Album Cuts

A pile of LPs

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), which flooded the racks and stocked jukeboxes by the truckload. The Opinionated Diner once quipped that the 7" is the spiritual ancestor of the mp3,1 a sentiment that makes perfect sense.

The Standells Dirty Water Tower

The 7" single was traditionally the great equalizer, the point of entry — and proving ground — for breaking artists. This was the format with which The Standells could hope to go toe to toe with The Rolling Stones in the charts, and tiny upstart labels like Stax and Motown could crack the mainstream wide open. It remained the prime habitat for many scenes (reggae and punk, for example) long after the album rose to prominence.

Donna Summer I Feel Love Casablanca

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.

Chet Baker Chet Baker Sings Pacific Jazz

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).2 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 Solitude3 and Thelonious Monk's Genius Of Modern Music.

Frank Sinatra In The Wee Small Hours Capitol

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.

Sonny Rollins Saxophone Colossus Prestige

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.

The Beatles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Parlophone

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 Jimi Hendrix Experience Axis: Bold As Love Reprise

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.

Booker T. & The M.G.s Green Onions Stax

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 rulebook). After all, where would we be without Norman Whitfield's great productions on records like The Temptations' Cloud Nine, which were — alongside James Brown and Sly Stone's innovations — crucial stepping stones on the path to 70s soul?

Ah yes, the 1970s. 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.

David Bowie The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars RCA Victor

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.

James Brown The Payback Polydor

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 ongoing Parliament/Funkadelic saga.

Dr. Alimantado Best Dressed Chicken In Town Greensleeves

Even reggae — that stalwart of the 7" single — was knee deep in elpees as the decade wound down, with killer records like Burning Spear's self-titled debut, The Upsetters' Blackboard Jungle Dub and Dr. Alimantado's Best Dressed Chicken In Town all making a profound impression, even 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.

New Order Blue Monday Factory

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.

Hüsker Dü Zen Arcade SST

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 tablets 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 Sign "O" The Times Paisley Park

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.

Public Enemy It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back Def Jam

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.

Fingers Inc. Another Side Jack Trax

Similarly, 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 simply can't knock the digital perfection of Virgo's self-titled album from 1989, while Fingers Inc.'s Another Side remains a touchstone of soul-inflected machine music — a true tour de force — predicting whole swathes of nineties music from Ginuwine to Chez Damier.

Wu-Tang Clan Enter The Wu-Tang 36 Chambers Loud

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.

Two Lone Swordsmen Stay Down Warp

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 and Carl Craig's More Songs About Food And Revolutionary Art to Bandulu's Cornerstone and Two Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down. Even steadfast vinyl mystics Basic Channel put out a series of CDs that rounded up their 12" work into an album-like shape.

A Guy Called Gerald Black Secret Technology Juice Box

Similarly, 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 Case4 really immerses itself in this territory, unearthing forgotten CD releases from various artists scattered throughout the dance continuum. Gerald Simpson even had a royal pair of superb jungle albums in 28 Gun Bad Boy and Black Secret Technology.

Octave One The Living Key To Images From Above 430 West

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. When I think of this era, Moodymann's Silentintroduction and Octave One's The Living Key To Images From Above are usually the first two albums that come to mind. I actually have a half-finished breakout on that very subject — 20 great dance CDs — kicking around somewhere.

Outkast Stankonia LaFace

At the turn of the century, there were almost too many great albums to keep tracks of: Radiohead's Kid A, Outkast'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 Good, The Bad & The Queen The Good, The Bad & The Queen Honest Jon's

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.

Kendrick Lamar To Pimp A Butterfly Top Dawg

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).

Kanye West My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Roc-A-Fella

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.

Footnotes

1.

The Opinionated Diner [Rigg, Simon]. A List Of 7" Singles. The Opinionated Diner, 3 Mar. 2006. http://www.simongrigg.info/opdiner_7in.htm. Accessed 7 Jun. 2017.

2.

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.

3.

Originally released as Billie Holiday Sings in 1953.

4.

Pearce, Kevin. A Cracked Jewel Case. Your Heart Out, 2016. Digital.

Speed Of Life

Promo shot of David Bowie with red guitar (from the Low sessions)
David Bowie circa Low

My wife called me Monday morning with the news. I just found out that David Bowie died. I could hear in her voice that she was on the verge of tears. I didn't know what to say. The man was just too monumental, a mythic figure in his own time — in our time. He couldn't be gone. How do you even process that... where do you begin?


So you look back for a moment, reflecting on the past and a man's life that's now set in stone, every deed done. Emerging from the tail end of the sixties dream with a song about Major Tom, he strolled into the public consciousness... a place he never relinquished. He made a splash as a genuine rock star in the early seventies, an era — more than any other — when that truly meant something. He moved through faces and phases like Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke, larger than life, pushing the envelope of society's constraints and sounding phenomenal in the process (Suffragette City, Cracked Actor, She Shook Me Cold... does rock 'n roll get any better?).

David Bowie playing guitar circa Aladdin Sane
Ziggy played guitar

Life in that kaleidoscope of fortune and fame is disorienting at the best of times, and as the decade wore on it became clear that these were no longer the best of times... not by a long shot. Stardom dropped him on that square that's taken so many under, and the dream gradually became a nightmare. In the murk of the mid-seventies he wrestled his share of demons, brushes with madness and worse. One listen to Word On A Wing and you hear a man at the end of his rope, searching for a path and pleading with the heavens that he might somehow live on. Then he gazed toward Europe and saw a way.

David Bowie at the mixing board, looking smart in a Philly International stylee
Bowie in the studio

Making haste for Château d'Hérouville in France, Bowie slowly began to rebuild. Days spent pondering Where to next?, writing new songs and gathering strength. Then, he hooked up with Iggy Pop and made way for Berlin. They immersed themselves in the city, soaking up the Europe endlessness of Neu! and Kraftwerk (on whose behalf, one night, they instigated a five-minute standing ovation). The plan was for the both of them to clean up for good and maybe record an album. Enter one Brian Eno, and you've got the recipe for magic.

Brian Eno at the mixing boards as Robert Fripp and David Bowie look on
Brian Eno, Robert Fripp & David Bowie in Berlin

Those sessions dove headfirst into pure sound and drew the blueprint for the future, generating a staggering amount of material within the space of just one year. Visionary records like Low and "Heroes", paired with Pop's The Idiot and Lust For Life, all emerged from this fertile period. Even Eno's Before And After Science is cut from the same cloth. All of a piece. The sparkling kosmische horizons of Low seemed to give a sunset wave to the seventies, while the cold robotics of "Heroes" signaled the dawn of the eighties. It was still 1977, and they were already showing us the future.

David Bowie lost in song circa 1997
David Bowie: Earthling

With the turn of the decade that future finally arrived, and Bowie sashayed into the new wave an elder statesman... he was 33. Through the looking glass of abstraction he emerged a bigger star than ever and found a home in the ever-changing present. From Let's Dance to Earthling to Blackstar, he always seemed to tap into something new and fascinating on his extraordinary journey. Always two steps ahead of us, and always doing his own thing.


But now he's gone. He's gone and there's nothing I can say to comfort my wife on the other end of the telephone. I'm keeping it together, maybe feeling a bit numb, but trying to focus on all of the extraordinary things that he managed to achieve in his lifetime. He was the godfather of nearly everything I treasure in music, and he meant the world to me. I never knew the man, but in my lifetime, he always seemed to radiate an elegant grace; humble yet assured, a gentleman gliding through the world as if he were still Ziggy Stardust, only older and wiser and better, because he was the real thing. He was out there somewhere just doing his thing, at home in the world. Today that's probably what hurts the most.

David Bowie Station To Station RCA Victor

There's nothing left to do for now but hole up together, put on Station To Station and turn up the volume, let the bass drum kick you in the chest, melodica drifting out toward the heavens. Europe endless. Word On A Wing and Wild Is The Wind hit even harder than usual today, maybe more than ever. Then you play another record, "Heroes", perhaps. Then another, and another, and another. Maybe you watch The Man Who Fell To Earth and The Prestige. On a day like today, there isn't much else you can do but remember the man. So that's what we did.

And in that moment he's still out there, someplace you've never been, still just doing his thing. Always doing his own thing.