Thursday, 31 July 2014

What is the contemporary relevance of the album?

I keep reading about musicians questioning the validity of the long-player album format, but then releasing albums. What's going on there?

Let's look at a few case studies.

Radiohead are notable for long criticising the format, but then releasing The King of Limbs as an album a few years ago (even if it was on the shorter side). Subsequently releasing a more songs digitally from TKOL sessions including the sublime 'The Daily Mail', I can't help but feel that this was their compromise and that alongside the remix album which followed (and the revelation of the hidden tracklising of blending OK Computer and In Rainbows together) that fans were to create their own tracklistings from the 13 songs released from this era - I know I did. Twice.

Smashing Pumpkins, as mentioned elsewhere on this blog, are systematically releasing individual songs to be packaged as 11 4-track ep's as part of a mammoth 44-track 'album'. The idea is to focus on the songs themselves and allow fans to be a part of the process of the project as well, seeing how it all develops over time. Subsequently releasing 2012's well-received Oceania album as a conventional full-length release billed as 'an album within an album' and one cannot help but think that this project has been abandoned. 

Pixies released three 4-track ep's of new material ahead of collating them into their first new 'album' in over 20 years. The critical response centred on the content not being a new 'album' at all, but merely a collection of songs from their ep's, calling into question what a 'collection of songs' even is anymore.

Are we stuck between a rock and a hard place where musicians no longer desire to release songs in the conventional way, but not quite prepared to take the plunge? It appears so.

Consider the new single-download culture which hit the headlines last year with astronomically high downloads of hit songs from Daft Punk and Robin what's-his-face. It's big. I have also read convincing arguments that more revenue can be made from releasing singles and not albums (more money for less work?) which is suggestive of this trend continuing, if bands bothered to release singles anymore - many don't bother at all. It's all changing. Again.

As David Byrne explains in his excellent book 'How Music Works', technology has always dictated how long music releases are. From old shellac records through to CD, the length of a particular work was only as long as the format would allow. That is, until now. We are still stuck with the notion that an 'album' ought to be around 50 minutes, plus or minus 10/20%. Digital mediums mean music can be infinitely long (and indeed a song designed to run for 1000 continuous years is now in it's 14th year).

Complaint's that Radiohead's The King of Limbs was 'too short' highlights the fixed notions about what an album is and how long it should be (it was in fact only about 5 minutes shorter than the previous album In Rainbows; this is about the length of one Radiohead song).

I like short albums, long albums, and everything in between. Though I make my own collections of songs in the form of personalised playlists, I still consider albums as the authoritative compilation of songs as constructed by artists themselves and the order in which they wish the songs to be heard. My own compilations act as companions to albums, not replacements.

Am I alone here?

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