Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Album as a Work of Art

Is "shuffle" hurting popular music? Much has been written about what digital music is doing to the entertainment industry. I can only write from personal experience, but about 3 years ago I got my first MP3 player and its probably no coincidence that about three years ago I stopped buying as many albums. I bought lots of various singles and have been introduced to lots of new artists by having easy access to digital music, but in the end I must admit I probably listen to less music now that I have an iPod than I did when I had a boom box and a giant stack of CDs.

Like I said, the easy access to digital music has helped me find some new artists, so I won't sit here and totally disparage what MP3s have done for music. But the playlist shuffle mentality has prevented me from appreciating new music too. For instance, when I first heard U2's new single "Get on Your Boots", I was pretty unimpressed and speculated that the album would be a disappointment. Fortunately, I decided to purchase the album anyway when I found a great sale at Amazon. After listening to the whole album I found that there were a lot of good songs that I probably would not hear on the radio. Without committing to listening to a whole album, some musical treasures might slip by me. The upside is that I've got plenty of "Greatest Hits" CDs that I bought only for a handful of songs, but now with MP3s I can buy singles of certain songs I like without wasting my money on alleged "Hits".

A second thing I miss about CDs is the "tactile" experience of holding a piece of music in your hands! When you want to find something to listen to, its fun to look through all the album artwork and do the preparation of carefully removing the CD from the case so as not to break those stupid little plastic tabs. Listening to a CD was an event. The ease of the MP3 infinite playlist makes music more "background noise" than an event. Finally, an album has a structure to it. Songs might not sound so good listened to by themselves, but as part of a larger movement of music they can mean more and be more enjoyable.

Last month BMG music service announced they were going out of business. For years I, like so many others before me, signed up and then cancelled a BMG subscription to take advantage of the "Buy 1 CD get 13 more for 1 cent each!" deal. In college we used to do "Top 5" lists inspired by the John Cusack movie High Fidelity. In honor of BMG and the dying art of the "Album", I thought I'd count off some of my all time favorite albums. Ranking them is a difficult thing to do, so I'll start off with my three "Desert Island Discs" (the CDs you'd have with you if you were stuck on a desert island) and then round out the list of 25 from there.

Desert Island Discs in no particular order:
Achtung Baby- U2
Moondance- Van Morrison
El Corazon- Steve Earle

The Rest of the List:
4. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road- Lucinda Williams
5. White Blood Cells- The White Stripes
6. Blood on the Tracks- Bob Dylan
7. The Joshua Tree- U2
8. Odelay- Beck
9. Unchained- Johnny Cash
10. Wrecking Ball- Emmy Lou Harris
11. All that You Can't Leave Behind- U2
12. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill- Lauryn Hill
13. Cold Roses- Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
14. IV- Led Zeppelin
15. What's Going On?- Marvin Gay
16. Soul to Soul- Stevie Ray Vaughn
15. Old Crow Medicine Show- O.C.M.S.
17. Time out of Mind- Bob Dylan
18. Transcendental Blues- Steve Earle
19. New Favorite- Allison Kraus and Union Station
20. War- U2
21. Songs in the Key of Life- Stevie Wonder
22. Elephant- The White Stripes
23. The Waiting- The Waiting
24. Harvest- Neil Young
25. Riding With the King- Eric Clapton and B.B. King

Of course, this list is simply a static picture of what is a more dynamic affair of music appreciation. While its a stab at an "all-time" list, a list made a month ago or a list made 6 months from now might look a little different. It should also be said that this list more reflects a time in my life before MP3s, so newer artists are under represented. And finally, one should not mistake the placement of a certain album on this list as an overall ranking of an artist. While someone may not have an album in the top 25, their overall body of work might put them in my top 10 favorite artists (e.g. Rolling Stones, Tom Petty, Buddy Guy, etc.). Or take Lauryn Hill for example, who made one masterpiece of a CD but has not done hardly anything notable since.

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