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in-defence-of-album-tracks-header.jpg

The New York Times Says Albums Would Be Better Without the 'Weaker Tracks'. Sacrilege!

By Petr Knava | Social Media | January 4, 2021 |

By Petr Knava | Social Media | January 4, 2021 |


in-defence-of-album-tracks-header.jpg

The internet is a funny place. Just a never ending roiling sea of spicy takes and furious counter-takes. Sometimes you see one of these takes in the wild, bobbing up and down in the choppy waters, and you can’t help but think:

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Case in point, this New York Times Music take that I first saw expressed (as is so often the case) in tweet form:

I consider myself a relatively sceptical sort. I like to dive into sources and the lines around carefully snipped quotations. Nevertheless, I’m prone to the same whiplash reactions as everyone else on the internet, and so when I first skimmed over those lines there I admit I instantly boiled up with a righteous and totally proportional fury. ‘How dare the NYT decry The Album—the supreme expression of musical intent! These fools. These foolish fools! Time to rage against the machine!’

And then I read the full piece, and to be fair to the NYT (urgh), the context around that tweeted quote makes it clear that the piece as a whole is less of a spicy hot take served up for the purposes of controversy than it may first have appeared. The article takes the form of a discussion between Gilbert Cruz—the editor of the NYT Culture department—and Jon Caramanica—a pop music critic. They talk about their listening habits this year and how the Covid lockdowns may have influenced those habits—as well as the changing trends in music production vis a vis a focus on albums versus single tracks. This is bit that includes the key passage quoted in the tweet:

Gilbert asks: Yeah, I heard you say something similar on a recent episode of Popcast where you talked about how you “struggled this year to listen to albums” and wondered about the “utility of the album.” Do you think that’s a function of quarantine, or is it just an extension of the playlist-ification of music? Honestly, almost every new song I discovered this year I discovered through some Spotify playlist. (No free ads.)

Jon answers: As awful as it sounds, an album is simply a data dump now. That doesn’t mean that some artists won’t continue to aim to be auteurs of the form — say, Taylor Swift or Adele — but the minute albums hit streaming services, they are sliced and diced and the songs are relegated to playlist slots, and everything after that is a crap shoot. The truth is that albums worked as a medium only because everyone was a captive. When you look back at your favorite older albums now, I’m sure you see the weak spots that you’d happily have programmed out if you had the technology then. Now you do. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next generation of pop stars finds ways to never release an “album” again — they’ll just drip music out, one automated-brain-chip-download at a time.

So obviously, straight away we see that the point isn’t a denunciation of the album as a form of music delivery or expression of artistic vision. In fact it seems pretty clear that Caramanica is very fond of albums. Jon Caramanica is 46 years old, so that makes sense. He would’ve grown up with albums as the dominant form of recorded musical expression. And it’s undoubtedly true that streaming services have changed that expression forever: Even if an artist still focuses their creative energies on creating albums—on crafting a running order or figuring out a concept—that experience will be taken out of their hands once it’s let loose on a streaming service that encourages the chopping and choosing of albums into individual tracks and playlists.

So that part is all fine. My rage, boundless and so rapidly untethered, could be tethered anew.

Mostly.

Because, still, that pull quote!

When you look back at your favorite older albums now, I’m sure you see the weak spots that you’d happily have programmed out if you had the technology then.

Sacrilege!

I find this line of reasoning so distasteful I almost choke on my own rage when considering it.

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I don’t even know where to begin!

First of all, ‘weak’ is a relative term; and secondly, ‘weak spots’ can become strong spots! Your relationship with art evolves with time and commitment. Art takes some work. It’s not all meant to be instant gratification. In many cases, the ‘weak spots’ are an integral part of the greatest albums—and you only get to realise this if you give it a chance!

Take an album like Iron Maiden’s fifth, ‘Powerslave’, as an example. Released in 1984 at the height of the London band’s globe-spanning powers, ‘Powerslave’ is often held up by Maiden fans as the pinnacle of their career—or at least the first stretch of it, with their incredible post-2000 revival sometimes being assessed separately.

‘Powerslave’ is rightfully revered. It opens with one of the greatest one-two salvos in all of metal: ‘Aces High’ and ‘2 Minutes to Midnight.’ It closes with two of the best metal epics ever written: ‘Powerslave’ and ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. ‘Nuff said.

But—and here’s the key thing—‘Powerslave’ is also an album that famously contains a ‘flabby mid section’. In between those perfect opening tracks and those more than perfect closers, ‘Powerslave’ chugs along through four tracks: ‘Losfer Words (Big ‘Orra)’, ‘Flash of the Blade’, ‘The Duellists’, and ‘Back in the Village’. With the caveat that all art is ultimately subjective, I don’t think anyone would claim that any of those songs come anywhere close to the majesty of the other four.

And yet.

In all my years of listening to ‘Powerslave’ I’ve gone on a great and magical journey. I’ve gone from seeing that mid-section as flabby filler, to treating it as an essential part of the experience of listening to the album. Initially bowled over by the sheer quality of ‘Aces’, ‘2 Minutes’, ‘Powerslave’, and ‘Rime’, it was hard to do anything during the mid-section but come crashing down from the high of the album’s opening and then eagerly anticipating the euphoria of the ending. It was only through many, many repeated listens of the album all the way through did I come to appreciate those four songs in the middle as both absolutely necessary components of ‘Powerslave’, and as fantastic tunes in their own right. Now, whenever I listen to the album, I look forward to the mid-section as much as the rest of it. Sometimes, once in a blue moon, I’m more excited to hear ‘Back in the Village’ than I am ‘2 Minutes to Midnight’. I’ve grown to appreciate that song’s particular nuances and strengths, and to love it unreservedly. That’s a really wonderful experience to have, and it would never have happened if I’d just ‘programmed it out’ like Jon Caramanica suggests.

These days we obviously do have the technology to listen to exactly and only whatever we want to with ridiculous ease. The dominance of Spotify and other streaming platforms over our listening habits means that even if an artist does release an album—rather than a single or a two-track EP—we can give it one listen and then instantly airlift out the tracks we like at first listen while abandoning the rest potentially forever. But that’s no fun! Obviously it’s not a statement on any specific album’s quality—there might well be only one or two tracks worth listening to in a given release—but by treating it as a carcass to be picked clean you’re depriving yourself of the richer relationship that can come with staying with an album to see what hidden depths it might contain. You’ll never know if you don’t try. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It lives in the electricity between object and observer.

Naturally, as technology has evolved, the form of music delivery has influenced its writing too. Artists focus less on albums these days than they did in, say, the seventies. There are technological reasons for that, and business reasons too. Even though my own personal preferences must be pretty obvious I’m not here to make a value judgement over which method is better and why. What I will say is that when I return to that Caramanica quote:

When you look back at your favorite older albums now, I’m sure you see the weak spots that you’d happily have programmed out if you had the technology then.

I just can’t help but think that’s completely the wrong way of looking at things.

Deleting the tracks we consider ‘weak’.

Think of it!

That would mean no ‘Any Colour You Like’ on ‘Dark Side of the Moon’!

No ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ on ‘Highway 61 Revisited’!

No ‘My Wife’ on ‘Who’s Next’!

No ‘Bad Omen’ on ‘Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?’!

No ‘Rainy Day, Dream Away’ on ‘Electric Ladyland’!

No ‘Think About You’ on ‘Appetite for Destruction’!

If you just programmed out the ‘weak’ tracks where the hell would we even be?

You’d be in a world where Bon Jovi’s ‘New Jersey’ doesn’t even have ‘Ride Cowboy Ride’ on it! And I know that that’s a world that at least Dustin and I would not want to live in!

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So stop the madness! There’s something so depressing and (I’m gonna say it, no-one can stop me!) neoliberal (wahey!) about atomising everything and reducing it all down to the smallest possible unit to be examined and valued and either deemed worthy or to be discarded. ‘Weak’ album tracks are the hidden heroes on our beloved classics! They give texture to masterpieces and occupy a necessary place in the tapestry! Leave them be, and love them.

Although, yeah, fair enough, maybe we didn’t really need ‘My Wife’ on ‘Who’s Next’.


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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.



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