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.
Was it last year that Studio !K7 held that poll in which people were asked to choose their top five DJ-Kicks mixes?1 This one was without a doubt my #1 pick2, and it remains my second favorite mix CD of all time (hint: the first is from a different series on the same label).
For those who might not know, DJ-Kicks is a DJ mix series curated by Studio !K7 that gives marquee producers the opportunity to represent another side of their personality outside the studio and in the mix. Starting with an entry from C.J. Bolland in 1995 and continuing up to the present day with last week's Nina Kraviz excursion, it must be the longest running mix series ever. A unique feature of DJ-Kicks is the fact that (nearly) every mix features an exclusive track worked up by the presenting DJ for inclusion in their mix (and concurrently released as a 12" single). Early on in the series, this track was constructed entirely from samples taken from the mix itself (a short-lived tradition, truth be told, lasting only for the three Detroit-themed mixes that rounded out the series' first phase of deep techno entries), but as the series continued the track would generally be an original work that seemed to spring from the spirit of the mix it was created for.
The Terranova entry emerged from the heart of the series' second phase, an excellent run of trip hop-flavoured mixes, nestled between the likes of Kruder & Dorfmeister and Smith & Mighty. At the time, trip hop was a music I lived and breathed (a close second only to techno in my personal sonic pantheon), immersed as I was in records by Massive Attack, Bomb The Bass and Tricky. Then, one day in early 1998, this mix cropped up on display at the old Tower Records on El Cajon Blvd. I snapped it up immediately, purchased more or less blind on the basis of the Studio !K7 brand and a handful of names in the tracklist that I recognized.
I remember Woebot once describing the way a listener will often move from node to node when exploring music, further avenues opened with every path explored. Back in the day, mixes were like pressing the fast-forward button on that process: if you knew that you liked a handful of artists/tracks featured on a mix, then chances are you would discover at least as many more that you'd end up digging too. This particular mix is a double fantasy of sorts: not only is every track phenomenal, but all avenues presented here intersect at steep tangents before veering off in nearly every direction. It opens with a seven song stretch of both styles of hop (from hip to the trip), veering left into a sequence of skewed techno and house, before finally returning home to the breaks to close out the set.
The spectre of post punk abstraction hangs heavy over everything here, gesturing back toward an era when Mark Stewart hooked up with Tackhead and the Death Comet Crew were in full swing: abstract sonic technicians putting the jagged edges of the city to wax. Tricky - trip hop's greatest auteur - had a similar affinity with post punk (from the well documented Mark Stewart connection on down). This is the world of David Toop's Rap Attack, hard electro beats and concrete. Terranova inhabit this realm - they populate this mix with it, floor to ceiling - actually augmenting the base records with additional treatments and textures, stretching the sonic spectrum into every corner of the soundscape. Standing in stark contrast to the pleasant lifestyle music that downtempo often devolved into when it would get lost in a sort of vaguely cool, chill out impulse, the dubchamber murk and grimy textures in evidence throughout this record operate on an alternate principle: once agan, putting the jagged edges of the city to wax. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how you do trip hop.
The mix opens with one of the great Intro tracks of all time, a rumble of pure atmosphere as the sound of the city streets comes flooding in, a gentle conga rhythm tumbling out across the soundscape. Terranova, Terranova... doesn't that mean new land, right? Wow, that's beautiful. Dropping into Howie B.'s Five Days, a droning slab of mutant tech jazz from the Freezone 3 compilation. It chugs along like some clockwork reconstruction of bebop, the beat marked by muted drums and a horn tattoo jutting out from each measure. Distant tones sound off from beyond the droning soundscape, grinding synths rise like magma within the mix.
As if waking from a dream, it all collapses into reverb as a skeletal hip hop beat begins to take shape. Priest's Disorientation certainly lives up to its title, sounding as if it were constructed from a jumble of unstable elements: its wavering bassline and skittering beat come on like some ramshackle vision of Timbaland and SA-RA meeting for tea in Central Park. Apani B. Fly, Beans and Priest rhyme abstract to the max before everything collapses once again into a pool of pure echo. A pounding slab of trip hop from Depth Charge, one of the grand architects of the form (and probably the most obvious influence on Terranova's own m.o.), starts to throb into view like an open wound. Sex, Sluts & Heaven (Bordello Mix) is the track, from the Legend Of The Golden Snake3, bleeding wave upon wave of pressure into a cauldron of raw intensity.
The machine beats of DJ Spooky's Galactic Funk release the tension with an almost compulsive ramshackle funkiness. Spooky always seemed to catch a lot of flack for his endless theorizing and sometimes rambling approach to beat construction, but when the man was on, he was really on. Everyone knows the Sun Goddess sample, but it's the mind-blowing twisted clavinet jam from The Politicians - a mere moment on in time on the original record, sampled and stretched to infinity here - that kicks this track into the fourth dimension. That's the good good, right there. Deep space sonics creep in and out of the funk from every which angle, before they ultimately overwhelm the beat and drag you into the deep black of space, distant sounds from the East creeping upon you.
It's East Flatbush Project's Tried By 12, that omnipresent underground hip hop record of the day, rocking an ill koto loop over the same Al Green break that fueled Timbaland's sampler around the same time. I'd rather be tried by twelve than carried by six. This record's instrumental was everywhere at the time (I even remember hearing it at a high school party the following summer). Sparse and clean, it drops in and out before you notice that the sun-glazed pulse of Peanut Butter Wolf's Run The Line has slipped upon you. Rasco spits nasty rhymes over the smoothest of beats, sounding like he'll knock your block off with or without the slightest provocation. Swap the cut out for the first of the breakbeat tracks from the Stereo MC's' Ultimatum project, The New Birth sampling Devil's Claw. A sonic tundra built around the opening break from Patiently, this track serves as a bridge into the uptempo stretch of this mix, the stately strings from BFC's Please Stand By rising from the glacier's surface. The first of the early Carl Craig tracks here - both of which ride improbable breakbeats - this one shrouded in waves of mystical Prophet 600 synthesizer, timbre hovering somewhere between strings and organ.
BFC's widescreen techno drifts off into the horizon as the break drops out, voices intoning astrological signs into the great beyond. Patrick Pulsinger's Citylights Pt. II (City Of Starsigns), a scattershot astral jazz shuffle, shambles into view as if powered by some mutant machine's makeshift propulsion. Like Ian Simmonds' Man With No Thumbs, it staggers on an irregular fusion rhythm (quintessential tech jazz straining against the machines), before ultimately collapsing into the void. Ladies & Gentlemen, one of 69's 4 Jazz Funk Classics4 (and the second of the Craig tracks here), picks up the thread with great churning strands of sequenced bass and a fast-forward Curtis Mayfield loop from the Super Fly soundtrack. Terranova give you all eleven minutes of the track here, a generous move as it's one of the most sublime techno songs ever put to tape (on what was, at the time, an extremely hard to find record). Structured as a multi-part modular groove whose main section drops out into a stone cold breakbeat breakdown - forlorn tones cry out ever gently - before those rolling bass sequences return stronger than ever, unfurling in great arcs toward the sky. Terranova close it out in striking fashion, with what must be a custom bit of nearly g-funk keyboard filigree twirling on and on into the sunset.
Backroom Productions steps in to give The Definition Of A Track. At the very least, this is definitive New York house, surely: Groovin' Without Doubt. The whole thing rides atop this massive bassline that seems to meander its way up and down the beat matrix, freewheeling and utterly unresolved. This groove segues into a passage in which the synth line from Silicon Soul's Who Needs Sleep Tonight is warped and threaded through The Octagon Man's Modern Funk Beats; both tunes seem made for each other once you hear them in this context. It lasts but a moment before the distant growling bass of Avenue A's ace remix of Terranova's epochal Tokyo Tower pulses into view. This version has nothing whatsoever to do with the sublime original (that heavenly jam with one Manuel Göttsching, a tune which I've already mentioned here, and must return to again sometime for further discussion). It's the great lost big beat tune, tucked away on this mix as an exclusive (you can hear it unmixed on the double-vinyl companion to this CD). Industrial breaks klang, run at a half-speed, then shift gears into a beat of block-rocking proportions and back again, bridging the gap back into downbeat territory as I L.O.V.E. You drops the tempo down to a crawl with bass you feel in your chest.
DJ DSL's warped take on lovers rock finds him twisting a bit of Yellowman's Lost Mi Love to abstraction, all effects on overdrive. With a deformed roar, the dope downbeat of Ultimatum's second contribution Stop It! Stop It! Stop It! stalks its way across the soundscape, perhaps marred slightly by some creepy dude that's trying to push his luck with a lady. What's the deal? Still, it's but a moment before Terranova's masterful remix of the Jungle Brothers' Jungle Brother oozes into every corner of the soundscape on a massive Reese bassline and slow motion breakbeats. If there's been anything that's elaborated on the sound that the Brothers themselves laid down on J. Beez Wit The Remedy, it's this remix, which leaves you wishing Terranova had been allowed to produce the entirety of Raw Deluxe. These mutant beats live up to that title and then some, in what must be one of the most uplifting slabs of hip hop ever put to wax. Those rude voodoo flutes swarm over everything!
The whole soundscape just hangs there, suspended, before being sucked to a pinpoint and morphing to the drop of buzzing bass from The Junkyard Band's The Word. Taking a stab at Reagan-era economic policy over a monster groove, this record just rolls out the speakers in an avalanche of percussion, bass locked in a furious dance with the MCs. This record, one of Def Jam's incursions into the D.C. go-go scene, boasts a compulsively three-dimensional soundscape, one that is continued in the Atmospheric Version of Spoonie Gee's Spoonie Rap, slipping into the mix transition practically unnoticed. The bedrock rhythm, knocked out by a live band, sounds like a yet-even-more-fluid Remain In Light-era Talking Heads, while the party atmosphere, scratches, warped tones and effects come courtesy of its remix on Harlem Place, sounding like nothing so much as the tracking shot from Mean Streets where Harvey Keitel stumbles through the party and down the hall before collapsing on a cot in the back room, only here it all devolves into a deluge of sirens announcing the nightmare that is Terranova's DJ-Kicks/Contact - the track.
Contact is a warped, druggy take on 70's soundtrack music as seen through the cracked funhouse mirror of hindsight: paranoia, conspiracy and malaise caught on celluloid, camera cutting a rakish angle through a deserted alley. I used to imagine some bleak Scorcese-esque movie (before I'd seen any, of course) or cop thriller playing out to the music. It certainly matches the visuals in films like The French Connection (parts I and II), Night Moves and The Parallax View, harboring a raw, churning intensity that puts an awful lot of imaginary soundtrack music to shame. If you come across the 12" single, don't hesitate, as it also offers up an alternate version on the flipside5 called Contact (Lezlie), a further dive into the dirty shadows.
It's worth reflecting that the prevailing mood of this mix is probably meant to evoke Berlin or even New York, vast metropoli defined by their towering architecture, but for some reason I've always associated it with San Juan and the outlying Carolina district in Puerto Rico. Listening for the first time brought back memories of cloudy days that would result in the inevitable torrential downpour, tropical colours overcast in grey.
Predictably, the last time I was on the island, I played it out nearly every day - further cementing the association.
Aside from its towering greatness, I often return to this mix because there's an elemental sound here, thick with all-encompassing atmosphere, that I have yet to hear anywhere else in so potent a form. Drawing on routes flaring out from primal musics - hip hop, techno and dub - and feeding them through a prism of post-punk abstraction, they seem to map out a vision of ancient future music that remains vital to this day.
Through the murk and the grime, or because of it perhaps, resolve endures in the gutter: green grows through cracks in the pavement, ribbons of light slip through a crumbling edifice at dawn. City lights smear across a car window in the night, Cosmo Vitelli trying to realize a vision. Dread becomes determination, and Terranova puts all of it to wax.