I read a column a few weeks back about the vital artistic integrity of the “album” as a compositional entity. The author (now forgotten) noted his refusal to listen to digital recordings on a random shuffle; only the album as originally organized and pressed would meet his criteria of listen-ability.
Look, I’m a cranky old geezer, and I marinated in the ambiance of vinyl music. I marveled at subtle, beautiful segues and elegant sequences that culminate in exquisite climaxes. Rah, rah, rah!
But the columnist in question — does he not ever listen to the radio? Or go to clubs? How far does his obsessive purity extend? Would he decline to read one poem out of a volume, instead reading the entire book in sequence? Did he eschew cassettes (and eight-tracks), because they sometimes altered the sequence of tracks? Did said listener always listen to both sides of an album (in side one, then side two order), and if so, would he pause a CD between the last track of what used to be side one and the first track of side two, to recapture that pivotal intermezzo required to flip the LP? One would have to stop one’s ears to the soundtracks of the many current movies that draw isolated tracks from their albums of origin and deploy them as incidental accompaniment to a barrage of explosions, a montage of kisses and rainbows.
Look, I’m not against listening to albums straight through; Dark Side of the Moon comes to mind right away, and Tommy and Quadrophenia; Sgt. Pepper’s, Ziggy Stardust, and plenty of others reward sequential listening. No ethical obligation requires me so to do, however; no editorial intention inhabits the sequence of tracks, no auditorial Categorical Imperative obliges me to accede to some “original” presentation of the musical selections compiled onto an album. After all, several tracks may have been released as singles before. Many performers show no hesitation whatever about releasing compilations of their work in greatest-hits albums. Many albums are re-engineered or remastered, and re-released with additional tracks; presumably the pure album-osity of the work resides in some transcendent quality that constitutes the Platonic idea of the given work, rather than in any particular instantiation thereof.
An album whose sequence and constituent tracks are good enough to induce me to prefer a consecutive listening has earned the prerogative to shut off my “shuffle” function; and an album that doesn’t ascend to that stature can’t browbeat me with condescending rhetoric about artistic vision.

5 thoughts on “Pondering

  1. Ummmm, straw man much?

    I’m one of those people who, *when listening to his own music collection*, vastly prefers listening to albums all the way through (I don’t own an iPod, but I become very annoyed when my brother uses the shuffle feature on road trips (which brings to mind a needed option: the album shuffle – it will play albums straight through, but randomly select the next album)), but to go into all the exceptions (and indeed, some of them fit: I almost never listen to the radio) where one might hear less than an entire album as a rejoinder to the “whole album” argument actually sounds more childish than anything else.

  2. “Shuffle by album” sounds like a good idea, and it would probably increase the proportion of my time spent listening to albums straight through (though my iPod is not so capacious that I can include so very many full albums, with the result that I would listen to the three selections from John Wesley Harding that end up on my iPod via the elaborately randomized process for cycling through my digital closet).
    If these interrogatory rejoinders seem to strike at a straw target (a straw iPod?), I apologize; but perhaps then you would elaborate on the rationale for suggesting that there’s something intrinsically wrong about listening to tracks shuffled one by one? My interest, after all, is not in obliging you to listen to random tracks, but in fending off condescending prats who assert (without making a cogent historical, economic/industrial/cultural, logical argument) that I’m under an aesthetic obligation to mirror their taste for full albums.

  3. AKMA, I think you’re right. The place — for me — where affection for the album as album comes in is buying albums. I’m not sure I could ever get into the iTunes buy-by-the-song method.

  4. In your comment, you imply that you were being ethically judged by the original columnist for not listening to albums all the way through, and it seems like you have transferred that ire in part toward me, as seen through the defensive “well, I’m not trying to change how you personally listen to music” type of comment. However, it isn’t clear from the original post exactly what tone or argument the condescending prat* was offering (and of course, one of the problems of not citing a source is that it becomes much easier to either intensify the condescendingly prattishness of a condescending prat and/or to assume that it is so self-evident to those who never read the original that it is unnecessary to even characterize the original’s tone; yes, I know, you forgot who said it, but nevertheless, the argument and tone are under-reported). In fact, the only focus of the columnist’s argument, according to your reporting, was regarding the listening choices under his direct control.

    However, while I’m fairly certain that you aren’t forcing me to listen to anything (and I’d be incredibly dumb for either suggesting as much or in trying to make an ethical claim that you should listen to music in the particular way that I do), I am concerned that the album concept is going to start disappearing as online music sales continue to increase and physical album/cd sales continue to decline. Almost all the music I listen to is in album form, and I tend to listen to and enjoy music more when the songs have been crafted as a somewhat coherent album. (As a side note, I had a friend who digitized his music without track numbers in the title, so while he often listened to albums, he was listening to the tracks in alphabetical instead of album order, which to me always took something away from the artistry of the songs as a whole.) So I’d say that even though I don’t own an iPod and wouldn’t likely use the shuffle feature if I ever bought one, there are potentially direct consequences to my own future listening habits which are enabled by the thousands of people who through the use of shuffle and buying of single songs are extending a technological system in which albums no longer make much (economic) sense. The album, as a concept and a product, isn’t gone yet, but it isn’t hard to imagine that in ten-twenty years it may be for most artists. While I can’t say for sure, this might have been part of the original columnist’s issue: the general public’s choices actually can delimit what choices are available to an individual for artistic consumption, all thanks to the economies of scale, no matter how many times we keep repeating to ourselves that “progress” only gives and never takes away. Perhaps what made me react is that you are often perceptive regarding how key aspects of technology and copyright affect the music industry and music consumers, but that this post largely ignored the intricacies of those issues.

    *On a side note, is it even possible to write on music without being/becoming a condescending prat? my experience with both mainstream and indie outlets says no; I wonder if this is included in the job description.

  5. is it even possible to write on music without being/becoming a condescending prat?

    Now, there’s a vital question; it certainly seems to be a besetting risk (one to which you and I are, of course, immune).
    Yes, I agree that my failure to locate the specific columnist in question vitiates my argument, no question about that. I’m less worried than you about “the ablum concept disappearing,” since it arose under specific cultural circumstances and may reasonably be supposed to be destined to wane as those circumstances change. The world will not soon forget what Exile On Main Street stands for, even if tomorrow’s ensembles produce recordings whose length and association with one another depends not on the dimensions of 33 rpm vinyl discs but on the performers’ specific decisions about which songs they wanted to associate with one another — if, in the end, they want to invest their energies in devising combinations of tracks at all.
    My father loved vaudeville, and although I never attended a vaudeville show I derived a sort of secondary fondness for that mode of performance. Something is lost with vaudeville’s extinction, and likewise with the LP album. That far, at least, you have my full agreement.

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