September 17, 2012 9 comments
It seems like most new albums are measured by the number of solid singles they contain, rather than the strength of the album as a whole. But let’s be real, when’s the last time you listened to an album all the way through, from start to finish? I sit down and do this right after I’ve gotten something new, but it’s usually the first and last time that happens.
You can’t ignore the fact that the way we listen to music today has had an impact on the notion of what makes a great album. Listening to music used to be its own separate activity. Now, its accessibility and portability make it the background noise or soundtrack to our lives. I don’t know whether that’s a good or bad thing, but I have to believe that it changes the way we’re evaluating new music.
Presumably, an album is offered as an entire, singular piece of art, rather than just a collection of singles. Before music became digital, you had to buy a whole CD or tape or vinyl, so it made sense that you’d listen to it in its entirety. It also made sense that an artist would have to really think through the experience of the listener. Things like the order of the songs would be much more important.
Today, you can pick and choose which tracks you want to buy. It’s interesting because you can’t really do this with any other medium. You cannot and would probably never buy just half the scenes from a movie or say that chapters 3-12 and 22-35 of a book were great, but the rest you could do without. So why does that make any sense with music?
This also delves into the idea of what makes an excellent album. Is an album truly great because every song is perfect, or is it about the overall content and message that’s being driven throughout, even if some tracks are less successful than others? Perfection is tricky and, like all of this, is quite subjective.
Of course, there are some albums I do consider perfect— The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, for example. I can honestly say that I love every single song on that album. It all just makes sense. There’s a symbiotic relationship between every track, so that when I to listen to one song, it’s as if I have to listen to every song or it won’t feel right. I have the same experience with Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, the College Dropout by Kanye West, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Those are cases where I don’t think you can remove one song from the album without undermining the integrity of the entire project.
Sometimes I’ll listen to a whole album simply because I don’t dislike any particular song enough to make the conscious decision to skip through. In that case, is it a matter of an artist releasing solid piece of work, or more about them having made an album without any glaring duds? Which, don’t get me wrong, is also impressive. I think of John Legend’s debut, Get Lifted, where I love almost every song and for the few that I don’t, I just play them through anyway so as to not disrupt the flow of the whole project. The same goes for the Black Album. I don’t love “Justify My Thug”, but I’ll listen to it.
On the flip side of all this is the idea that a few songs can really make an album—that the greatness of a few tracks can drive up the average of the album as a whole. If Michael Jackson had released a 10-track album with “Thriller”, “Smooth Criminal”, and “Bad” and if every other song was just OK, would it matter? Would the genius of those songs eclipse the shortcomings of the others? If Eminem released an album with “Lose Yourself” and “Stan” would you care if you skipped every other song?
As music lovers, do we take what we can get or do we demand and seek out well-rounded pieces of music—even if that means an artist releasing less work?
What if every song on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill had been distributed across three separate albums with the rest being filler? Would we look at Lauryn Hill differently? Without having the brilliance that is that album, I’m not sure that I would have the same appreciation for her, which, admittedly, might not be fair.
Rihanna has released six albums since 2005 and is reportedly due to release another in November. I don’t think many people consider her a musical genius exactly, but she makes solid, catchy pop music. If those six albums, with four or five standout tracks each, were somehow condensed into three albums, would her reputation be different?
For an artist to be great, do they need a masterpiece that you can listen to from beginning or end, or should we look at everything they’ve done under the umbrella of their whole career? I’m inclined to side with the former, but sometimes you just have to sit back and appreciate what you are given. Because while it may not always be perfect, it’s still pretty damn good.