this is between that and scan listening on streaming services such as Spotify is that it’s all to easy to live your life in shuffle mode. I know, I’ve been there. Now, I’m no downloader, so you might be wondering how this is so. Well, when my old CD player broke, I didn’t replace it because, as I reasoned, all I ever did was put it on the MP3 player and put the CD on the shelf and that was that. So I relied on Spotify, Windows Media Player (which I always cherry picked tracks on, never listening to full albums), and my MP3 player (which for reasons I don’t really understand, ALWAYS gets left on shuffle, unless I’m on a train). The concept of an album, therefore, appeared to be dead to me. Given my propensity for buying CD albums, this seemed a ridiculous situation. So, I finally got round to buying a new player. I then set aside 2 days to re-discover my love for the album, and got down to celebrating being able to listen to physical formats again.
I accept that maybe 18 albums was probably a bit much in such a short space of time. Cambridge University did research suggesting that the brain can only compute and engage fully in any one activity for an hour before it needs to be stimulated via other methods. This probably applied here too – towards the end of my ‘experiment’ I was pretty much waiting for albums to finish. However, it did open my eyes to the joys of listening to an album again. The way it lets you see the ideas and thoughts of an artist in that one period of time. The way that some albums are autobiographical, and let you see the artists’ mindset or experiences. Plus, with a physical format you can kick back and read the sleeve-notes and ogle the artwork while the album is playing. Sometimes this can be just as exciting as the record itself (see The Ramones’ Sire re-issues, or the Undertones or Echo & the Bunnymen equivalents for great examples of absorbing, enlightening sleevenotes). I also found that listening to full albums meant I could catch up with other things (mainly reading), which the constant stop/start of living on shuffle, and the constant track changing, rendered all but impossible in the past. I’ve also enjoyed the level of thought involved in deciding on an album to fit a particular mood or activity, rather than choosing a song or two to fit the moment and (metaphorically) sticking them on repeat.
Don’t get me wrong, though. This isn’t me preaching from some gargantuan ivory tower about the perils of listening to individual tracks or downloading or whatever else you could misjudge this piece to be about. Differences are to be celebrated, and if you prefer to listen to individual tracks over albums, then who am I to judge. This is really nothing more than a document of one man and his rediscovery of the concept of the album (and a rather verbose and highly edited history of how music has in my opinion become so disposable). Though I will say this: in the day where the album is increasingly being seen as an obsolete format, perhaps it’s time to give it a re-appraisal. Give it a whirl, you might enjoy the journey. I know I have.
During my ‘experiment’ I listened to:
Jamie T: Kings & Queens
The Clash: Give Them Enough Rope
Television Personalities: Don’t The Kids Just Love It
Camera Obscura: Let’s Get Out of This Country
Noah & The Whale: The First Days Of Spring
Billy Bragg: Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy and Slow Club: Christmas Thanks For Nothing EP (As these were both mini albums each totalling under 15mins I classed them as one entry)
The Pains of Being Pure Of Heart: S/T
The Manhattan Love Suicides: S/T
The Undertones: S/T
The Jesus And Mary Chain: Darklands
Richard Hawley: Lady’s Bridge
The Pogues: If I Should Fall From Grace With God
Beach House: Devotion
The Field Mice: Snowball
Eels: Hombre Lobo
The Vapors: New Clear Days
Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska