National Album Day
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Why the Album Still Means So Much
SOME have poured scorn over the concept…
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of a day that celebrates albums and puts them in the spotlight! Some say it is contrived and a day devoted to a format that is not relevant during these times. One of the biggest debates in music is whether the album is still viable and people actually listen to them. Certainty, musicians do not go into the studio to record a few singles and decide to add a few additional numbers to make up an album. There is that feeling we only go after what is played on the radio and do not have the attention spans to fully commit to an album. Maybe that is down to the way music is promoted nowadays: Spotify streaming and singles played on the radio; those big songs highlighted and the album is sort of out there for people to find. I am not one of those people who likes to listen to one or two songs from an album and then let it go there. Artists put their everything into recording albums and I feel we owe it to them to mark that and listen to their work. I will end this piece by highlighting my favourite six albums (or those that have made a huge impression) – records that need to be heard in their fullest and, to me, should give people good reason to open their eyes and ears and concentrate on what artists put out!
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If album sales have declined and electronic formats make it easier for us to handpick songs and skim at will; there are those who realise that, seventy years since the creation of the L.P., there are those who want that complete and long-playing format. Before I go on; here is a bit of information regarding National Album Day:
“The British Phonographic Industry and the UK Entertainment Retailers Association have announced the inaugural National Album Day, reports Music Week.
Taking place on the 13th October, with help from the team behind Record Store Day as well as broadcast partner BBC Music, National Album Day will include live events, LP playback sessions and online listening parties.
Participating stores, organisations and individuals will be invited to play their favourite album at 3.33 pm sharp, apparently.
“Individual tracks may have stolen the limelight over the past few years, but British music fans love albums as much as ever,” shares Kim Bayley, Chief Executive of the ERA.
According to the BPI, an estimated five billion albums have been sold since 1948 – when a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in e minorby the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York became the first album pressed to vinyl”.
There is that fear that, now we have Spotify playlists, the album as an artform is being put to pasture. This article from The Guardian (from 2017) looked at playlists and how they have affected albums:
“Artists are even starting to pull apart the album format and create evolving playlists in their place. Drake’s much-vaunted “playlist”, More Life, was essentially an album given a zeitgeisty rebrand, but in 2016, David Gray released a “dynamic” greatest hits on Spotify where tracks were switched around depending on how popular they were, while there were industry rumours, subsequently scotched, that Calvin Harris was going to abandon the album entirely and instead release singles and EPs on a rolling basis. Now London rapper Avelino is planning an eight-track “evolving playlist” for the end of September where it will be added to and subtracted from on a regular basis. Playlisting now means the album no longer has to remain a fixed entity”.
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“But while Spotify may be shaping the way music reaches us, ultimately the listener still has choice – and that power is built into the service’s architecture. Spotify watches which tracks get skipped, and those with high skip rates will be unceremoniously binned for stinking up its playlists. The onus therefore remains mostly on artists and labels to whip up momentum”.
Getting a number-one record is still important and a big achievement but I wonder how many of us look at the charts and what is happening. When I was young, I always loved looking at the album charts and seeing who would be at the very top. Now, I feel we are more compelled by which song is the most streamed or which one is trending. Maybe we are aware of the biggest albums from this year but how many of us have sat down and actually listen to them end-to-end?! I feel we only get a limited impression of an artist if we listen to whatever song of theirs is on a playlist or the singles being promoted.
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In a lot of cases, the singles might be misleading and not your favourite tracks from that album – we might ignore the album thinking it will stink but are judging everything based on what is released into the charts. In other cases, singles might not be indicative of what an album contains and, in many cases, they are part of a whole story. Think about the best albums of this year – everyone from IDLES and Anna Calvi to Christine and the Queens to Arctic Monkeys – and we have all heard the odd single from these artists this year. They are incredible and instant but you need to listen to the records themselves and see why critics are raving. I have heard the albums from each of those artists and can attest to their brilliance. The singles released from the respective records are strong but, in many cases, not the strongest cuts from the album. A lot of times, labels direct what is released and it often revolves around getting out there something direct, catchy and accessible.
IN THIS ILLUSTRATION: Cardi B/ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: Clara Bacou
The finest albums from all-time have a range of textures: songs that are complex and nuanced; others that are direct and catch you straight away. I do not buy the assertion artists are recording albums for the sake of it; that it is all about a few songs and the rest is filler. When the C.D. came out, I know a lot of acts felt they had to cover every second and take advantage of the format – that did mean there were weaker tracks and unnecessary inclusions. Now, they do not need to do that and I think albums now are much more streamlined, quality-controlled and personal. Maybe some of us are impatient and we want to hear a range of artists but are you going to remember any of the songs you streamed in the past week?! How about the artists themselves?! I could listen to a Cardi B track and will be taken aback and it would be in my head for a while. Chances are, soon enough, it would go out and with it Cardi B herself. Listen to her album, Invasion of Privacy, and you hear so much at work. It is filled with pleasure, confidence and wonderful songs. I have listened to the album in its entirety and, as such, Cardi B has been rattling around my mind. It is rewarding listening to a complete record, not skipping a track and getting a complete impression of what the artist is trying to say.
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I feel a lot of an album’s appeal lies in its physicality and tangential nature. You can pick up a vinyl and take out the record itself and then read the notes on the sleeve. Digital options mean there is that lack of touch and connection with the physical side. Saying that; albums are about music and I feel we all need to slow down and take more time listening to music. I feel so many of today’s artists are fighting against the consumer culture: investing their all into record albums and telling a story in its ten (or so) tracks. They want people to spend time listening to their records and what they have spent countless hours crafting in studios. A recent article from The Guardian, reacting to the Mercury Prize nominations, explained how there are plenty in record shops flicking through vinyl – the album is living on and needs to be fostered:
“In the first case, this bump is being fed by artists rededicated to the format. The album remains a powerful artistic statement, so much more than 12 songs shoved together.
There was a time when it seemed the forward-thinking move was to ditch albums. In 2007, the band Ash claimed they were done, saying: “The way people listen to music has changed, and with the advent of the download, the emphasis has reverted from albums to single tracks.” They’ve since released two albums (and a best of), admitting: “We’ve noticed just how much vinyl has come back and we thought this would be the best way of getting our music out there again”.
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The article goes on to look at the disposability we are seeing this decade and how people are rebelling against it:
“In fact, Jon Tolley of independent store, Banquet Records, says: “The increase in demand [for albums] was customer-led, not industry-driven. I’ve always thought the increase in vinyl sales is an immediate reaction to how disposable everything else is in the 2010s.
“As you have the world of music at your fingertips, the stuff you really love, that you want to have to hold forever, you want to have in a physical form. And some of that is outrageously extravagant.
“Vinyl itself is beautifully cumbersome and unnecessary. And that’s the beauty. Your record collection is an art collection, both aurally and physically.”
Stephen Godfroy, co-owner of Rough Trade, has seen a similar fetishisation in his customers: “The LP is the finest, truest aesthetic and informative representation of a recording artist’s work, given the breadth of ‘canvas’”.
I think we all need to celebrate National Album Day and not see it is a one-off thing that is designed to mark seventy years of the album. Instead, we need to recognise it (National Album Day) is recognition people are not letting albums die and there is this resurgence. Most of us are passionate about music because of the albums we were raised on. If we only heard the odd song from big artists I wonder whether we’d bother listening to them today. Most of my most-precious music memories revolve around listening to tapes, C.D.s and vinyl in their full state and unpicking each track. I loved going down to a record shop and buying the latest big release. Maybe there was the odd duff track on albums but that was all part of the pleasure and experience. So many artists today are, without irony, putting out vinyl and connecting with the colour, joy and physicality of an album. They want to be remembered and people to get something from their music. The album can never die but I do feel there is this ignorance that suggests modern music is about playlists, singles and disposability. Think about your early life and how you discovered music – I bet you have visions of albums and vinyl lying around! That is certainly my recollection and, ahead of National Album Day; here are six records that have made a big impression…
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IN my life.
The Beatles – Rubber Soul (1965)
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Whilst not considered the best album by The Beatles, it was among many of their albums I was raised on. Rubber Soul is not as experimental and bold as later albums like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but something about the L.P. struck me. Rubber Soul was the moment The Beatles reinvented Pop and pushed it forward; John Lennon and Paul McCartney showing greater confidence as songwriters. I love the rich harmonies on The Word; the playfulness and catchiness of Drive My Car and the revealing, emotional tones of In My Life. Closer Run for Your Life was dismissed by writer John Lennon but it shows, even near their peak, the band were not flawless. I love the simplicity of the recordings and how, even though a lot of the songs are piano/acoustic guitar-led; they are much bolder and developed songs than The Beatles were producing a couple of years previous. Rubber Soul is a complete and astonishing work where The Beatles are pushing their work further than ever and sound completely in-harmony. It is a record I first experienced as a child and has been with me ever since.
Jeff Buckley – Grace (1994)
There is a reason why Grace continues to inspire generations and the new breed of songwriters: every song is a side of Jeff Buckley and is as beautiful as the last. I discovered Buckley as late as 2004 but was struck by his voice and what a compelling songwriter he was. Hallelujah is the song everyone talks about but consider the sweep and heartache of Last Goodbye and the spellbinding Corpus Christi Carol; the attack and power of Grace and the exceptional lyrics of Lover, You Should’ve Come Over. I have watched documentaries of Buckley recording the tracks and how much of himself he put into the sessions. He laboured over songs and never considered Grace would be about a couple of singles and that was it!
Kate Bush – The Kick Inside (1978)
Kate Bush has always been seen as an album artist. She still has so much affection for the album as a format and, right from the off, ensured her albums were chocked with life and quality. The Kick Inside is my favourite album because it is a narrative and exploration of a song artist entering music – full of confidence, ability and that wondrous voice. Singles like Wuthering Heights are stunning but the joy is listening to all of the tracks (on The Kick Inside) and witnessing this fantastic young artist exploring new themes and ideas. No two tracks are alike on The Kick Inside and I love the variation and beauty throughout. Bush was talking about menstruation and incest; discussing love in very mature ways and looking at themes no other artist was talking about. I love all the sounds, lyrics and brilliant moments on The Kick Inside and have to listen to it the whole way through. It is a treasure and masterful record that still brings new revelation to light – despite the fact I have heard it countless times!
The White Stripes – The White Stripes (1999)
The White Stripes would grow more confident as their careers evolved and incorporate more instruments into the mix but the reason I love their debut so much is its rawness and sparse sound. It is a D.I.Y.-sounding record that artists today are inspired by. Most of the songs are quite short and snappy and, because of that, you are more than happy to spend the time listening to the complete album. Like all great records; The White Stripes holds together and tells a story but is broad and varied. Jack and Meg White are completely connected and add so much colour and physicality to each song. It is a wonderful, engrossing album that I have been a huge fan of since 1999. Again, you could not imagine listening to the odd song from the album and leaving things there: such is the power and consistency of the material, you follow it end-to-end and let your senses trip and wander.
Paul Simon – Graceland (1986)
Few albums are more important and loved as Paul Simon’s Graceland. I recall discovering it during the 1990s and connecting with sounds I had never heard before. The African rhythms and voices that came from the speakers brought me into a new world but, oddly, it is the lyrics that stick in the mind! I love how Simon tells tales and the way he employs language. Graceland is filled with lovable characters and personal stories; fascinating visions and unforgettable lines. The record is so full of unbelievable sounds and textures; a rich and endless banquet that needs to be experienced as a whole thing. It is one of my favourite records and I cannot listen to Graceland in pieces: I need to sit there and make sure every track unfolds.
Björk – Debut (1993)
There are few albums, in my mind, that are as diverse and compelling as Debut. It was not the first Björk album I cam across – that would be Post – but it has made the biggest impact. The bellicose and intense opening of Human Behaviour is amazing; the anthemic Venus as a Boy a totally different beast; Big Time Sensuality is a blast of delirium and energy; Violently Happy one of the best things Björk ever recorded. None of the eleven tracks are surplus to requirement and I adore how each song has its place and wrestles for attention. It is another one of those big and busy albums that you need to settle down with and listen to in one go.