The Art of the Album

A few months back I wrote a short essay titled ‘The Joy of Record Shopping’ in which I eluded to my love of the album format. In this article I’m going to take a deeper look into the ‘album’, considering its importance in popular culture from different perspectives.

Music streaming services have revolutionised the consumption of music with millions of tracks now available at our fingertips. Singles have historically been important for artists to gain exposure, airplay and ultimately the attention of the public, but perhaps more than ever with mass access to music coupled with the highly documented reduction in the human attention span, the album in the traditional sense is at risk.

From an artists perspective the album format allows the freedom to craft a journey upon which to take the listener. For a creator, a collection of songs can reflect a time period, mindset, involvement of a given collaborator, and in some cases it can be autobiographical. While the same can be said about individual songs the shorter format limits the scope of this for the writer.

As a listener it is important to remember that tracks in the context of an album can have a totally different effect in comparison to when heard in isolation, and some don’t always have the same impact when heard as a standalone work. Nostalgia can also play an important role in the listing process, and often reminds me why I fell in love with music in the first place thanks to a childhood friend lending me an Oasis cassette. It was the only record I had so I listened to the whole album on repeat. While the tape could be rewound, the limitation of the playback format encouraged the consumption of the whole album in the way it was intended. Just as it can for a creator, an album can have an association with a time, place or mindset one was faced with at the time of listening.

As a composer and music producer, listening to an album can inspire my next track or project. Along with the obvious characteristics including genre and instrumentation, I listen for inspiring sounds and textures, chord sequences, rhythms and the way the instruments present are performed and utilised.

While I certainly don’t feel the album is becoming a lost art form, instant digital access to almost any record arguably removes some of the magic away from purchasing and experiencing an album as a whole. With this in mind, I encourage you to take the time to listen to an album, start to finish with no distractions. While there is no inherent problem with listening on digital services, perhaps we should be mindful to take the time and effort to listen to albums as they were intended instead of jumping to the latest playlist or trending track. This mindset and approach to music consumption can then enable us to reap the full rewards of the emotions triggered, and the overall sensory experience we can have with music.

If you are looking for something new to try, here are 5 of my favourite albums that must be heard start to finish:

Olafur Arnalds - Eulogy for Evolution - the concept here is that the album takes the listener on the journey of life from birth until death.

Feeder - Comfort In Sound - written and recorded in the wake of the death of drummer Jon Lee you can really get a sense of the heartbreak, grief and hope for the future though the music and lyrics.

Idlewild - The Remote Part - the sound of a band in their prime, no filler, just 11 great tracks.

Mogwai - Rave Tapes - I could have chosen one of a number of Mogwai records, but this is one of the bands most accessible to date with a really cohesion between the tracks.

Porcupine Tree - Fear of a Blank Planet - a modern day progressive rock album performed by some of the world most talented musicians including writer Steven Wilson. A challenging listen musically, but one which rewards the time spent on it.