I’ve been listening to albums again. Rather than plug in the iPod, I have been using the CD player on car journeys and have selected what were once known as “long players” to play.
I have realised that I have missed it.
In recent years I have been more likely to listen to compilations of tracks I enjoy rather than an entire CD or downloaded collection. This week’s press proves I am not alone. Album sales in the US were reported to be considerably less than half of what they had been ten years ago.
The Guardian’s article on this points to the usual (and probably largely correct) reasons for this decline. Streaming, copying etc, etc. You can read it via the following link:
However, I have got out of the album listening habit not because of the wretched iTunes but rather because the product in general has become less attractive to me.
Before I go on, this is not going to be a tirade against modern music but rather how it is packaged and presented.
Albums now are too long. And too infrequent.
I submit to you that when albums ceased to fit on one side of a C90 cassette they became overlong.
I blame the introduction of the compact disc for this. As the disc could hold about an hour and a quarter’s worth of content, record labels took that as a obligation to fill it.
So we got too much “filler” that wouldn’t have made it on to a proper album and the introduction of the “bonus track”. Buy a CD of a reissued album and you will invariably get extra tunes tacked on the end (or worse inserted in the middle) which was the filler left off the album at the time.
Length is no guarantee of quality, to paraphrase Blackadder, but, despite most music being downloaded these days, album duration seems to be stuck around the hour mark.
To illustrate, let me take two of the finest albums of all time from the very finest year in album history*, 1971. Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye are barely over half an hour long. David Bowie’s return album this year, “The Next Day” runs for 53 minutes. Worse, “The Next Day Extra” will be released this month with an additional four tracks.
Which brings me to my second point, when did it become acceptable to release an album every three years? The magnificent Elbow release their new album in March next year, three years on from “Build A Rocket Boys” and six years after “The Seldom Seen Kid”.
As I grew up, the annual album release was the norm. Many bands would release two in twelve months (Elton John was famously contracted to do so in the early 70’s). While I am not advocating a return to the near feudal contracts of the time, I would prefer more frequency over the bloated releases of today.
Evidence suggests that quality did not suffer when annual releases were common place. Let me undermine my argument about overlong releases by pointing to the exceptions that prove the rule: The White Album, Electric Ladyland, Quadrophenia, Exile On Main Street, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Songs In The Key Of Life…
There was uproar about the delay in releasing the latter as it had been a full two years since Stevie Wonder’s last record! I recommend the “Classic Albums” episode that explains its context.
So, reading this back, I seem to be saying that actually today’s groups are lazy swine whose record companies wring every last ounce out of what they eventually get round to producing. This may explain why downloading single tracks is more expensive than whole albums but it doesn’t seem to be an adequate explanation of why I don’t enjoy that many album releases these days.
Perhaps I should just admit to myself that I am a miserable old sod with a 70’s music fixation…
*This is a fact that I refuse to countenance a debate on. See the montage below for a small selection of the year’s releases in addition to those already identified. I shall also add “There’s A Riot Going On”, “Tapestry”, “Innervisions” into the mix…