I have this theory: either you’re a singles person or an album person. Sure, you can do both, but your heart tends to lie with one or the other. I’m a singles person. With one notable exception, I don’t listen to many albums straight through or front-to-back (depending on the era of my listening). I like compilations, a bit of randomness, and that frisson of joy that comes when two unrelated songs form a connection in my mind.
And the truth is, in today’s world and market, so few albums really hang together as a whole work. That’s not how the music business works, which makes the emphasis on albums instead of singles kind of funny. At the very least, you’d think they’d see the single as a way of, how do the insiders put it?, breaking an artist. I mean, it’s not like radio stations play more than one cut from a record anyway. Why go to the expense of recording 12, 13, maybe more songs and crossing your fingers? Why not one?
Yeah, I know.
So as I read articles touting the rebirth of the single (even though it never died for me), I get pretty enthusiastic. We’ve been eMusic subscribers since, and I think this date is accurate, forever, and one of the exciting features of that service is the ability to get one or more songs from an album. Pick and choose. It leads to more experimentation when we’re music shopping. Or would, if a certain member of my household wasn’t obsessed with downloading (legally) every note ever recorded by John Coltrane. That’s a topic for another article.
Last week’s news that “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley (which I’ve learned from the Telegraph only needed to sell 114 copies in the U.S. to hit the singles charts; how pathetic is that?) hit number one in the UK even though it was available only for download it pretty amazing. The song still topped the charts a week later after it was available in physical format.
Neil McCormick, writing for the Telegraph notes:
What Gnarls Barkley actually represent is the rebirth of the single. Download technology is geared to individual tracks, which tend to be listened to in the form of random compilations of favourites culled from massive and ever-growing internet databases. As download culture expands, we could see any song ever recorded rise up the single charts on a wave of popular support, perhaps because it has been featured in a film or an advert, or the performer suddenly becomes newsworthy or a song spreads virally through the internet.
And that’s what makes people like me happy. Unless I’m listening to that one notable exception.
I am an album person, so much so that I’ve been tracking my favorite albums for a quarter-century; and even a year ago, I would have a huge rebut.
But what’s the point? I rarely listen to albums as albums anymore — the “albums” in my mix are collections of songs, which get assembled as albums as I realize that I really love a lot of songs on collection X. (Like that new Built to Spill.)
Strangely, we’ve seen a weird renassiance of concept albums: records that are designed to work better if listened to in a particular order. This particular trend was kicked off in my consciousness by Drive-by Truckers Southern Rock Opera of course, but more recent examples include Green Day’s American Idiot (the third punk rock opera, after Husker Du and the Coolies) and The Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday.
Both are lyricall interconnected collections of songs that do work better whem played back-to-back-to-back rather than as the digital randomizer pulls them up, which doesn’t mean that I do, of course.
Finally, one huge caveat on the dependance on the single: it means that you are depending on some record company person to define your experience with a particular artist as opposed to discovering that buried treasure track that is too (long) (weird) (dirty) to ever become a single.