Back to the Future: In Praise of the Long-Lost Music Album

Forrest Hartman

 

In one of my college courses, I talk extensively about the impact technology has on media consumption. Even with students who – for the most part – range between the ages of 18 and 24, it’s easy to demonstrate that our tech-heavy world has fundamentally changed the way we interact with everything from books to music. For me, the latter (interaction with music) has, arguably, changed most.

 

I fondly remember living in my childhood home, a simple but lovely ranch house tucked in the Northern California foothills. It was here that I received shipments from the Columbia House record club, allowing me to delve into new albums from the Cars, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, and others who topped the charts when I was a much younger man. When I was a boy, I dove into those albums, meaning I played them, sometimes front to back, and reveled in all the glory (or gunk) they provided. With the gems (albums with six or seven great tracks), it was a glorious experience. But even with the albums that fell short (far more typical) … I developed a relationship with the artist who produced it. 

 

 

Frequently, I reflect on the fact that this relationship has – for most – disappeared. Today – as with most people – my music is primarily streamed or otherwise digitized. Rather than listening to an “album,” I listen to playlists … some self-curated, others chosen by ever-improving algorithms. Even when engaging with a particular artist – something I do frequently – I usually pick favorite songs. Anecdotal evidence indicates that others take the same approach.  

 

Before those reading tune out, having decided my essay is nothing more than an angry, old man shaking his fist at the youth who dare trod on his carefully cultivated garden of punk classics, hair metal, and R&B grooves, a disclaimer: Nothing in this essay is meant to say today’s method of consuming music is “worse” than the methods of past eras. Indeed, there is much to like about reliving the pop culture moment that was Tiffany’s 1987 cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” without being forced to engage with the tracks it was sandwiched between. In another life (at least it feels like it now), I made much of my living as a wedding DJ. This was a job I started when CDs were the thing, but records were still viable.

 

So, while I might play entire albums at home, the only way to fill a dance floor was to pick the “hits” that most people wanted to hear. You might say, I – as a DJ – was an early form of streaming. Because of this, I embraced CDs and the ease with which I could cue the best tracks, sometimes even starting them after the self-indulgent introductions that nobody dances to. You can do the same things, of course, with records, but it is infinitely harder. Cueing tracks on LPs is more difficult than pushing a button or two, and hauling hundreds of 45s around is work. In short, I embrace technology. For me, it was a glorious moment when I realized I could ditch the 10-CD changer in my car and connect an iPod instead. “Woah. If only this had been an option when I was a DJ!”

 

 

So, while this is a rant by an old man, it is not the type meant to shame youth or deify the “good, ol’ days.” Billy Joel was right, after all, when he wrote that “the good ol’ days weren’t always good.” Still, reflection on the past is important, as there are always things to learn from the places we’ve been.  

 

Rather, this rant is an acknowledgement that – with all the things we have gained from technology – there have been losses. I am hardly the first to note this phenomenon, but this is the first time I have written about it at length.

                                                                

Fundamental amongst the losses is the once-common practice of sitting down and really listening to an album. Musical artists have long reacted to this by placing increased emphasis on singles. Sheryl Crow – a stalwart in the music world – announced this year that her 11th studio album will be her last. She isn’t retiring. In fact, she plans to continue recording singles and touring. But – for her, at least – the album is dead.

 

 

Interestingly, while Crow and others move away from longform recordings, I see small groups of people – particularly youth – reviving interest. My oldest son, Garrett, recently discovered vinyl, and I often hear the sounds of Green Day and Rage Against the Machine pumping through the door of his room … album intact. Vinyl sales continue to soar, at least when compared to historic numbers in the post-CD and streaming eras. But vinyl is a niche market. When I ask a class of 30 college students how many collect vinyl, two to three hands typically shoot up.

 

I mention the resurgence of vinyl only because I believe it can be explained in three ways. First, artists have realized that you no longer make a considerable profit recording music, but you do make money selling physical items: shirts, LPs, stickers, etc. Second, there is an expanding (albeit niche) market for physical goods. Today, we rent everything from software to music and – frankly – many seem fed up with the trend. Third, vinyl LPs aren’t just retro. They make it harder to listen to select tracks, so a lot of folks just let them play. And this is a different – and sometimes more rewarding – experience. It is the latter point that inspired this essay.

 

 

Especially with works created before the digital era, many artists thought of albums more like novels than a collection of hit songs. This is obvious with works like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, the Who’s Tommy and Green Day’s American Idiot, but it’s also true of albums that aren’t so easily identified as rock operas. For instance, one gets a completely different feeling listening to Bruce Springsteen’s 1975 album Born to Run front-to-back than by cranking only the songs “Thunder Road,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and the title track. This album – like those from many artists – tells a story. Sometimes the stories are intentional, sometimes accidental, but intent doesn’t matter. The ideas one takes from a novel can be life-changing, regardless of whether the author intended to plant those ideas.  I assert that the same is true with albums.

 

Many great albums have peaks and valleys. They bring the listener up, then down, then up again. Other albums charge hard from front to back. Others are fundamentally gloomy. Regardless of tone and dynamics, they all say something about the artists who created them, and that is the joy. One learns things about favorite musicians and bands by carefully accessing their work at this level, and they learn different things than by cranking a single.

 

 

Take that Born to Run album. By the time listeners make it to the title track, they are fully primed for the hard-charging, reckless abandon Springsteen delivers. The first four works build towards that track and, even if none achieves the individual glory of that title hit, they support it. “Born to Run,” I assert, is better when preceded by “Backstreets,” a mid-tempo ballad that reinforces why one might want to hit the road and never stop running.  

 

I am aware that this essay is a long-winded way of saying: “Hey, if you never listen to an album front to back, you are missing out.” Thank you for your indulgence. This is the point where the educator in me wants to assign homework. So, I will. If what I’ve written rings true, try the following: Pick an album by a favorite artist. It doesn’t matter if it’s something you discovered yesterday or 30 years ago. Cue it up … on your record player, in a CD boombox, or on a cell phone … crank the volume (as the artist likely intended) and listen, really listen. Don’t skip any tracks. Reflect on the journey you take. Then, ask yourself if such an endeavor was worth it. I assert that – in increasingly busy times – it is.  

 

 

Author Bio:         

Forrest Hartman, a Highbrow Magazine contributor, is a longtime entertainment journalist who teaches in the Department of Journalism & Public Relations at California State University, Chico. You can reach him at forrest@forresthartman.com

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

--Dave Morris (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--AceLAJay (Pixabay, Creative Commons)

--Cliff (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--Wikimedia.org (Creative Commons)

--Pxfuel (Creative Commons)

 

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