Quarantine Quandaries: The Album

As I write this the world is on lock-down. Quarantine is in effect and the world seems to be grinding to a halt as we try to carry on daily life amid a truly global pandemic.

In light of that I find myself given more time at home, inside. And despite everything that is ongoing, music is still there to fall back on, to escape to. With that time I hope to get some thoughts down and hopefully start some discussion.

In the first of these I wanted to dissect “The Album”, what that means in this modern era and its relevance.

For me, I grew up listening to albums. A CD would go into a player and wouldn’t be ejected until it stopped playing all the way through (often 2 or 3 times). And even in this digital age that’s how I primarily consume music. That’s not to say I don’t put on a playlist from time-to-time or let my Soundcloud stream just whir through the gears, I do, and cherish the ability to have a collection of my favourite songs back-to-back, or quickly discover the next great song or artist. But when I have the time (and frankly I think we all have more than usual at present) I find no greater musical pleasure than sitting down, pressing play and then just letting an album ride. Unadulterated, unshuffled, unskipped. As the artist intended.

An album to me is a time capsule of an artist at that precise moment in their career. A culmination of intense effort and a distinct stepping stone before the next. A sequenced piece of art which has been carefully constructed to deliver maximum results. Imagine pairing OutKast’s ‘B.O.B’ with Aquemini or MF DOOM’s ‘Meat Grinder’ with Vaudeville Villain (I mean, we did do exactly this in our Madness Brackets but bear with me for arguments sake). Repeat this process 5 times say across an artists catalogue and sure, you may have 10 excellent songs but a complete package that, sonically and thematically, is all over the place. An album is more than the sum of its parts, a song alone may seem rather mediocre but might just provide that perfect intro or the slow ballad may allow a counterpoint to the upbeat track that follows, the juxtaposition heightening the impact of each.

“A culmination of intense effort and distinct stepping stone before the next. A sequenced piece of art which has been carefully constructed to deliver maximum results.”

I’m not the only one who feels this way. When we interviewed Slug he alluded to constructing full projects because “I still approach making music the way I was listening to music when I was seventeen.” For him, he too recalls listening to “a Rakim album or a KRS-ONE album or a Prince album.” What he does concede however is his understanding that he can’t hold the world accountable for how they want to consume music now (Read the full interview here for more from Slug). For now, perhaps more so than ever in recent history, music can provide solace and comfort, and in whatever form or method you chose to use it, who are we to say this is the way you need to listen?

The way artists release music has unequivocally changed too. An album is no longer a necessity even. If an artist has made a new song, within mere minutes of completion it can be online and out in the world for anyone to hear. That can grow to fill a spot on an album or forever remain a “loosie.” And even the concept of what constitutes an album vs an EP are becoming blurred. It’s commonplace for projects to come in below the 25 minute mark (Earl Sweatshirts last projects come to mind). The era of 2-3 year album release schedule is no more, the consumer appetite is insatiable and artists are adapting to this for better or worse. This said, I much prefer a strong short release than a laboured attempt to fill out an album. Sometimes a little goes a long way. In our interview with Damu the Fudgemunk he realises the increase in output versus his own. “I’m working at a pace that was normal twenty something years ago. And the thing is, during that time, people were putting out records every two, three years… every four years…By embracing, not only the technology and services like that [Tracklib], it helps creators keep up with the pace of today’s marketplace.” I guess the question is does this pace help or hinder creativity?

A final point to consider is the idea of the concept album or common threads within a project. Jean Gray & Quelle Chris’ excellent 2018 release Everything’s Fine was woven together with interludes and skits around a fictitious game show. Removing these, in my opinion, would make for a far less memorable album despite the fact that I wouldn’t listen to these skits by themselves. Concept albums I feel deserve the attention of a full listen, the message throughout is strengthened and the tracks become more engaging as the story develops and unravels from start to finish, perhaps requiring a few listens to wholly understand.

Now, as stated before, I’m not going to chastise anyone for cherry-picking their favourite songs, or artists for deciding they just want to release singles but for me, I will always revert back to searching for that grail, that perfect album which, however brief, captures me within. A single cohesive work that, as a whole is stronger than any of its individual elements.

But what are your thoughts? Are albums a thing of the past? Has technology rendered them relics and individually curated playlists are the future or do you still cherish the ritual of “The Album”?

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