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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Album as an Artform

In this age of the iPod, the relevance of the album format is called into question. CDs are becoming a thing of the past, while MP3s are quickly taking over the market. I myself have grown fond of shuffle mode on the iPod, because it seems to keep songs and artists fresh. On shuffle mode, I don't burn out listening to a single artist for an entire album, and I am able to pay closer attention to more obscure songs that often get lost in the context of an album line-up. Does this mean the album is a dying artform?

Well, I think my love of shuffle mode speaks to the fact that most albums are not completely listenable from first to last track anyway. How many times have you bought an album only to discover that you only really love one or two tracks while the rest of it is crap? Granted that doesn't happen as often in the electronic age, as customers are better able to sample an entire album before deciding to purchase. I think the record industry might want to consider this fact when they wonder why album sales continue to plummet, instead of pointing their fingers at file-sharing. (Arguably, file-sharing increases the amount of money consumers spend on the music industry by increasing exposure to greater musical variety. Mainstream radio just can't measure up to free cultural exchange. Anything that's worth buying will still be bought, and anything that isn't worth buying won't be listened to anyway.)

But even though iPods and shuffle modes seem to be the growing direction of music these days, I still think there will always be a place for albums that are well composed from start to finish. The composition of a song is an artform, inarguably, but so too is the composition of a really great album, and that's not so easy a task to accomplish.

In recognition of the album as an artform, I've developed a list of albums in my collection which I think are great albums from start to finish. One thing most of these albums have in common is an eclectic assortment of musical flavors within the album, thus making the style of the album difficult to define (perhaps, then, these albums aren't so far removed from shuffle mode after all). When you think about it, it makes sense that musical variety would bear on what makes an album great. I mean, we all like Green Day's Dookie, but you know how each song on that album kind of blends into the next so that you can't really distinguish one song from another? The songs are great individually on shuffle mode, but they don't really shine as an album. The following albums, on the other hand, are examples of albums that I see as unitary artworks. I can listen to each of these albums from first to last, and often round and round without getting anxious to skip a track.


Cake
Fashion Nugget
If you're like me, you heard the Cake singles on the radio in the 90's, enjoyed them for what they were, but didn't give the band much thought besides that. It wasn't until sometime in the 2000's that I gave Fashion Nugget a chance. And boy am I glad I did, because it's incredible melodically, lyrically, and phrasally. Cake lyrics come across as flippant, but when you really pay attention, you find a brilliance in their flippancy ("To me, coming from you, friend is a four letter word. End is the only part of the word that I heard." and "You think she's an open book, but you don't know which page to turn to, do you?"). If I were a bass player, this is the band I'd want to play in, because the bass lines are actually interesting and melodic in their own right. And I can totally mouth trumpet to the entire album, so that sells it for me.


Frou Frou
Details
Oh how I love the vocal stylings of Imogen Heap! I wish I could extract her incredibly versatile vocal chords and swallow them into my throat for my own nefarious devices. But since I can't do that (yet), I'll settle for listening to this gem of an album, which features Imogen's vocals paired with Guy Sigsworth's brilliant production and writing. Frou Frou didn't become really popular until after they broke up in 2004 to pursue solo efforts, but you're probably at least familiar with the song "Let Go" from the Gardenstate soundtrack. If you liked that track, definitely pick up this album, and while you're at it, pick up Imogen's solo album Speak For Yourself.


Duke Ellington
Money Jungle
Normally, when I think about Duke Ellington, I think about some of the most recognizable standard jazz tunes out there. I think musical genius, but not necessarily the type of musical genius that likes to play around with different tones, rhythms, and patterns in an experimental fashion. But this album does just that, and it is one of my favorite jazz albums of all time. In fact, it may even beat out Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, the album that inspired me to name my cat Miles. Kind of Blue is a very colorful album. You know, it's kind of blue in color. But the Duke's Money Jungle is full of a symphony of synesthetic colors. And, oh my goodness, who knew a person could actually get excited about jazz bass? The bass on this album is incredible. If you aren't into jazz yet, but are interested in trying it out, start with this.


Pink Floyd
The Dark Side of the Moon
I was resistant toward giving Pink Floyd a chance for a very long time. All I knew of Pink Floyd for most of my life was "We Don't Need No Education", and though that song is a crowd-pleaser, it's not really what I would consider interesting or innovative music. And besides, Pink Floyd are just old British fuddy-duddies now, right? What could their music offer me, a young American hipster? But an old boyfriend who listened almost exclusively to classic rock introduced me to The Dark Side of the Moon, and I was blown away by its melodic and rhythmic inventiveness. I was impressed with the way the album feels more like a symphony than a collection of individual songs. Simply put, my mind was changed, and I am finally open to giving a fair chance to music that I normally wouldn't consider.


Coheed and Cambria
Good Apollo, I am Burning Star IV: Vol. 1, From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness
This is the third album in a series of concept albums following lead singer Claudio Sanchez's comic book universe. It's interesting to see how the band's style has evolved from one album to the next, going from emo/punk to more experimental progressive rock. I believe they really found their sound with this album. Maybe the reason I was so disappointed in Volume 2 is that Volume 1 is just too good.


The Cranberries
No Need to Argue
This is the first CD I ever owned, and it's the first album that helped me understand what music is all about. It's a wonderful example of beauty in simplicity. Dolores O'Riordan is by no means a brilliant lyricist, in fact sometimes her lyrics are downright silly ("Whe-heh-hen, when will the icicle melt? The icicle, the icicle! And whe-heh-hen, when will the picture show end? The picture show, the picture show!") But she is brilliant at melody and harmony over simple but aesthetic chord progressions. This is quintessential mid-90's alt rock.


Dave Matthews Band
Crash
DMB used to be my very favorite band. But I didn't like the direction they were going in when they released Stand Up, and in fact I was so disappointed in that album that I started to get a bad taste in my mouth whenever I listened to other DMB albums. And so I swore off going to their concerts -- something that had been a yearly ritual for me for several years -- and I let my stack of DMB CDs collect dust on my shelf. But I think Crash will always find a special place in my heart. It was the first DMB album I owned -- bought on a whim as part of my introductory membership package to Columbia House (remember that old scam?). I kept Crash on repeat rotation for weeks while I read an adventure novel in high school, and to this day vivid images of the plot of that book return to me when I spin this disc. So maybe this album is genius to me because of its associative nostalgia. Or maybe it's just that good.


Tally Hall
Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum
Tally Hall sounds like five band geek music majors who decided they should get together and play as many different music styles as possible and create an album. And they've done so with great success. If you remember back when I wrote about the Amazing Opening Weekend of Concert Season, you'll recall that these guys put on one of the best live shows I've ever seen, complete with an honest-to-god true encore. The album is just as spectacular. I think these guys could be the next big thing, so get in on it, will ya?




Now it's your turn. What are some of your most favorite albums?



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16 comments:

sovknight said...

Wow. That's a tall order to describe what records I can listen to all the way through. I'll give it a shot with a couple though, although I'm sure I'll think of more as soon as I hit the "post" button.

Firstly, I'll agree with the Cake album. That's always been one of my favorites, and it's the album I listened to when learning to play bass. :)

The Verve Pipe-Villains: Brilliant album from start to finish. Although "The Freshmen" was WAAAAAY overplayed on the radio, it's still a good song, and the rest of the album is every bit as good. Unfortunately, their second album was utter shit, and the Verve Pipe have never been heard from again.

Disturbed-Believe: Disturbed has a knack for making albums where every song is good, and Believe is the epitome of that. Every single song has that Disturbed feel, but every single song is still somehow different. It's also the first album where they tried a soft, melodic ballad, and it works exceptionally well.

Saigon Kick-The Lizard: Ok, I know what people are thinking, but I'm ignoring them. "Love is on the Way" was played at every prom in the country in 1990, but the rest of the songs on that record are all so... unique. It's hard to describe, but Saigon Kick really had something there. After this record though, they faded into obscurity.

Hardline-Double Eclipse: This is a whole album of nothing but Fun Rock. Songs about cars and girls and girls in cars... stuff like that. Still, it's one of those records that puts you in a good mood when you hear it. I love it all the way through.

Evanescence-Fallen: I don't care what people say, this album is chock-full of great songs. I don't get tired of it.

I know there are more, but I've taken up enough comment section for myself. It's other people's turn.

Karen said...

Sov - I'm totally with you on Evanescence. #1 on that CD gets blasted in my car at rude levels.

Imogen Heap is unbelievable.

Here are my picks:

1. Alice in Chains-Jar of Flies: Blame it on my time spent in Seattle, but this CD is amazing. A nice blend of their normal heavy stuff with more mellow numbers. Only 7 tracks, though.

2. Citizen Cope-The Clarence Greenwood Recordings: This guy is a DJ and producer and this CD is good from start to finish. I first heard him on a Mitzubishi commercial and searched the internet until I found out who the artist was. Glad I did.

3. Mary J. Blige-The Breakthrough: Her voice and soulfulness is amazing, and this album was written when she finally found a healthy relationship. It shows.

4. DMB-Live at Red Rocks: I know it's a compilation, but still...the live tracks are outstanding. His cover of All Along the Watchtower on this one brings me to tears and "Seek Up" has the best creshendo (sp?) in the beginning.

Brikena Ribaj said...

Keane - Hopes and Fears
Keane-Under the Iron Sea
The Killers - Hot Fuss
The Magnetic Fields - 69 Love Songs
Muse - Origin of Symmetry
Muse - Black Holes and Revelations
Modest Mouse - Good News for People Who Love Bad News
Moby - 18
Ladytron - Witching Hour
Mandalay - Solace
Starsailor - Silence Is Easy
The Postal Service - Give Up
Imogen Heap - Speak for Yourself
Once Motion Picture Soundtrack
Death Cab for Cutie - Transatlanticism
Camera Obscura - Let's Get Out of This Country

Claire said...

And now, the post from the girl who listens to everything her friends think is weird and/or incomprehensible.

First, though, Brikena, I am TOTALLY with you on Camera Obscura - they are amazing, and "Hey, Lloyd, I'm Ready to be Heartbroken" gets play time every day in my iTunes mix. Ditto on the Magnetic Fields!

My top albums:

Rufus Wainwright - Poses/Want One/Want Two: Rufus broke my heart the first time I heard him, and keeps finding ways to make the pieces smaller while somehow simultaneously flooding me with happiness. The only boy I'd ever consider throwing myself at, ever.

Gloria Estefan - Mi Tierra: Gloria's always been a heroine of mine, and "Mi Tierra" was the album she made for her Spanish-speaking fans. Incredibly personal, evocative and lush.

ABBA - Gold/Oro: I have both the English and Spanish versions of ABBA'S compendium of chart-toppers. Need I mention the innumerable times my parents discovered me staging my own full-on costumed productions of "Dancing Queen," a la "Muriel's Wedding?"

And yet they claim they had "no idea" I was trans. Curious.

Moving on...

Julio Iglesias - Raices: Yeah, yeah, I know all about Julio being an aging, womanizing cheeseball...but this album introduced me at a very young age to "Et Maintenant," "Mexico Lindo y Querido," and a dozen more songs that, in turn, helped me learn to appreciate the vast range of music around the globe and its power to change hearts, minds, and lives.

Los Amigos Invisibles - The New Sound of the Venezuelan Gozadera: The first of many Los Amigos albums I've purchased - exploding with complex composition, far-flung fusions of myriad musical stylings, and a saucy, sometimes raunchy sense of humor, this and all the other LAI albums will always equal good times to me!

John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask - Soundtrack to "Hedwig and the Angry Inch": Rock opera, transgender issues, wicked, smirking camp, and very good advice about not putting bras in the dryer...what more could a girl ask for in a visionary rock epic?

Django Reinhardt - The Indispensable Django Reinhardt: A self-taught guitarist with a Johnny Tremain-style hand injury that nevertheless produced "Deccaphonie" and the amazing, awesome "Menilmontant," Django is one of the small but well-loved pantheon of gods carved into the musical Parthenon of my mind.

I could go on, but then I'd have to wake you up, so, um..."NEXT!"

Melliferous Pants said...

Totally with you on Cake! I lived in Sacramento when they were starting out and was able to see them at a lot of free outdoor shows during the summer and in small venues.

Some of my favorite albums...

Blossom Dearie, Once Upon a Summertime. She is definitely worth checking out. So boppy and cheerful, even when she's singing Down With Love.

Postal Service, Give Up. Like many of my favorites, I had to shelve this for awhile post-break up until it was safe to listen to again.

The Beastie Boys, Check Your Head. This takes me back in such an awesome way. Plus it has my favorite Beastie song of all time: Professor Booty.

Stevie Wonder's Stevie Wonder's Original Musiquarium I and II because Stevie is the BOMB.

Elton John, Madman Across the Water. Elton John rules. The End.

Karen said...

I forgot one.

Common-Be: This whole CD is the shit. Even the track with John Mayer, though I'm a closet John Mayer fan, so...

Steve said...

I'm so glad to see Fashion Nugget on that list. Whenever that CD ends up in my car stereo, it seems to stay there far longer than any other CD. Also, of course, good work on DSOTM.

On my list would go the (seemingly) obvious choice of Tommy by The Who as well as newcomer The Crane Wife from The Decemberists.

Sra said...

Superb lists so far, everyone! I'm making a list of the ones I haven't heard and I'll be taking a little visit to the library later. I'm so excited to hear some new music!

I'm glad a few of you mentioned Postal Service and DCFC. I wanted to represent Ben Gibbard on the list, cause I think he's a lyrical genius, but I couldn't decide between Give Up and Transatlanticism. So I left them both off for some unobvious reason. Glad they made it to the comments.

Keep them coming!

tennessee mike said...

What defines a great album for me is when you hear a single of it somewhere (radio, barber shop, whatever) and when it's over, your mind is already playing the next song in the album's order. So here's my list:

"Apollo 13" Soundtrack - Although soundtracks and "best of" albums probably don't count because they're more compliations than anything else...this one is different in that interspersed among the 60s/70s music and score are little snippets from the movie. The movie quotes go so well with the songs, and all of the ends of the songs fade out with the start of the movie dialogue...so it makes for a very cohesive collection. Plus, the cuts from James Horner's score included on the album are amazing.

Chicago IX - A "best of" album...but since Chicago has been around for 40 years now, their first "best of" album in 1975 is a classic in its own right. It somehow reminds me of my parents, enjoying life together in the 70s before they were bogged down with having a kid in the 80s.

Robbie Williams - Sing When You're Winning - I first heard of Robbie Williams during my trip to Europe after graduating high school in the summer of 1999. The songs move from pounding Brit pop to soft acoustic tones, in a very enjoyable pattern. Every time that comes up on my iPod I think back to that trip.

Beck - Odelay - My foray into alternative music after the first decade and a half of my life listening to oldies (Motown) and old-school hip hop (Run-D.M.C., Dr. Dre and the like). Beck had a great transition sound, especially in this album. It was re-released earlier this year, with extra cuts from that session...but I still prefer the original album's line-up. After Beck, I switched to X96 from Oldies 94.1 for good.

AC/DC - Back in Black - I didn't discover AC/DC until college. But once I did, my collection of their music grew by leaps and bounds. Although I have a few of their more rockin' songs from the 70s, this album was the first with new lead singer Brian Johnson who replaced the late Bon Scott. I like Brian's vocals much better than Bon's. I turn into Jack Black's character from "School of Rock" whenever I hear this album.

Kurt Bestor - Christmas 2 - A staple at my parents' house during the holiday season. A perfect album to listen to while relaxing in a couch, a steaming mug of wassail in your hands, watching the snow outside.

Nick Drake - Pink Moon - Sadly, I only heard this album for the first time a couple of weeks ago...it was the daily discount on Amazon's MP3 page. I knew I had heard the title track before, on some car commercial. But the entire album is amazing. It was sad to read that he died so young. His music still sounds fresh and new, even though it was recorded 30 years ago.

DMB - Crash - I agree that this album is one of the greats. The 13 minutes of #41-->Say Goodbye are some of the best minutes ever set to music.

Sra said...

Good list, Mike. I like Nick Drake when I can get over the fact that he sounds slightly retarded when he sings. He's one of Ian's favorites, though, and so I hear him on occasion (when I allow Ian to play one of his cds in the car). He was a great musician in spite of the slightly retarded singing style.

P.S. to anyone offended by "retarded": I'm sorry, it's the best word I know to convey what I mean.

sovknight said...

People need to stop being offended by words. That's just retarded.

Anyway, I want to give a second to Chicago. I would have put it on my list as well, but I'd assumed that Greatest Hits compilations were disqualified for some reason.

Karen said...

"great albums" seems to be a theme this week....check this out...one of my favorite bloggers posted this today:

http://betheboy.com/2008/08/15/coffee-and-rockin-is-for-closers/

Sra said...

Thanks for the link Karen, and thanks for spreading my link over there too. I hadn't really considered the importance of album enders before, but I do agree with the author's sentiments.

Sra said...

Thanks for the link Karen, and thanks for spreading my link over there too. I hadn't really considered the importance of album enders before, but I do agree with the author's sentiments.

Sra said...

Good list, Mike. I like Nick Drake when I can get over the fact that he sounds slightly retarded when he sings. He's one of Ian's favorites, though, and so I hear him on occasion (when I allow Ian to play one of his cds in the car). He was a great musician in spite of the slightly retarded singing style.

P.S. to anyone offended by "retarded": I'm sorry, it's the best word I know to convey what I mean.

tennessee mike said...

What defines a great album for me is when you hear a single of it somewhere (radio, barber shop, whatever) and when it's over, your mind is already playing the next song in the album's order. So here's my list:

"Apollo 13" Soundtrack - Although soundtracks and "best of" albums probably don't count because they're more compliations than anything else...this one is different in that interspersed among the 60s/70s music and score are little snippets from the movie. The movie quotes go so well with the songs, and all of the ends of the songs fade out with the start of the movie dialogue...so it makes for a very cohesive collection. Plus, the cuts from James Horner's score included on the album are amazing.

Chicago IX - A "best of" album...but since Chicago has been around for 40 years now, their first "best of" album in 1975 is a classic in its own right. It somehow reminds me of my parents, enjoying life together in the 70s before they were bogged down with having a kid in the 80s.

Robbie Williams - Sing When You're Winning - I first heard of Robbie Williams during my trip to Europe after graduating high school in the summer of 1999. The songs move from pounding Brit pop to soft acoustic tones, in a very enjoyable pattern. Every time that comes up on my iPod I think back to that trip.

Beck - Odelay - My foray into alternative music after the first decade and a half of my life listening to oldies (Motown) and old-school hip hop (Run-D.M.C., Dr. Dre and the like). Beck had a great transition sound, especially in this album. It was re-released earlier this year, with extra cuts from that session...but I still prefer the original album's line-up. After Beck, I switched to X96 from Oldies 94.1 for good.

AC/DC - Back in Black - I didn't discover AC/DC until college. But once I did, my collection of their music grew by leaps and bounds. Although I have a few of their more rockin' songs from the 70s, this album was the first with new lead singer Brian Johnson who replaced the late Bon Scott. I like Brian's vocals much better than Bon's. I turn into Jack Black's character from "School of Rock" whenever I hear this album.

Kurt Bestor - Christmas 2 - A staple at my parents' house during the holiday season. A perfect album to listen to while relaxing in a couch, a steaming mug of wassail in your hands, watching the snow outside.

Nick Drake - Pink Moon - Sadly, I only heard this album for the first time a couple of weeks ago...it was the daily discount on Amazon's MP3 page. I knew I had heard the title track before, on some car commercial. But the entire album is amazing. It was sad to read that he died so young. His music still sounds fresh and new, even though it was recorded 30 years ago.

DMB - Crash - I agree that this album is one of the greats. The 13 minutes of #41-->Say Goodbye are some of the best minutes ever set to music.

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