Sunday, February 28, 2010

Albums or Singles? You Decide!


Were you a singles person or an albums person?  Did you prefer the simplicity and immediacy of a single song, or the adventure of an album full of them?  Did you just wanna dance?  Or were you, like me, pretentious? 

Did you hover over the record player, ready with another 45 the moment the first one finished?  Or did you sit back while the more leisurely 33 1/3 rpm unwound over twenty or so minutes?

My hovering with the forty five period began at age seven and lasted until about twelve, which is when singles began to suck, which encouraged the aforementioned pretentiousness, resulting in the switch.

Would I be wrong to say that girls liked singles and boys liked albums?  I find this weird because while singles seemed more slutty (Sorry, I didn’t catch the name of that song), albums were more monogamous.  They required some commitment to listen all the way through, including the weaker songs. 

There is a short story/novel equivalent here, and as you might guess I prefer novels. 

The singles people had more fun, but they worried about seeming superficial, so every once in a while, they’d buy albums.  They usually ended up with a single disguised as an album - you know, an album with only one good song on it.  They’d get bored and go back to the singles life.

At least until they turned thirty, when they thought they should settle down and be album people.  And even if they got a pretty good album, they’d get bored with it because whatever they might have thought, they got themselves a relationship when what they really wanted was just another one night stand.  Such people should just accept themselves and stick to greatest hits albums.

It could be embarrassing to be an albums person.  Everyone thought you were very serious.  (You were.)  And depressed (ditto).  And not having fun (true, which is why you needed those albums - to fill up the time.)

We album folk were the first geeks.  Lacking anything else to be geekish about, we could quickly get past the music itself and focus on the album as package.  After all, what did you get with the single, anyway?  A flimsy paper cover, a very suspect B-side (unless it was a Beatles or Stones record).  And not even a yellow plastic thing to stick in the hole in the middle, in order to play it without feeling seasick.  To this day, I’ll hear a song from the sixties on the radio and marvel at how much less woozy it sounds now.

And no matter how badly you treated your albums, you still treated them better than your singles.  The occasionally skip caused by the scratches on an album could never compare to the dust and grime encountered on the average 45, which should have had us arrested for physical abuse.

Album covers were like paintings.  They gave you something to look at - something to study while everyone else was talking to girls.  The untitled front covers were the best, with no words to distract you from the image (like "Abbey Road").  But the minutia on the back, about the songwriters, musicians and production would make up for this. 

And let’s not forget the most fascinating, or at least most minute, minutia of all - song durations, which I thought had no reason for being except to fascinate me alone.  (The fact that it helped radio stations figure out what they could fit on their programs was just a side benefit.)   My fascination began when I noticed that “Strawberry Fields” clocked in at just over four minutes!  The last time I had looked was when “Help” clocked in at 3:15 - the longest I had ever seen up to that point. 

(Real Quick: How long is “Hey Jude”? A: 7:11).

And they got longer and longer.  “In a Godda Da Vida”, “Dark Star”, took up entire sides.  Canned Heat’s “Refried Boogie” and the Allman Brothers “Mountain Jam” took up TWO sides each.  How cool is that, huh?  Not that cool?  Okay.

And how can you forget the slug line?  (Uh, by not knowing what it is to begin with, Jaybee.)  All right, let me school you.  The slug line is the labeling on the left edge of the album cover - usually the Artist Name and Album Title.  Don’t care?  Well just try to find your favorite album on your bookshelf then.  Okay, I’ll admit that CDs make this much easier, but back in Vinylandia you needed it. 

But it couldn’t help if it wasn’t straight and even, like the spine of a very (very) thin book.  And it just looked awful if the lettering spilled over onto the front or back of the cover.  There was a time when I would not buy an album because of this.  I would look for another copy – one with a straight and even slug line.  It told ya it was nuts.

And the lyrics!  (Uh, I really don’t care about lyrics.)

In any case, with the front picture, the useless minutia, the slug line and the words I didn’t understand, with an album, you really had something in you hand.  Hopefully the album.

Brave New World:

So do these two distinct types of people exist anymore?  I don’t know.  I think the line is blurring.

My son’s been downloading music.  The albums sit somewhere on his iPod and the computer’s hard drive.  There isn’t much to look at.  And I don’t have the slightest clue what he’ll do if either device crashes.  Are they backed up?  Is there a receipt?  Or do they just buy and download them again?

And I don’t feel any better about it when he plays an album directly from his iTunes library, without even putting the CD in the drive.  And the slope gets really slippery when you can play the songs selectively.  In other words, you can play only the parts of the album you really like.  Which sounds an awful lot like singles heaven to me.

So, as an album person, I’m having some trouble with it – not so much with the digital age, but rather the virtual age.  The “thing” itself seems to be fading away, leaving only the music.  But if it’s the music that matters to me, why do I find this so disconcerting?  Because I’m still a freaking albums person, that’s why.

After all, isn’t downloading songs just a small innocent step away from making a mix tape (or, in a quantum leap forward, burning a mix CD)?  But the difference now is that our iPods and computers don’t have nearly the space limitations that tapes and CDs have.  Those 90 minute mix-tapes had to be planned, and they could take hours to make.  CD burning took less time, but encouraged tinkering to get the songs in the right order.  (If you don’t understand why that’s important, you should have stopped reading a long time ago.)  Not only could one be a musician by proxy, but also a DJ by proxy, too.

So now with your 100 Gig hard drive and whatever gig iPod, you can listen to whatever you want and as much of it as you want. If you choose to, you could listen to an endless playlist of songs you know and love.

This might sound like a great thing, and I’ve spent many a morning playing songs randomly from my Windows Media Player library, and enjoying it immensely.  But I feel there’s something missing.  I feel as though the album - the self contained unit that “forces” you to listen to a number of songs you haven’t heard before, thus giving you an opportunity to discover hidden treasures, or to have something really grow on you - as a concept, is fading away.

And that’s the bad news.  We can, if we wish, ignore the rest of the music world.  But hopefully you don’t want to do that, because, if anything, it’s almost too easy to identify and find music you like. 

When you were a kid, you could have been captivated by a song on the radio, but miss the title, and be haunted by it, waiting for it to come on the radio again.  Or, you might have been in a record store, staring longingly at the album you wanted to explore, but didn’t have the money for. 

But as an adult, you could spare the money to buy that record you love.  And the radio stations even post their playlists, so that if you hear something you love (not likely), you could look it up and then buy it from

So there are no more obscure songs that catch your attention and then fade away, haunting you forevermore.  The mystery is gone. 

The only limitation is us, and what we’re interested in hearing.

It’s a sick world my friend.

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