Sunday, February 28, 2010

The long-ago death of the album - and what we're missing as a result

So I was driving down to Denver Saturday to pick up some awards from the Colorado Press Association listening to Judas Priest's "Screaming for Vengeance." (I mean, duh, metal is pretty much AWESOME stuffy award ceremony music.) And I was thinking, "Wow, this really is a great album."
And it hit me. I rarely listen to those anymore.
(By the way, did you like how I subtly snuck in the bragging? Pretty sneaky, huh?)
We download singles if we like it. We don't buy the album any longer. And if we do, we chop it up and shuffle it on our iPod.
I don't know if this really is a bad thing or not. I'm not here to rant against the death of the album. That's been done a lot, and quite frankly, I'm as responsible for that as anyone. I bought five albums in the last two years. I love singles. I love my iPod. I love making my own mixes. And more than half  of the albums I've bought in my lifetime - and that probably numbers into a thousand - mostly sucked, save for the one or two good songs I heard on the radio.
But I am here to mourn what we're missing.
• The opening track - Metallica's "Death Magnetic," my last favorite album, features a classic, "That Was Just Your Life." There's a great lead-in to the song, a slow heartbeat, followed by the opening chords, followed by a message that this is going to take you back to the good, old, fast days. You could always count on Metallica to open with a blister, and you could always count on the first song always being one of the best on the record. It's the tone setter. It's the fun joke or random thought before the boring speech. And sometimes it's not the best song, but if not, it usually is the perfect setup to it, i.e. Ozzy's "I Don't Know" bringing you into "Crazy Train" on "Blizzard of Oz" or "So What" carrying you to "All Blues" on Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue."
• The opening of the B side - This was more of an issue when we weren't buying CDs. Yes, kids, there were things called albums and cassette tapes (my choice), and there was a B side, or the side you'd listen to after that kick-ass first couple of tracks. And almost without fail, that first track on the B side was usually awesome. "Modern Day Cowboy?" "Screaming for Vengeance?" "Hot For Teacher?" "Blind in Texas?" Those all were B-side openers, not opening tracks.
• The surprise second-sider - On even some of the best albums, the B side was generally littered with fillers, experimental (i.e. usually crappy) tracks or just plain awful stuff. "Feel Your Love Tonight," for instance, is a B sider on the undeniably great "Van Halen I." But as you waded through them, occasionally, you'd find gold (Olympics analogy alert!). "The Last Command" by W.A.S.P. "Ice Cream Man" on that same "Van Halen I." "I'll Wait" on VH's "1984." These tracks were the best simply because you looked forward to them. You could get through a guitarist noodling a bit too much, for instance (or playing yet another ripoff solo of "Eruption") because the magic was coming.
• The closer - "Damage Inc." is the closing track on "Master of Puppets." 'Nuff said.
• The desert island debate - Hardly anyone debates the SONGS they would take if they were stranded on an desert island. They debate the books, the movies and the dessert (yep, I know how to spell the two words). And they debate the albums. (Personally, I would take a cell phone so I could get off the damn island). And yet you don't hear those fun debates as much any longer. 
I really kinda miss these things. 
Then again, maybe it's up to me to follow these rules on my own CDs.


Katitude said...

funnily enough, Keith and I were talking about that today, about when the last time we sat and listened to an album rather than a selection of songs as a soundtrack to something else.

Short-Stacked Shamus said...

I remain weirdly devoted to the album format -- indeed, while I'll occasionally will skip to a particular track to carry me the last five minutes home, I almost always stick to listening to the original 10- or 12- song programs, in their orig. sequence. (I'm also mainly listening to stuff originally made pre-CD, too, so that maybe partially explains it.)

Thus do I still get into the LP-aesthetic... thinking in terms of two sides; of first, second, third songs; last songs; segues; etc. I enjoy lots of individual songs, but putting together a great album is a real achievement.