Earlier this year, my sister-in-law posed the question as to whether the album was still relevant. A timely question, to be sure. Folk have been declaring the death of the album for years now, but in truth it has always supported less volume than the 7" single (for instance). The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry - and proving ground - for breaking artists. This was the format in which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.
Similarly, the 12" single was but an elaboration on the format, its extended running time ideal for the demands of the dancefloor. But the album... the album was something different altogether. In most genres only the auteurs get around to making them, and even some of the greatest artists never did (either by choice or due to circumstance). However, there's no getting around the fact that its been a fixture of the music industry for well over sixty years. So perhaps it would be valuable to go back to the root of the format for a moment.
The long-playing album initially took hold in the 1950s, when it finally supplanted the 70rpm shellac discs that had been the industry standard since the 1920s. The format was a clear winner in that it was both far sturdier than the often brittle shellac discs and could store far more music (22 minutes per side, as opposed to the five minute limit of the original 70rpm discs).1 This made the format ideal for compilations, often pulling together a brace of singles or other previously released materials into one succinct package. In fact, some of the earliest LPs were enhanced/extended versions of 10" records like Chet Baker Sings, Billie Holiday's Solitude2 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.
Rather quickly, certain artists gravitated to the format. Frank Sinatra famously took to the form, crafting themed records like Songs For Swingin' Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours. The album was also a crucial showcase format for early rock and blues - artists like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf - often rolling some contemporary singles and a handful of new tracks into a discrete work. Yet if there was one scene that really embraced the format from the word go, it was jazz. The album rather quickly became the base unit of the genre, even beating rock 'n roll to the punch in the process.
Indeed any thoughtful round up of great albums from the 1950's would be littered with jazz: from John Coltrane's Blue Train to Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, there's a veritable treasure trove of delights nestled within the decade. Duke Ellington famously dove headfirst into the format with longform works like Such Sweet Thunder and Black, Brown And Beige, with often sterling results.
Now the sixties are when the album really began to gain steam as a cultural force, with the twin innovations of hard bop and free jazz making their home on the format. Blue Note alone moved a serious number of units in the first half of the decade. Then, coming from rock 'n roll, artists like The Beatles and Bob Dylan worked out further possibilities of the form, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably giving birth to the concept album, and Blonde On Blonde inaugurating the era of the gatefold double-album. The floodgates opened when artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors and Jefferson Airplane all turned out deeply conceptual albums within the span of a single year, and as the decade came to a close Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd - artists that would come to define the album-as-artistic-statement in the popular imagination throughout the seventies - made their initial splash.
Soul music - despite its erstwhile status as a singles genre - began generating great albums as early as Booker T. & The M.G.'s Green Onions through Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin's sterling run, along scores of great Motown records (even before Marvin and Stevie rewrote the rulebook3).
If there's one decade where the album peaked then it was the seventies. This the era of progressive rock - progressive everything, truth be told - with genres as disparate as rock, funk, reggae and even bluegrass stretching out into longform works (sometimes even filling a song to a side). Krautrock too, despite a brace of great singles, was thoroughly in thrall to the form. Indeed most rock - bar glam, and even that had it's slew of classic LPs from the likes of T. Rex to The Sweet - was centered on the form (contrasted with the amount of Nuggets bands that might have only had one or two singles to their name when all was said and done). David Bowie is an excellent example of this phenomenon in action, cutting a string of classic albums spanning the entirety of the decade - even the ones deemed disappointments at the time have long since been reappraised - while still managing to service the jukeboxes with red hot singles like Golden Years and Suffragette City.
It was around this time that the double-album became commonplace, while the live album blossomed into a key pillar of the album market (the two overlapping as often as not). Soul got increasingly conceptual as well, signposted by Curtis Mayfield's unparalleled winning streak to James Brown's extended cold sweat workouts, reaching its culmination with the ongoingParliament/Funkadelic saga. Even reggae - that stalwart of the 7" single - was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, informing the ascendant post punk in the process (with PIL's Metal Box playing with the format itself). It's at this moment, coinciding with the rise of disco, that the 12" single begins to be felt as a presence.
As a result of the restored primacy of the dancefloor, or perhaps the proverbial pendulum swinging back from the conceptual overload of the 1970s, the eighties in many ways seemed to place the focus squarely on the single. Think New Order's Blue Monday, for instance, an event release comparable to the marquee albums of the previous decade. Still, there was a healthy crop of great LPs peppered through the 1980s, with The Clash even cutting their Sandinista! triple-LP at the dawn of the decade. Shortly thereafter came the early stone tables of alternative, classics along the lines of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade and the Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime mapping out the form (both of them doubles, in fact).
Prince traversed the decade much like Bowie had the decade prior with a near-spotless sequence of classic albums (even if, like Bowie, he still had a penchant for the single form). In truth a lot of singles genres still managed to toss up a smattering of killer albums. I'm thinking of Mtume's Juicy Fruit and Alexander O'Neal's self-titled debut (on the electrofunk and modern soul tip, respectively), not to mention Scientist's storied dub reggae slates and choice dancehall long-players from the likes of Tiger, Tenor Saw and Yellowman.
And of course hip hop began developing into an album form as the decade progressed - even if it remained largely singles-based: only the big boys got to do albums - and as it drew to a close, the rap album became a matter of course, a given. See any number of LPs that routinely make greatest-ever album lists: N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and BDP's Criminal Minded. Similarily, house music produced its own series of classic albums from producers like Larry Heard and Lil' Louis as the decade drew to a close. You can't knock something like Virgo's self-titled album from 1989.
Aside from dance music - which here in the states the mainstream all but ignored most of the time (to its shame) - the nineties were a big return to the album format, with big ticket releases like Nirvana's Nevermind and Dr. Dre's The Chronic becoming event releases on par with Led Zeppelin IV and Dark Side Of The Moon. Hip hop leapt confidently into its full-tilt album phase, with bizarre longform works by the likes of Redman and The Wu-Tang Clan as gnarled as anything out of the progressive seventies, and focused on conceptuality to boot. Even in dance music and electronica, surely the textbook definition of a singles genre, loads of great albums surfaced over the course of the decade, records I wouldn't want to live without. There are practically oceans of great techno LPs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Model 500's Deep Space to Bandulu's Cornerstone. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.
Similarily, jungle - like reggae, a quintessentially singles-based genre - had a knack for pulling together a great full-length record, with 4 Hero's Parallel Universe and Kemet Crew's Champion Jungle Sound practically serving as twin sides to the same coin. Kevin Pearce's excellent A Cracked Jewel Case really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. In truth, many of my own personal favorites populate the pages of that book, as up until late in the decade I was largely reliant on albums to get the fix I was after. It took awhile before I could afford turntables, so I was consuming nearly all of this music in the form of CDs (I'd scoop up nearly everything I could on Submerge and Studio !K7), and I'd go to bat for a great many of them. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject - 20 great dance CDs - kicking around somewhere.
At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Oukast's Stankonia, Daft Punk's Discovery and Isolée's Rest, spring to mind immediately, while bands like Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes turned out classicist LPs in a new wave style. It was largely business as usual, the seventies' shadow that hung over the nineties gave way to the eighties and all the attendant reference points.
The party continued largely uninterrupted through 2006 (the year of Ghostface's Fishscale, J Dilla's Donuts and Avatar by Comets On Fire), but as the decade wore on you could slowly feel the care slipping from the form, with albums seeming to grow less consistent by the year. Records like Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War) and The Good, The Bad & The Queen's debut came correct but suddenly they felt like disconnected islands rather than part of any greater scene or grouping... and the water separating them was cold indeed! The trend became more glaring as the decade wore on, and indeed continues right up to the present day.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: is the album format still relevant? I'd say yes indeed, and without a moment's hesitation. Records like Kelela's awesome Cut 4 Me) and Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly stand out as recent examples of unmissable album experiences. As much as people talk about just singling out tracks and making playlists (not that there's anything wrong with that), I think there will always be call for the sustained experience of a full-length album. There's just too much that can be done with the format that can't be found anywhere else. Burial hardly would have made sense as a singles artist (even if I'm sure there's plenty who singled out Raver and left it at that).
So I think there's still life in this little format from the fifties after all, and I wouldn't doubt that it still has a few surprises hidden up its sleeve. With even the reigning chart royalty - figures like Beyoncé, Kanye and Taylor Swift - clearly putting a lot of work into crafting coherent album-length statements, it remains a crucial part of the pop music experience. So go ahead and spin that record from start to finish if you please, because the album is here to stay.
. The 45rpm 7" record
, which emerged around the same time, offered a compact, convenient format in which concision was key... ideally suited for the single.
. Originally released as Billie Holiday Sings
. See, for instance, Whitfield, Norman
Radio AG Episode 016: Spring 2015
I almost missed the window to do a Spring mix this year, but ultimately ended up putting something together at the last moment (rather than miss the season entirely). Against all odds, this one practically mixed itself. It should be noted right out the gate that this mix leans fairly heavily on the late nineties, particularly 1997 and the first half of 1998, for reasons that I will expand on someday. Suffice it to say that rather than a walk down memory lane, the music here strikes me as locked onto the very pulse of today. Since this mix is coming out late into Spring, the mood is a bit more dusted, more sun-baked than it otherwise might have been. So just take this as a soundtrack to the last weeks of Spring, as Summer rapidly approaches...
[ Listen Here ]
- The Parallax Sound LabRadio AG Intro
The standard introductions in place.
- Scott Weiland Jimmy Was A Stimulator (Atlantic)
Kicking off with a forgotten slab of noise from Scott Weiland's solo debut, this is in essence a Nuggets track in all but name: raw garage punk implementing the technology of the era - in this case 808 beats and filtered techno bass - delivering a three minute bolt from the blue. Should have been a single.
- Arabian Prince Strange Life (Rapsur)
Mid-eighties electro. The production on this is perfect! I hinted at the man's underground pedigree here, dating back to well before he'd hooked up with N.W.A.. This record finds him transcribing the vibes of L.A.'s party scene - the house parties, nightclubs and roller rinks - to wax. There was an excellent interview with Arabian Prince and The Egyptian Lover in Wax Poetics a few years back that happened to coincide with a superb retrospective of the man's work that came out on Stones Throw.
- Little Computer People Little Computer People (Psi49net)
Late-nineties electro. Like I-f's Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass, this split the difference between electro and eighties synth pop, predicting the whole electroclash movement years before the media blitz descended. Little Computer People is an obsessive slice of computer disco that could have burned up the charts in any decade, while the video remains one of the great undiscovered promo clips. Check it out!
- Fluke Absurd (Mighty Dub Katz Vox) (Astralwerks)
Norman Cook takes a break from his Fatboy Slim alias to turn in this ace remix of a quasi-industrial Fluke track (from their excellent Risotto LP), filtering the original through a Planet Rock prism and winding up with one of the great electro tracks of the day. For my money, this is the definitive version of Absurd, boasting a massive climax not even present in the original version. Possibly Cook's greatest moment (give or take Everybody Needs A 303).
- Masta Killa Digi Warfare (featuring RZA & U-God) (Nature Sounds)
Yet another space jam in disguise, this time from the Wu-Tang Clan's Masta Killa. Seeming to offer up a loose breakbeat take on the World Class Wreckin' Cru's Surgery, this record teems with richly demented strings weaving through the ether as four-dimensional breakbeats work out their logic beneath. I've always loved traxx like this that hang in there around 110 bpm - that interzone between house and hip hop - plying a deep digital funk existing in a fertile, under-explored territory that remains ripe with possibilities.
- Tony! Toni! Toné! Tonyies! In The Wrong Key (Motown)
This is a strange one, buried deep within Tony! Toni! Toné! third record Sons Of Soul (the There's A Riot Goin' On of new jack swing). From within a sumptuously multi-textured soundscape, Raphael Saadiq sort of half-sings his way through the verses while the rest of the group drops in periodically for the nagging refrain. Tumbling breakbeats - a hallmark of this LP - shuffle beneath it all as dial tone punctuates the endless, rolling rhythm and occasional snatches of blues guitar flicker in the shadows.
- Murky Waters Check Yourself (Pranna Mix) (Main Squeeze)
The original has always reminded me of Songs In The Key Of Life-era Stevie Wonder, but this dark remix on the flip warps the vocals into oblivion over an eerie slice of electronic jazz that seems to soundtrack some bizarre nexus between daydream and nightmare. The turn of the century was a great time for this sort of thing, culminating in a warped permutation of the neo soul sound that would continue to throw shapes across the ensuing decade.
- Blue Öyster Cult Screams (Columbia)
Gothic biker rock from this thoroughly conceptual band-in-a-box. This from their self-titled debut, an utterly essential hard rock record. The unique thing about the early Blue Öyster Cult is that they come on like a Nuggets-era garage punk group that's stumbled upon heavy metal, maintaining the same sense of raw, unstable propulsion that one expects from The Seeds or the 13th Floor Elevators even as the darkness comes creeping in. When that slow motion chorus hits its like plunging deep into the Black Sea.
- Viernes 13 Piérdete Chica (Viernes 13)
Only recently discovered this crew when they opened for The English Beat last month, where I was totally floored by their live show. I've been rocking both their records ever since, tending to prefer the dust and grime of their debut's sun-baked boleros to the new record's pristine polish, capturing as it does the idiosyncratic brilliance of the band's live show.
- Family Of Intelligence The Fruit (featuring Vernon Smith) (Kemet)
From the undeniably awesome Champion Jungle Sound double-LP on Kemet. If you want to get at the essence of jungle - its very DNA distilled in the purest form - then this should be your first port of call. I dropped this back to back with the previous record in the spirit of those old Recent Abduction shows where I'd occasionally operate the soundsystem for the band, spinning a mix of jungle and dub between set after set of local punk rock.
- Dr. Alimantado Ride On (Greensleeves)
One of the great deejay LPs - indeed one of the great reggae LPs period - this features Dr. Alimantado toasting mad science over rock hard backing tracks, his singular personality towering over a smeared, sun-glazed psychedelia that stretches for miles. Everybody needs a copy of this record.
- The Herbaliser Put It On Tape (Ninja Tune)
Circa late 1998 - in a moment of existential frustration - I remember saying to Snakes I just want to play trip hop in bars, which became something of a running joke at the time. This is one of those records that makes me think of that era. Not a great LP, but it does feature the presence of a then-unknown Jean Grae - trading under the name What? What? at the time - in one of her earliest appearances on wax, plus a couple of instrumentals that have remained with me ever since.
- George Duke Peace (MPS)
This and the next tune were made for each other. Those gently cascading rhodes wash over everything. Such beauty! George Duke imbued everything he did with a generosity of spirit that really does shine through in the grooves. I was saddened to hear of the man's passing a couple years back.
- Cheo Feliciano Mi Triste Problema (Vaya)
Salsa luminary's belated solo debut after over a decade in the game, providing vocals for the likes of Eddie Palmieri and Joe Cuba's bands. After a rough patch that found the man in the throes of heroin addiction, he quits cold turkey and cleans up for good, getting it together in the studio with songwriter-auteur Tite Curet Alonso and an ace backing band including Johnny Pacheco, Bobby Valentin and Justo Betancourt, crafting these gently rolling, velvet soundscapes in the process. It's hard not to picture the sleepy seaside of Ponce - those gently rolling hills rising in the distance - on hearing these gently aching grooves.
- Dee Dee Bridgewater Night Moves (Elektra)
Now this one I can't even begin to explain. Soul jazz chanteuse Dee Dee Bridgewater covers the theme tune from Arthur Penn's Night Moves - starring Gene Hackman - resulting in this breathy dreamtime confection, all shuffling breezy rhythms and liquid rhodes. Did the original even have lyrics? From Just Family, the first of her stellar three album run on Elektra, which found Bridgewater navigating the disco era with finesse. It's surprising that this tune isn't more widely known.
- Tricky Brand New You're Retro (4th & Broadway)
From the trip hop visionary's epochal debut. I've gone digital about this one before, and no doubt will again and again, as it is without a doubt one of my favorite albums ever. I never tire of this track's rush of adrenaline smack in the middle of such strung-out surroundings. It is, along with the Public Enemy cover, the sound of fury on wax. It's a shame that the rough edges of trip hop were bevelled away with such haste. Many of the genre's wilder numbers remain among its very best.
- Can Half Past One (Harvest)
Late-period Can gets short shrift, but if they'd been an entirely different band no one had ever heard of - without those legendary early records hanging over them - I'd reckon people would be blown away by what they heard. Everything from Landed onward compares quite favourably with Remain In Light-era Talking Heads, and stands on its own as a sort of shimmering fourth world psychedelia.
- Millsart Dr. Ice (Axis)
Turn of the century Jeff Mills in Detroit classicist mode, which might make the skeptics snicker. Whatever. The man had put in so much time living in the 23rd century, who could fault him for taking some downtime to his machines sing like The Temptations? Here he conjures up the same sort of lush techno you'd find on the space jazz records he did with UR, records like Nation 2 Nation and Jupiter Jazz, deftly imbuing everything with the same sharp-tooled precision as his Purpose Maker material. The sound of casual utopia.
- Neneh Cherry Buddy X (Inspired by......!?!) (Circa)
Do people consider Neneh Cherry to be trip hop? I've always heard her as a contemporary of Soul II Soul and Smith & Mighty, a fellow traveller operating in the same sonic space. Innovators all, in other words. This incredible tune is so functionally tight - yet at the same time spiritually loose - that it seems almost improvised, even in the face of those furiously programmed whiplash beats and Neneh's righteously eloquent message.
- Smith & Mighty I Don't Know (featuring Alice Perera) (12" Mix 1) (Studio !K7)
Speaking of Smith & Mighty, this slice of paradise in its purest form is without a doubt the crew's peak (although I tend to love everything they touch). Shimmering roots 'n future in a deep way, this of-the-moment machine soul could have been huge given the right set of circumstances.
- Them It's All Over Now, Baby Blue (Deram)
From the second LP by this storied rock 'n roll crew, this finds them stretching out into folkier territory than ever before (prefiguring Van Morrison's later direction). Here, his breathtaking croon pushes the tune onto a deeply spiritual plane. Perhaps everyone knows this as the basis for Beck's epochal Jack-Ass, but this truly stellar take on the Bob Dylan standard should be more widely heard.
- The Crooklyn Dodgers Crooklyn (MCA)
New York hip hop in excelsis, this features peak period production from Q-Tip while Masta Ace, Buckshot (of Black Moon) and Special Ed trade verses about the seventies (the days when kids didn't act so crazy). From the Spike Lee joint of the same name, this perfectly captures the same sense of gentle nostalgia felt throughout that film. Humorously, while they're all reminiscing on the seventies, it makes me nostalgic for the nineties of my youth!
- Stone Temple Pilots Seven Caged Tigers (Atlantic)
Bringing it all back home. Scott Weiland, yet again. This from the Stone Temple Pilots' Tiny Music... From The Vatican Gift Shop, which found the band teasing out the edges of their muscular hard rock with gentle psychedelic flourishes, the odd touch of lounge and even jazz funk (but only for a moment!). I've always thought this tune had a deeply reflective, almost zen cadence to it, like a man coming to terms with his place in the world, the very sound seeming to radiate a sense of supreme inner peace...
Timestretching: Johnny Blount and Nautilus Jones.
Vibes: Metal Box, Trans Am, 1997.