Who really gives a shit about MP3s killing the album?

Going over the polished zen aesthetic of Samsung’s new Pebble line of MP3 players yesterday, I found myself wanting one. This infuriated me. Shuffle-style players pander to debased musical tastes. It was just one more small, pretty audio player — a seductress, a siren — whispering in my ear, trying to get me to finally give up on that naive platonic ideal: the album. But the album’s already dead.

The Pebble, the iPod Shuffle… any of these low-capacity, display-less Flash devices that are flooding the market. The large sub-set of people who opt for these MP3 players over more full-featured models: they simply don’t care about albums. Rather, they prefer to listen to their songs randomly and with minimal control. They want song selected, shuffled and spurted out through their earphones. For them, these small, low-capacity MP3 players are like portable, DJ-less radio stations pandering to their tastes. They may not have a lot of control over what’s coming up next. They may never hear a full album being played. But they’ve always got a keychain full of music they like, at all times. Hell, they don’t even buy albums anymore: they just load up their music service of choice and buy the tracks they like.

This is all very alien to they way I experience music. Even if I could accept the lack of control, the addition of randomness to my music-listening experience, I can’t really accept listening to a song out of the context of the album to which it belongs. I believe that albums should be listened to as complete works, not just anthologies of musical vignettes. Albums should have their own beginning, middle and end: shuffling an album should shuffle its emotional tenor. For me, listening to a song at random without listening to the rest of the album is like reading a chapter randomly from a book. A song might be wonderful, but it is contextless out of its larger body.

I’d be the first to admit that it’s a way of looking at music that is completely out of touch with modern music. Who in their right mind looks at a Britney Spears album as an artistically-coherent work within its own right? It’s just a collection of singles slapped together with some glitter and PR. Most albums are just semi-random collections of songs crammed onto an optical disc: nothing less and only accidentally something more.

But even worse, my way of looking at albums would have been precious and delusional even a hundred years ago! Since the dawn of recorded music, albums were incidental to songs. In the early days of audio recording, albums weren’t much longer than a few minutes anyways, and usually only fit one or two songs per side. It is only as the maximum capacity on audio recordings increased that anyone started playing with the idea of an album as a meaningful artistic entity, in and of itself.

The same holds true for radio: radio is not a format that encourages the playing of full albums, and never has been. And even if you drag me kicking and screaming a few hundred years in the past, I’d find myself looking ridiculous. Most of the music of the world before the dawning of the 20th century did not come in the form of symphonies: it came in the form of short songs. In fact, my way of thinking about albums probably dates back no later than the 1950’s Cool Movement, and for most of the history of recorded mucic has only subscribed to be jazz musicians and musical avant gardists.

Still, I sputter and rage at myself. Buying a single catchy song off of iTunes. Purchasing an adorable novelty MP3 player off of Amazon. I’m so tempted: it means I’m giving up on the actual existence of the record album. I’m sacrificing the ludicrous, pretentious self-delusion that there is a musical entity distinct from the song, that an “album” is something more than the means of physical delivery and its packaging.

And then I start thinking to myself, “Actually, I bet one of those Pebbles would be pretty good for podcasts. I don’t care what order those come down the pipe.” Maybe there’s a compromise to be had here, after all.

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65 Responses to Who really gives a shit about MP3s killing the album?

  1. royaltrux says:

    I think Dave G is spot on.
    Also, for me, whether or not I want the whole context of the album depends on how much I like the artist. For my favorite artists, only the whole album(s) will do, for others, just a song or two is fine (or a ‘best-of album).

  2. Enochrewt says:

    About Music Tagging:

    I started tagging my music years and years ago. From scratch. It’s a royal pain in the ass if your music collection is over 100 songs. I’ve always thought that correctly tagged songs and albus would be the big draw to actually purchasing songs digitally instead of downloading them illegally (before I had heard of DRM even). You know, so you don’t get the yahoo that thinks he remembers the names to the tracks but doesn’t, puts “R1pPeD by 7E37 HaxXo0rz” in the comment tags, or doesn’t put ANYTHING into the tags.

    But really, what’s the point of tagging music if you’re using a shuffle mp3 player and can’t see those tags anyway? These screenless mp3 players create a huge disconnect between songs/albums and the names the artist would like to attach to them.

    Furthermore, albums vs. songs debate asidem I’ll say that I like to listen to new and different things regularly. How am I to remember what the names of these new and different things are for future reference when the player can’t show me the name and the player is on random shuffle? Bob forbid that I ever want to listen to something I heard again on demand at some point.

    “Shuffle-style players pander to debased musical tastes.”

    I should have agreed wholeheartedly to this statement sooner, so let me do so now. I’ll even say that I feel shuffle-style players are made for and marketed to the stupid. Stick that in pipe and smoke it.

    #44: Don’t paint yourself as a different sort of snob (others would call groupie/bar trash) to fight against

  3. Teej says:

    Then don’t buy one. Jeez.

  4. davevontexas says:

    Bah.

    The ‘Album Oriented Rock’ format is a tired old dog that needs to be done away with once and for all.

    Originally, pop music was a singles market, and I think it would be better off — pompous, bloviating pretensions of “art” notwithstanding — if it were again.

  5. sharkcellar says:

    Album oriented music is a relatively new concept. So this argument doesn’t really hold water. Sure there are some great albums that were produced to listened to as a progression, but there are also plenty of albums that are mostly just a collection of songs, some not worth listening to, while a couple are fantastic. Don’t forget that bands like the Beatles, Stones, and other classic rock acts came out of an era where singles were the predominant form of distribution. We have simply returned to the era of the single. If shuffle players bother you, just don’t put your favourite album on it, use it to play your jogging, aerobics, mundane tasks mix on and quit yer bitchin’. And before anyone wants to tell me how much I don’t care about the music I will have you know that I have a degree in music composition, I fucking LOVE music, just not dogma.

  6. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    Looking back at recording formats, It’s instructive to look at formats that have actually *gone away* when an innovation have come along to replace them. Cylinder recordings are extinct as a commercial format. The 78 RPM record was conclusively knocked out of the marketplace by the lighter, more durable, longer playing 33 1/3 RPM record. But nearly every other format that once had significant market still exists. Other small scale failures: pre recorded Mini Disk, Cassingles (look it up), Elcasette. Those never got any traction for one reason or another.
    Vinyl records are still pressed in 45 and 33 1/3 12 and 7″ formats. I wonder if pre recorded cassettes are still produced for music distribution. There probably aren’t any more pre recorded open reel tapes produced, although they once were distributed in quantity.

  7. username says:

    I feel the same way (actually, I think I’m in almost complete agreement with themindfantastic (#12)). If I like an artist, I want to listen to their whole album or their whole catalog. I can’t abide the idea of just shuffling through songs by different artists. If I’m in a Sean Price mood, I want to listen to a Sean Price album, goddammit! I also insist on keeping all my mp3s in folders by album, then by artist. I’ve never been comfortable with dumping them all in one place and letting the tags do their job.

  8. Marcel says:

    The new context of the future will be somewhere along the line of:
    Every song that has been on the number 1 spot in the american charts in the last 20 years, downloaded in one bulky instance to your MP3-player.
    or,
    All of the songs a certain mr. John Brownlee has purchased and downloaded in the past 15 years of MP3-listening, all in one go.
    And then after 5 minutes of listening being able to say something like; Naaah, it sucks! Delete!

  9. Enochrewt says:

    I’m also of the album-preferring set. If I get a new artist to to listen to I must listen to it as a whole body of work, preferably straight through. The first time anyway. For one thing I’m not going to be listening to any such fluff as Britany Spears who puts out constant singles. I feel I owe it to the artist to hear their progression of songs and feelings. There are some albums that demand to be listened to in whole. The Street’s A Grand Don’t Come for Free, Most any Pink Floyd, NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine, just to name a few. These works are unquestionably better because they come as a whole package.

    Someone made a comment about DJ mixes. A true DJ mix is something that you listen to because you take it on trust the the mixer is going to take the sounds to a new and interesting place musically and you’re along for the ride. DJ mixes =/= an iPod on shuffle. Most DJs would be downright offended by the comparison.

  10. Solo500 says:

    No need to lose the album nor must we return to milkcrates and stylii…

    Hey, just use the “join tracks” script in iTunes and you can have an album or even–gasp–edit out songs you are sick of.

    On my Shuffle I keep an audiobook at the top of the playlist, a bunch of songs I want to hear and even… an album or 3 I want to hear whole.

    This is good for favorite albums or new stuff I want to hear as one work.

  11. Anonymous says:

    “real” artists create “real” music on “real” albums, and any “self-respecting” person with “good taste” will only listen to a whole album. “real” music enthusiasts are better than other people.

    Music is dead, there is no good music in any format anywhere any more, Live music is dead, music fanzines do not exist, digital killed music, just like wax cylinders.

    http://fakingit.typepad.com/

  12. fatbactory says:

    It seems to me like the only thing holding albums together as something significantly “more” than their individual songs is the album art. While it’s definitely interesting when an artist inserts themes between individual songs it has never, ever seemed in any way central to the music. Evidence of this is that when almost any band plays live their set lists never mirror the playlist of their albums.

  13. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    Many artists do intentionally produce albums with a coherent theme. They can indeed be more than the sum of their parts. Most CDs are not, though. They’re a collection of individual songs with no more binding them together than personnel and chronology.

  14. slida says:

    Actually, I love that we have the technology to randomize all of my music. I like to be surprised. I like to listen to the differences and similarities between one random song and another. I feel like it is the ultimate way to experience music, the most challenging way you can make for yourself. blah,blah,blah….etc.

  15. License Farm says:

    Certainly, more music made in the past five years at least has been done so with the idea that any song ought to be able to stand on its own as a viable item of purchase outside the context of an album. But isn’t that sort of what we’d hope any song off any album would be? Granted, the more experimental songs that deviate from the 2:42 ideal may have a tougher go of it, and I too have a preference for hearing an artist’s vision as it was arranged. But as has been pointed out, the concept of an album was a necessity of the limited, linear recorded form, and now that the form has been exploded there is no longer any reason more than convention to work in that format. Artists can release singles one after another with no intent of thematic coherence, handpicking the ones that fared best on the open market for a CD compilation should they feel the need for one.

  16. fortybillion says:

    It’s nice to know I’m not the only one that steadfastly refuses to listen to anything but albums (with the exception of DJ Mixsets, which are really just arbitrarily long albums comprised of other people’s music). I as well start at track one, and don’t stop until I hit track end, even to the point of picking up midway through an album when I move from audio device to audio device. If I really like one track, then it’s the reward for taking another journey through the album.

    I’m so album-centric that if an artist can’t produce a quality album (eg. I like one song but not the other 10) then the whole thing ends up in the Trash. You will not find a single single in my entire collection anyway. Having an albumless track dropped in the middle of my iTunes collection is an affront, mocking me with it’s lack of context.

    I am aware that this makes me odd.

  17. John Brownlee says:

    Audaxaxon:

    “Many devices don’t include file/directory navigation, or make it less convenient. That design choice influences the likelihood of a device being used in some particular way.”

    What way is that? I hear many people bemoaning this feature’s absence on iPod. I simply don’t grok: across the board, these are people who simply don’t have their MP3 tags filled in correctly. I’m not being a dick, I’d just like to know why people care about this feature so much.

  18. fatbactory says:

    Let me clarify, I think a better way to put it is that any album which is released broken into tracks is born suggesting that it can be taken piecemeal.

  19. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    There are ranges of possible continuity in music. Beethoven composed symphonies in movements but expected them to be performed and experienced in totality and with the movements in the order written. Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits has only the band as a unifying factor. Beck’s Sea Change, written and recorded in 2 weeks and motivated by an emotionally significant event is somewhere in the middle.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I love the album too and you bet I want to hear it from start to finish. I had a very similar disagreement in which I was out numbered by my husband and daughter about Itunes. It’s more then ITunes for me. If at all possible- I want “tangible” things for my money. That would rule out Itunes, ebooks, and the likes. For what our daughter has spent on Itunes, for select songs, for one device, she could already have a nice collection of full albums to use on any device she wanted. What happens if these online companies go belly up? having the actual, tangible, product is not such a bad idea then is it? To me it teaches kids to shell out a lot of money with nothing tangible to show for it in the end. Our record players broke needles, Cd players stop working and we still have the tangible albums and CD’s. The computer crashes and the hard drive is gone and all is lost.

    Anyway, they are not making albums that have songs with a theme that compliment each other near as much as they used to. What incentive do they have to do otherwise if they continue to make a profit from the lessor quality work?

  21. arkizzle says:

    I’m going to belatedly weigh-in here.

    There are a few people (including MrBrownlee) saying tha albums are a new concept etc. Also, a couple of people have touched on opera and symphonies being analogeous to albums, but they don’t seem to be getting any love here.

    I have to agree with the second group; lots of classical is made of discrete sections or “songs” and are inherently designed to be played sequentially (strictly). To say they are not albums is only semantically correct, in that they weren’t released in a specific format, on a technology that post-dated them by some hundreds of years. These works are entirely akin to something like The Wall or Dark Side of the Moon, in shape and intent, so can easily be looked at as such.

    We can go right back to rituals, where specific rites had specific songs, and were performed in sequence to the ritual. Or epics, composed of smaller “episodes”, sung about the trials and accomplishments of their hero, sung in order. We have made sequential collections of music for a long, long time.

    Really, it seems that the recording formats of our early technological innovations did a lot for cutting music into smaller chunks, rather than ‘inventing’ the idea of longer musical works (concepts or collections) when the tech became available later.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Listen pally, if you’ve stored your albums as bundles of discrete song tracks, that’s not the MP3 player’s fault. Granted, it is the default behavior of just about all ripping and encoding software, but that’s not to say that the tools don’t exist for stitching together those tracks into a single 50-80 minute long mp3 file, the way Queen and Jim Steinman intended.

    Interestingly, the displayless mp3 players are ideally suited album oriented playback (hey, AOP!). Let me give you a usage example from my own Zen Stone.

    The basic Stone has your familiar center play/pause button, as well the skip forward/back and vol+ and vol- ring. It also has a slide switch on the top. Switch it back, and it shuffles, slide it forward for a momentary contact, and it skips forward a folder. Now, I have three workout folders, one with the Cool World soundtrack, one with the Run Lola Run soundtrack, and one with a heavy industry mix of my own design. There are also three folders for podcasts. One is Alternative Classix, another is WFMU’s Downtown Soulville, 60 minutes and 22 or 23 soul 45s, and the last one is WFMU’s Sinners’ Crossroads, 60 minutes of old timey gospel and spiritual music.

    Now those three podcasts are each a single 60 minute mp3 file. And you too can stitch your album tracks into a single file.The tools are readily available, and the process isn’t rocket surgery.

    The only thing you need the display for is browsing, and if you’ve got all your albums assembled as single files, you really won’t have that many to cycle through.

    As far as artistic intent goes, I will concede that the period from, say 1963-1993 constitutes a sort of interregnum, when artists were handicapped into the ‘bundle of singles’ arrangement, but since 1993, nobody can say that musicians didn’t have the wherewithal to record their albums as a single 60 minute track if they so desired (and before 1963 it was nothing but singles, though we can certainly argue about the specific years). If, especially in this day and age, an artist provides his music to you in the form of a bundle of singles as opposed to a single 60 minute file, it’s certainly a safe bet that he has no particularly strong feelings about the manner in which you listen to his music.

  23. corpse 1 says:

    People who don’t care about the loss of the album are the people who consume music, not listen to it. They’re the people that singles and music videos and radio cater to.

  24. Pope Ratzo says:

    It’s nice to know I’m not the only one that steadfastly refuses to listen to anything but albums

    That’s a pretty arbitrary and silly limitation to put on your enjoyment of music. I assume you are a very young person who is just starting to develop your tastes in music.

    You do realize that not all great music comes in 35-50 minute chunks, right? So you would never listen to a single Bach Cantata or Mozart Sonata because it’s not part of an album? I assume you don’t go to clubs because generally DJ’s play single cuts strung together instead of entire albums. If you were driving in a car and you heard No Fun by the Stooges, you wouldn’t enjoy it because it wasn’t the entire album? That’s a sad thing.

    The album is an artificial structure based on the limitation of the amount of music that can fit on two sides of a long-playing vinyl record.

    I predict, without fear, that in a very few years you will be embarrassed by how strident you were back in 2008. I hope you are lucky enough to continue to grow in your love of music beyond the purely pretentious stage.

  25. Sam says:

    #48
    Would you go to a restaurant and have the courses served in random order? Or have all of the food churned into one bowl?

    Actually, my favorite type of dinner is sushi buffet where I pick the food and the order in which it’s presented. Maybe thats just my debased tastes, though.

  26. Sam says:

    You people are a bunch of music snobs.

    “Shuffle-style players pander to debased musical tastes.”

    Oh well, excuse me! I’m just gonna go take my debased musical tastes over here now. Ever been to a live show? You know, where people sing and dance and play musical instruments? You think they sit down and play the album from start to finish or do you think they play a selection of songs- a set, if you will, which will fill the time alloted for the musician?

    Calling the set “an album” is a useless exercise, by the way. Same thing with a dj, I don’t go to a show that doesn’t least two or three hours and has at least two bands playing. Thats quite a bit different than an album format.

    Maybe you people just have no musical imagination or something. Maybe I’ll take a swing at you and say you lead sheltered lives where you and all your friends have expensive sound systems and so does your car and you never have to listen to dirty, distorted, randomized noise and just don’t have an ear for it.

    Maybe you should switch off that overpriced hi-fi of yours and go hit the bar once in a while. Humble yourself once in a while.

  27. Anonymous says:

    It’s a false dichotomy. Some artists don’t have an album in them but can produce some great singles. Other artists only really work when heard at length and in proper sequence. Courses for horses.

  28. bardfinn says:

    For the few albums I own where the album actually makes sense as a work in its’ own right, I make a playlist – not just to drop onto the Shuffle, but also for the Roku in my living room.

    I recently picked up an iPod Touch, and find myself wishing for an Album shuffle, or even Album – to – Album progressive play. If that existed, I would probably never use a playlist again.

  29. coolvoodoo says:

    There are musical and phlosophical ideas that can only be expressed as an album. Sgt. Pepper, The Wall, Dark Side of the Moon, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Forever Changes, and many, many more are much greater than the sum of their parts. Also, no one mentioned a particular quality of albums: when listened to over and over, that sometimes the song that you didn’t like so much, after 10 or 50 listenings, becomes the greatest song ever! It just takes your mind a while to get used to it and digest it. The mp3 sound quality issue also concerns me greatly. Sacrificing quality for quantity is hard for me, and now that almost all songs are engineered to sound better on the radio and as mp3s, the whole concept of quality audio seems to be gone. “I can fit 1000 songs on my iWhatever, and they all sound like crap!”

  30. Anonymous says:

    Huh. Most of what I listen to is classical (2:42 works for me — but it’s in hours…), so I don’t shuffle at all; but the iPod called the Shuffle is fine, because it doesn’t need to shuffle. Moreover, since a full day is not all that many works, it isn’t hard to load up a suitable sequence of works.

    The sound quality isn’t very good, especially for early music, but it’s cheap and light and therefore I always have it. Good enough.

    Debased, pfui. *I* feel that equal temperament is a debasement; look, I win the pity stakes! (Joking. Float yer boats with yer favorite notes.)

  31. themindfantastic says:

    I’ve never owned a shuffle, but I have owned a few el cheapo mp3 players, and the common problem they usually had is that the order which the files went onto them is the order they played in, this seems fine normally, but sometimes the OS finds ways of copying over a whole chunk of files to a device that isn’t the order you want it copied. However being an album person myself, infact I dunno if I am an album person as opposed to a discography person, I listen to an artist from the beginning of work until the most recent or last of their work after they break up or die in some headline story. Hearing progression, and change on that scale is just as important to me as the song is in context to an album. I think this has elements of scale, people appreciate the melodies of two or three notes strung together, others are affected by songs in order on the album, others like me like to understand albums in context to an artists total output. Chunking up on that I guess would be the artists contribution to the genre as a whole, which would be an interesting idea for a playlist.. the major artists of a genre great albums placed in context of one another to give larger understanding of that culture, a mini musical zetigest.

  32. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    @44
    “Ever been to a live show? You know, where people sing and dance and play musical instruments? You think they sit down and play the album from start to finish or do you think they play a selection of songs- a set, if you will, which will fill the time alloted for the musician?”

    Yes, actually I have. Musicians carefully select songs and performance order for both a live set and a CD. So it’s a specious argument to say that randomizing is valid because live sets don’t match recorded order.

    Would you go to a restaurant and have the courses served in random order? Or have all of the food churned into one bowl?

    It seems to me that praising randomizing as a feature is making a virtue of necessity.

  33. KnockTwice says:

    I just wanted to mention that albums are a relatively new thing. The first long play records didn’t reach wide circulation until the 50s and 60s. Looking back at many millenniums of musical history the album is still a rather new creation.

    Even if you are just considering the history of recorded music, albums have only been around for about half of it.

    So in a lot of ways the growing trend of buying individual songs resembles the purchasing of 78s, and the sheet music for individual songs before that.

    And then considering length, most CD albums run more than sixty minutes — while some of the greatest albums ever clock in at 45 minutes. Sometimes more is less, right?

    And also, understanding one song in the context of an album is important, but is that more important than understanding one song in context of an artist’s latest work? Or in context of their influences or a genre or movement as a whole?

    I dunno.

    I love listening to albums straight through too — but I also really enjoy the opportunity to recontextualize an artist’s vision by placing their music up against their influence and artists of similar styles.

    What more I think as the user involvement plays an increasingly large part of an artist’s completed work… perhaps just a little bit we’ll grow to accept the limitations of the album.

  34. Anonymous says:

    the “death” of the album isn’t really so on an artistic level, if anything i think the current state of affairs can be said to have improved things in one respect. I remember in the 90’s hearing a track by a new band or even an old fave and rushing out to buy the album. Sometimes the joy of the album was unbridled, but more often than not, especially 92-99 there was one or two good track and a whole lot of substandard padding. These days, the days of single song comsumerism, it had meant bands who really do produce good “albums” stand out and the experience is something to be relished, and it als forces bands and record companies to actually put out good albums and not 10 tracks of fluff.
    of course this is not a sweeping statement across the board, but i do thin it is a valid point artistically .Also the proliferation has broadened peoples music tastes dramatically, and thinned the genre whore hoards of yesteryear, making us all one muddy beautiful eclectic pool of taste and inspiration :-)

  35. prion says:

    I think the best part about the situation now with music consumption is the impending diversity. There will be more ways for people to personalize their own music enjoyment. If for you that means iTunes and a shuffle, great. Many others will find comfort in their albums and more traditional experiences which will remain available.

    Musicians will feed both parties – I just don’t see the album going anywhere. If Britney Spears’ successor chooses to just release singles from now on, there is no loss. Perhaps she never really made an album to begin with. Some artists will still decide they want to create an experience longer than 3 minutes. They will still make it despite the incompatibilities with the shuffle lifestyle. Albumites will still be there to collect them.

    Many musicians (myself included) do not rely on their income from music to live off of. With todays negligible distribution costs on the internet we can certainly afford to release music on our own terms without compromising it for maximum revenue. If anything, the path to More Albums just opened up. There exist indie music sites, social networking music sites; more and more legal ways to get your MP3 album on – you might just have to look a little.

  36. Rickmccl says:

    portable, DJ-less radio stations pandering to their tastes

    Funny, I just set up an icecast for my 120GB mp3 collection.. my dj-less radio station spins my entire personal collection and is available anywhere with free net access. I wish I could get access to that from something the size of a pebble.

  37. fortybillion says:

    I assume you are a very young person who is just starting to develop your tastes in music.
    Incorrect assumption.

    You do realize that not all great music comes in 35-50 minute chunks, right?
    This is true. The best stuff comes in 50-80 minute chunks ;)

    So you would never listen to a single Bach Cantata or Mozart Sonata because it’s not part of an album?
    I would not listen to those things because I’m not a fan of that type of music. But if i were, I would listen to them within the context of the album they were released on.

    I assume you don’t go to clubs because generally DJ’s play single cuts strung together instead of entire albums.
    I don’t like club DJs that play collections of top 40 singles, no. But I very much enjoy album-length DJ sets of electronic music where the singles are placed in the context of a musical journey of the DJ’s construction. I’d wager that 90% of electronic dance music is released with this in mind — there is no album context until it is created by the DJ.

    I predict, without fear, that in a very few years you will be embarrassed by how strident you were back in 2008. I hope you are lucky enough to continue to grow in your love of music beyond the purely pretentious stage.
    Well, my pretensions have survived 25+ years so far so they’re probably fairly well ingrained. I could argue that my love of music is precisely what has led me to discovering the exact format for maximum enjoyment.

    This doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy a single if I hear in on the radio or in another context. It just means I won’t collect it or listen to it privately.

  38. audaxaxon says:

    Ok, this one almost had me, but i think we’re missing the mark slightly. I’ve gone on and on about this same subject and the travesty that is the loss (alleged) of the album coherence. But, after reading this post and the responses, it seems that the real/bigger problem is one of the structure of storage, and whether the encapsulation of music that is an album, (if that is the relevant source), will be preserved or fragmented.

    If the stuff starts out as an album, we should be able to access it in that format, if we want. My gut says this is due more to laziness, or incompleteness on the part of the designers of music players rather than the “people don’t care about albums anymore” reasoning. The rationale for leaving that out seems to have more to do with cost-cutting on the part of the manufacturers. “Hey, I know! We can leave off any buttons or user feedback and sell it to ‘em as a feature!”

    ID3 tagging has certainly made the waters much murkier here too.

    I’ll refer to Cory’s anti-metadata rant as back-up on this: http://www.well.com/~doctorow/metacrap.htm

  39. prion says:

    #44

    “Shuffle-style players pander to debased musical tastes.”

    Debased may be a bit of a negative term, but it is true.

    To think that the entire presentation of a serious musical release was not carefully thought out by the musician is silly. Live shows are the same way. Not acknowledging the entirety of the release or the order of the tracks at least once indicates a degraded experience of the presentation. That does fit the definition of debased.

    It has nothing to do with hi-fi or snobbishness. It does correlate with usage of a device that has a primary function of random track playback.

    I know that for my more anticipated releases by my favorite artists I dedicate at least one active listen though the whole “disc” on my best stereo – which at it’s best, is a randomized collection of dirty, distortion causing gear; it’s a wonder any of the author’s intent makes it to my ears. But that is how I roll. It is this habit which pulls me out of the market for a shuffle device, and I certainly mean no disrespect for those who enjoy a shuffle’s wonders.

    When the neu artists come out with primarily single track only releases, then I can see where the term debased would cease to apply. In fact I expect a greater level of interactivity with releases in the future.

  40. prion says:

    #32 CoolVoodoo had a good point,

    “Also, no one mentioned a particular quality of albums: when listened to over and over, that sometimes the song that you didn’t like so much, after 10 or 50 listenings, becomes the greatest song ever! It just takes your mind a while to get used to it and digest it.”

    For me listening to music becomes an interaction between you and the author. For the songs which are instantly familiar and likeable you are more in control – in a comfortable position. Everything else may be the musician asking you to compromise on yourself to see things differently – even if you don’t like it instinctively. I always feel like if I do not like a song I’m not listening to it correctly. That doesn’t always work but it does help me appreciate more music and it certainly lets me prefer an album to a single.

  41. prion says:

    @#34 You are looking at it from the emerging distribution method. For albums to continue to exist to the customer they must be made, then sold online as an album, then preserved in album format via file structure (my preferred method) or ID3 tags/metadata, then carried onto a album-compatible music player.

    Its not a fault of the music playback device so much. It is doing what it the purchaser wants it to – or they don’t use it/ buy it.

    It is 100% up to the person involved to want the album to continue. If they do then I think it will for them. They will find the artists who make them via the sites that sell them and place them on their album friendly devices that they made sure to buy because thats the way they like it.

    And I think thats more than enough incentive for people to keep making albums – because there is an entire market of folks who still like them.

  42. audaxaxon says:

    John Brownlee:
    yes, the problem can be attributed to incorrect tags or lag of tag entries. Problem has been for me, that: a large portion of the Music that i listen to doesn’t get automatically identified, is obscure or created by friends, is not able to be categorized easily. The “Genre” category is pretty arbitrary, and a (highly contentious) matter of opinion in many cases. Seriously where do you file a band like Popul Vuh, is that New Age (most record stores section), or Krautrock (a musicologist/historian/music nerd perspective), World or Acid Punk (an actual ID3v1 category)?!?

    The whole tagging thing strikes me as/ends up being an excuse or (in)convenience that results in tons of files being thrown in a single directory in a giant disorganized mess (at least from the perspective of standard software that is uses the file /directory scheme).
    From this perspective it’s just another example where creating an unnecessary off-standard tech makes our stuff harder to use in any way that we might want.

    “I’d just like to know why people care about this feature so much.”

    We care about the feature because, very often, we already have our stuff organized, why should we spend time to re-organize stuff into a non-standard “standard”, with arbitrary constraints. Many of “us” view the hardware as what it is on a hardware level, a memory device with a DAC, and a navigation interface.

    The File/Directory architecture is simple and transparent to the user. It is supported by *many* platforms. It isn’t prone producing to annoying discontinuities and difficult-to-resolve artifacts of the metadata approach, and, it puts the most control in the users hands. Some people like this. Not saying it’s the greatest way that could be, but rather that I’ve never seen anyting that surpasses its flexibility and ubiquity. Hopefully that helps it make some sense.

  43. Fnarf says:

    Most albums have never been all that good, nor have they been deliberately assembled as such. Sure, bands spend a little time deciding on a track order, but they’re assembling discrete chunks that already exist, and were recorded as such. Pretty much the only genre of music that absolutely depends on albums is prog (and classical, which isn’t dependent on “album” so much as the length of the piece).

    The Beatles were a singles band who occasionally strung together some album sections. Debased? I don’t think so. The single was the dominant musical form for a hundred years before the first album — it predates recording (think sheet music).

    Most of the music on my Ipod is singles. What annoys me most, actually, is the exact opposite — it’s the enforced albumization of non-album music. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys didn’t make albums; they made singles (and played live). The albums came later. I would greatly prefer to break up my 11-cd Bear Family set into the original singles, with the Itunes “album” field reading “Columbia 53296″ or whatever, with two tracks. But that means laboriously retagging my entire musical database, which is beyond annoying.

    I hate having to pretend that some compilation of 78s onto a CD in 1990 is an “album”, especially considering the sad state of CD reissue liner notes at times. I have records from the 1890s on my Ipod; I’m supposed to pretend they’re albums?

    Likewise with my Duke Ellington or Billie Holiday sides, my vast collection of obscure sixties singles. Dismissing anything that isn’t a cohesive prog album as “Top Forty” is ridiculous; Top Forty used to be arguably America’s greatest cultural achievement. All of jazz was released on singles, all of blues, all of country, all of pop, until late into the sixties. And most of what came after was as well. Having the flexibility to represent that is a good thing.

    What really gets my goat, though, is the tragic state of the data. CDDB is absolutely riddled through with gross errors, from simple misspellings to outright mistakes. Two different discs from the same box set can be entered in completely different ways. There are no standards and no quality control at all. Very disenheartening.

  44. Daemon says:

    Hmm. I’d never buy a screenless MP3 player. I like to be able to hear the song I want to hear, when I want to hear it.

    That said… I’ve never in my life cared about albums. I count myself lucky if I find a group that has two or three songs I like all together, never mind on the same album.

  45. drewd says:

    I agree with the album people. I don’t like listening to singles or songs out of context, and I want the artist to take me through their music the way they planned. And when the radio plays a song I know well, I inevitably end up singing the first part of the next song on the album.

    Of course, this is personal preference.
    Beyond correctly tagging and organising my collection into Artist\Album\tracks, I don’t go to the effort of creating playlists properly.

    If my iGadgets had an ‘album shuffle’, I would use it. But they don’t, so I can’t.

  46. murray says:

    Who in their right mind looks at a Britney Spears album as music?

    The album isn’t dead. It might die, as you predict, but if it does we’ll still have everything between 1950 and 20-something to enjoy.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m halfway through The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife, a brilliant album from 2006.

  47. edison_carter says:

    Gah! Ok. Rant=on!

    1. Any hardware that makes listening to music in a way you would prefer MORE difficult just sucks. Sure, you should be able to easily order anything you wanna hear, anyway you want to. Done about the hw.

    2. There is no question that tons of artists/producers sincerely try to make an album a cohesive unit.

    3. GOOD = GOOD. I don’t know who said up in the thread that they couldn’t possess a single “good” track – with the rest of an album sucking. WTF is up with that? No credit where credit is due? What if a person can only write one great song in their life? That’s already pretty good! If you want to deny yourself that one 3:32 or 10:23 or 1:25 piece of musical goodness because you MUST adhere to an “album” format, well [expletive deleted].

    If a person making music even makes an album’s worth of good material in their whole career, I SALUTE THEM, even if that material is over the span of several different records! The fact that songwriter/performers can make a entire record than anyone likes as a whole, without anything one considers a ‘dud’ on it is AMAZING to me. Frankly, I think a lot of people, in general, don’t own that many whole records that they think truly, 100% kick ass from start to finish. Yes, you can force yourself to listen to something over and over to convince yourself you like something you really don’t… but I think most of the time, you are just being stubborn. ( ok ok I admit people can change their minds, maybe it will grow on you, but I’m sure there are people who are just obstinate).

    So, I say, whatever you LIKE, that is what you should go for. Whatever form that takes, you take it in. Short, long, themed, unthemed, random, what have you. This doesn’t mean the “album” as an art form is more or less worthy, or that it should be forced to go away… but to dismiss single tracks because a whole album isn’t good? Feh. Your loss.

  48. Anonymous says:

    Speak for yourself. Millions of us listen to complete albums on our MP3 players. You are stating as fact a (misguided) idea from your (shallow, consumerist) experience. But whatever you do, don’t blame technology for your own behavior…Come on, be bigger than these platitudes your post is laced with. Be bigger than stereotyping an entire generation, or reducing them into your own limited frame of experience. There’s a reason it’s called tunnel vision.

  49. savage_lucy says:

    This whole argument seems rather ridiculous to me. Sure, some albums are designed as a cohesive whole – and a whole lot aren’t. Sometimes I want to listen to an album all the way through, sometimes I don’t. Franks Wild Years, for example, is a great album, but sometimes I just wanna hear “Hang On St Christopher,” or “Temptation” (or *gasp* I just wanna listen to my whole dang collection on shuffle). Surely if you are familiar with the album, you don’t need to listen to it all the way through every time to provide context for an individual song?

    In summary: albums – yay! Songs – also yay!

  50. ZekeSulastin says:

    Audaxaxon:

    If it’s your music and your tagging, then tag the genres however you want to! It’s not like it’s an epic pain to fire up a tagging program, hit Ctrl+A, and change the whole Genre at once if needed. Saying that tagging is too difficult is more a display of your laziness than anything else.

    If you already HAVE your stuff organized by directory, just use software that allows you to break the directory structure into tag pieces automatically – and vice versa. It’s automated and works great. Whenever I get a new album, it is directorized thus, allowing me to reconstruct the major tags from the directory structure and vice versa. There is life outside iTunes/Winamp.

    The whole tagging of individual files is pretty much standardized nowadays, and facilitates the transfer of individual files with meaningful metadata. It’s not hard at all to update them, nor is it hard to maintain them properly. I fail to see the point of any of your whining, as pretty much any non-flash player save Rockbox’d ones use tags anyways and it is exceedingly simple to maintain both tags and meaningful directorization.

  51. audaxaxon says:

    #37 I understand your point that ultimately the user of some particular piece of hardware is the agent in choosing how their music is organized, at least in an ideal, theoretical sense.

    The issue that I’d like to try to raise, is how the design of devices plays a role in what users *actually* end up doing. Many devices don’t include file/directory navigation, or make it less convenient. That design choice influences the likelihood of a device being used in some particular way. Perhaps some users do not consider these as issues, maybe these things are unimportant to some people. But that being so does not make the designers choices any less influential on the way the device is used. To put it into abstract “market forces” and “consumers have choices” terms is a gross oversimplifcation and sidesteps the point that I am trying to raise that *designers have choices* and that these choices are the choices that users end up with.

    The album will continue, better devices and management systems will be devised. And other, more novel forms of structuring information will arise. More user control and agency will further this development. Lack of control is still lack of control, minimalist aesthetics or not.

    Apologies if this is too much of a rant, i guess i’m in a phase where i’m trying to conceive a distinction between tools as opposed to gadgets.

  52. dvdst says:

    I was just thumbing through the “How To Properly Listen To Music” rulebook and I couldn’t find this topic anywhere. Does anyone know who wrote it so I notify them of this glaring omission in time for the next edition?

  53. Josh Michtom says:

    You could just rip your CDs as one long mp3, y’know (or edit the albums you purchase online into one long file). I realize that’s a lot of work for your admittedly anachronistic (or maybe just weird) preferences, but hey, that’s what the digital revolution in music is all about, right? I grew up on DJ mixes, so I like random. You favor the cohesive album (which, I will admit, I do appreciate on the ever-rarer occasion that it is well done), so you can do that. And you can still have your shiny Pebble!

  54. Tommy says:

    “I can’t really accept listening to a song out of the context of the album to which it belongs. I believe that albums should be listened to as complete works, not just anthologies of musical vignettes. ”

    Wow? Really? I can see preferring to listen to whole albums. But if you truly “can’t really accept listening to a song out of the context of the album to which it belongs,” you have some major issues to work through.

  55. swoody says:

    I think albums are great, but inevitably the conventions of the past are going to fade away. Artists are going to release more single mp3’s or smaller collections of songs and no longer feel the need to label things “lp” or “ep.” I mean song-cycles might be grouped in some way, but fifty years down the line people are going to let go of this whole “album” idea. Listeners are going to decide how songs should be contextualized, by making mixes, playlists, and setting their iPod’s to shuffle mode. The album has to go. On the other hand classical composers made operas before recording even existed, so there will still be lots of room for grand conceptual works. (á la The Kinks or the Mars Volta).

  56. Joel Johnson says:

    Yeah, Brownlee. Surely you listen to some songs just as songs, right?

  57. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    I listen to music 10 to 12 hours a day 7 days a week. A little CBC2, some SOMAFM, but mostly on CD and 95% of the time I play the whole CD. The sort of music that I listen to lends itself to suites, concept albums and extended multipart pieces (at the moment, When it Falls by Zero7). I listen to a little vinyl, maybe 4 sides a week, although this week I have set up and tested 3 turntables. Believe it or not demand for vinyl is rising among people under 20 years old and maybe I have a chance to move out this overburden of 30+ excess turntables I have underfoot. I have a few old hard drive based portables that I can play playlists, random selections or single tracks on, but I usually play entire CDs when I use those.
    The album may not ever die out, but I see the market for recorded music becoming more varied, and that’s a good thing. I’ll probably keep buying my music on physical media out of habit because I’ve been doing it for over 35 years but I can see why someone without a time and money investment in media and players would choose not to.

  58. Dave G says:

    Note that the Shuffle and (presumably) the Pebble don’t require that you listen in random order. If you download an album onto them, you can easily listen to it in exactly the order desired. Similarly with playlists you design, and with audiobooks (for which the Shuffle really shines).

    Don’t think of these devises like larger players, which hold and control a large chunk of your collection, and allow you complete control over it. Think of them in terms of loading up a small chunk of music for a single use (road trip, workout, etc.) and having an extremely usable package for that. I no longer use them myself (the iPod Touch was just too sweet for my purposes), but they do cover a reasonable set of use cases.

  59. markmarkmark says:

    i give a shit about the death of the album, but not as much as i would if us two internet strangers were the only ones who cared.
    real artists will always produce “real” albums that are intended to be listened to as a whole album.

    music i don’t care about is destroying itself with drm and countless other bad moves, but the music that i do care about is always getting better and better.
    mike patton will always write rediculous concept albums, the mars volta will still write albums that are stupidly high minded but where the total awesomeness of the album is more then the sum of its tracks. coheed and cambria will keep making albums and comic books to tell their space opera story. mastodon wrote a whole concept album about moby dick, and each of their albums to date thematically links with the classical elements, (blood mountain is earth, leviathan is water, etc, etc), and thrice is doing the same thing with the alchemy index – two double disc releases with about 6 tracks on each and each disc themeatically and lyrically deals with one of four elements.

    plus, the fact that there are more amazing albums then i’ll ever be able to listen to in a lifetime keeps me from being too sad at the sorry state of popular music in our world today.

  60. Kennric says:

    Hmmm…. as an artist, if someone refused to look at my work because it wasn’t in a particular format that happened to have been popular a few years back, I’d consider myself well rid of that audience segment.

    Sure, the lp, the portrait, the sonnet, the 8×10 glossy – all very good formats, but certainly not ones that an artist ought to be straight-jacketed into. Can’t a musician construct a piece of art that fits whatever format he/she happens to feel is appropriate? Is the choice of format (choosing to create a stand-alone song for instance) really a good criteria for judging the merit of a work?

  61. Anonymous says:

    “debased musical tastes” – sounds wonderful! :)

    Ever since I was a little kid I’ve made mix-tapes of favorite tracks to listen to on my personal-stereo.

    There isn’t some “correct” way of enjoying music.

    Unusual to read such a condescending article on BoingBoing…

  62. ROSSINDETROIT says:

    One thing I care more about than singles versus albums is the recording format. For most people for the majority of purposes the difference in sound between a CD and MP3 is irrelevant. I’m one of a large minority who prefer the sound of a CD to even a high bit rate MP3. I’m not fanatical about it, and I’ll listen to MP3 streams, but even the high bit rate ones leave out part of the sound that matters to me. It would be a shame if an overwhelming market preference for MP3 recordings made higher fidelity formats unavailable for those who prefer them.

  63. Chris Furniss says:

    I’m the same way with albums, but usually only when the artist cares enough to make their album one cohesive piece of art. Britney, for example, just cares about singles and fills out the rest of her albums with throwaway songs (insert joke here about all her songs being throwaway songs).

    While I often listen to my collection on random, I have a lot of albums that have interstitial tracks, or short intro tracks that get played, which is jarring.

  64. John Brownlee says:

    No, I don’t really listen to many songs as songs. I mean, I do… there are some albums that just aren’t interesting to listen through, except for one three minute snatch of genius. But for the most part, I make a conscious effort to listen to full albums, without shuffling them. I may cycle back to re-listen to a specific song, but I usually start at track 1 and end at track whatever. I certainly don’t BUY individual songs: I’ll only ever purchase music by album. And, as Mark points out so well, there are enough honest-to-god albums to reward the approach. But clearly, iTunes and the like are eventually going to kill it off.

  65. giantnegro says:

    “Albums should have their own beginning, middle and end: shuffling an album should shuffle its emotional tenor.”

    You’re my new hero. I loaded ‘In Utero’ onto my mp3 player the other day without putting the playlist in the directory and the album played in alphabetical order; I couldn’t listen to it.

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