Why albums? (And what's in my CD case?)

We are supposedly living in the golden age of singles.  Listeners nowadays mostly get their music from streaming services, no longer buy CDs, and mostly want to listen to playlists featuring singles from lots of artists that capture a particular vibe.  As I was preparing to release my music this summer, I read a bunch of books and blog posts about the modern music industry.  They all agreed that the best strategy is to release a new single every 6-8 weeks, year round, year after year, with no breaks.  Albums are an afterthought; nobody pays attention to them unless they are by megastars like Beyonce or Taylor Swift.  

Maybe I'm just old school, but I still think that albums are important.  I have never listened to a playlist or a mixtape in my life.  I sometimes listen to music on the radio, but most of the time I am listening to full albums, ideally in a single sitting.  I don't feel like I know an artist's music until I've listened to one or more of their albums multiple times.  

Why are albums important?  If you have 10 good songs recorded, why not just release 10 singles?  Why listen to an album all at once?  I have two answers.  

FIRST:  albums have room for a broader range of expression than singles.  Most successful singles have to fit a certain mold:  they should be short (2-4 minutes), energetic, immediately appealing, and danceable.  Lyrically they should be easy to follow and inoffensive--unless you are a hip-hop artist, in which case your lyrics must be hard-edged and use a lot of jargon to create a mystique.  

These were the rules back in the days of AM radio, but in the age of Spotify there is an additional rule, which is that your single's sound has to fit squarely into one or more high-traffic playlists, which usually specialize in narrow subgenres.  There are playlists that play jangle pop, and they only want music that sounds like Alvvays.  There are playlists that play dream pop, and they only want music that sounds like Beach House.  I love both of those bands, but I don't think slavishly copying an existing style is a way to make great music.  

Albums are where good musicians can spread out and make music in a variety of styles and moods.  I love the Beatles' singles, but some of their best songs were not cut out to be singles--“A Day in the Life” is too long, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is too downbeat, “Here, There and Everywhere” doesn't have much of a dance beat.   Elvis Costello is my favorite living songwriter, but most of his songs are too ornery and complex to succeed as singles (and he only made the top 40 a couple of times in his career).  

I did release three singles from my new album Midlife Crisis Vanity Project.  Two of them ("How the Hell" and “Replaced By Robots”) followed the rules, while the third ("Your Opinion") was too political and has gotten less attention (lesson learned).  But my favorite tracks on the album are probably “Subway” and “Wyoming”.  I didn't release “Subway” as a single because it's downbeat and because the lyrics are ironic (a fact that seems to have been lost on at least one reviewer, who thinks that the song is actually supposed to be a paean to Subway).  I didn't release “Wyoming” as a single because it's over 6 minutes long, and because lyrically it's a dystopian political ballad that requires careful listening to follow.  

SECOND:  an album can add up to more than the sum of its parts.  While most albums (including mine) are just a collection of unrelated songs, sometimes an album has an overarching theme that gives it an extra layer of gravitas.  This is most obvious for narrative albums like Tommy, The Wall, and American Idiot, but there are more subtle examples as well.  Consider Bob Marley's masterpiece Exodus.  Every track is perfect on its own terms, but the song placement creates a spiritual journey--side one features songs of struggle ("Natural Mystic", “The Heathen” and the title track), while side two focuses on love songs--first erotic love ("Jammin", “Waiting in Vain”) and finally universal love ("Three Little Birds", “One Love”).   Another example is the modern masterpiece Twin Fantasy by Car Seat Headrest.  The individual tracks are all great, but only by listening to the entire album can you hear the intricate pattern of linkages across songs--virtually every track refers to or is referenced by another track on the album, often in unexpected and exciting ways.   

So I will continue to treasure albums.  Now that I have tracks on Spotify, I have the privilege of creating my own “artist playlist”.  Mine is called “The Best Song Wasn't the Single” (borrowing a line from Frank Ocean's “Sweet Life”), and it features 100 percent killer album tracks that were never released as singles, from great bands and performers old and new, no more than one track per artist.  Give it a listen, and long live the album!

Speaking of albums…Here are the albums that have been in my CD case for the last couple of weeks: 

Alex G, God Save the Animals

Black Midi, Hellfire

The Band, Northern Lights, Southern Cross

Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Face the Truth

Sigur Ros, With a Buzz In Our Ears We Play Endlessly (the one with the naked guys running on the cover)

Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt

Weyes Blood, And In the Darkness, Hearts Aglow

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