Monday, 18 August 2014

2014: The Next Great Album

It's rather worrying when the person in charge of the nation's music thinks this ...

My natural reaction is, of course,  ... smug face, corporate goon, his favourite album is probably 'Back to Bedlam' by James Blunt or 'Rockferry' by Duffy ...

But does what he's saying actually carry an uncomfortable truth? Will we all be listening to playlists rather than albums in a few years time? Have we already lost the art of listening to albums? Have artists lost the will to, and the art of, making albums?

Well, first up, he's not the first person to say something like this, and they're not all goons.

I do recall a favourite band of my youth, Ash, saying that the album format was dead to them and that they would release a single a fortnight for a year, and it being deemed fairly revolutionary.

Then again, Ash were always a "singles band" as some acts just are, across different genres - bands or singers who master the shorter form, who have many hook-laden crackers and pepper the charts but you wouldn't always want to give a straight hour of your time to. It's always been thus, and often people have seen soul, pop and hip-hop acts in particular in these terms. Yet, as I observed last year, several of the biggest commercial acts seemed to be suggesting the album form was anything but dead in making huge, ambitious, conceptual albums, from Beyonce to Lady Gaga to Justin Timberlake to Jay-Z to Kanye West. Hard to know if any of these were massively successful artistically as actual albums but certainly the aim seems to give the lie to the notion that no one cares about albums anymore.

And, the obvious thing is the album format suits the artist, in terms of booking studio time, having a period of writing and set of emotions to get out in one go, having songs cohere into a unity due to that time factor- it may be that the listener tires of the format before the artist wants them to, and then who'll win out?

But will the music fan really tire of the album? Has it all changed and will it all change so much? We've always liked to make our own compilations and playlists, certainly since the dawn of taping. I'm a little behind the times with things now, I still buy via iTunes rather than streaming, which I know is what the kids are all doing, and that may have a profound commercial impact, but I'll treat the business side as a separate issue for now, one which I'm not qualified to comment on.

What I do feel is that this blog strand has reinforced for me the ongoing strength of the album format, and it seems like the man who blithely disregards that and says "hey, there may be the odd big album, but playlists are where it's at now" has never really understood the possibilities of popular music and is as big a tool as he initially seems to be.

Albums are great if they gather momentum, if they express a world view, if they share with you the room they were recorded in, if they have subtle or explicit leitmotif, if they surprise you, if they have sub-sections, if they reveal the character of the band and reveal different kinds of virtuosity, if they make you feel you've got a friend, if they introduce you to new concepts, if they tell you about the times they were recorded in, if they reveal secrets on repeated listens, if they're different from the album before, if they're over-ambitious, if they're perfectly timed, if they're any or all of those things which mere playlists can hardly be or do.

A great album is capable of being the equal of a great novel, a great film, a great TV drama. Are we all going to be watching clips shows in future? No, people's thirst for vast, expansive dramas only increases.

I've taken so much pleasure in listening and re-listening to the 50 albums for 1963 to 2013, trying to find a meaning or an idea to inspire 1000 wordson them. There've been surprises, nearly all good ones, and above all, a re-cemented respect for the form.

Is there one favourite to emerge from these 50? No, not really, just lots of different kinds of great works. I expect I extolled the virtues of Joni Mitchell's 'Blue' above all others, but I appreciate that's just one type of album for one type of occasion. There isn't one great ruling work above all else. Thank goodness.

So what of 2014, more than halfway through it? Well, I've loved music this year. Loved it more than any year for ages, and I wonder if my odyssey into the musical past has helped with that.

Funnily enough, it'd be pretty hard to pick one album/artist to write about for this year, as so many artists I've written about have released stuff this year. In particular, it's been the year of the Solo Record.

Damon Albarn, Conor Oberst, Jenny Lewis, Morrissey, Gruff Rhys, Hamilton Leithauser, Jeff Tweedy, all these are artists whose bands I love who've released or will shortly be releasing solo records this year, not to mention works by the Manics, James Yorkston, The Pixies, Ryan Adams - hell, there's even been a Michael Jackson album.

Of all these, my favourite is probably the Gruff Rhys album, and don't tell him people aren't making unified concepts anymore, when he's just released a album/app/film/book to almost universal acclaim.

Having said that, I listened to the new James Yorkston album for the first time today - The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society, no less, a thing of what appears to be great beauty. And on the same day, I've bought and listened to the new albums by FKA Twigs and Kate Tempest, both tipped for the Mercury Prize, and, particularly by the former, been highly impressed.

Hell, no, the album's not dead.

Then again, despite my efforts to be down with the kids, I do finally feel my taste has pretty much split for good from the young and the hip. I would just generally rather listen to my old fogies.

Here's another bit of fun from the NME (with its tiny readership)
100 Most Influential Artists
However completely silly it is, there are interesting truths in it. I mean, they asked people and everything! Right now, it's probably true that people making music don't really listen to The Beatles, Stones and Bob Dylan that much. The pantheon doesn't mean what it once did. People find their own influences.

The ones I fell for, even recently, don't really figure (though Rilo Kiley do, oddly). No Wilco or Furries or Walkmen, though there is Beck, Blur and the Strokes.

Aah well, I'm rambling. There is, after years of trying to find a definitive answer, nothing anywhere near a definitive answer, and if there were, I'd be nowhere near the person to find it.

2014 has seen some really good songs and some really good albums, that's my review of the year.

Rather than talk about one, I will just list all of them I've heard so far which I think are worth investing your £10.99 at HMV in. That's how it still works, right?

Gruff Rhys - American Interior
Lykke Li -I Never Learn
Sun Kil Moon - Benji
King Creosote - From Scotland with Love
James Yorkston - The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society
Manic Street Preachers - Futurology
FKA Twigs - LP1
Mac DeMarco - Salad Days
The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream
Kate Tempest - Everybody Down
Damon Albarn -  Everyday Robots
Jenny Lewis - The Voyager
James Vincent McMorrow - Post Tropical
St Vincent - St Vincent
Hamilton Leithauser - Black Hours
First Aid Kit - Stay Gold
Elbow - The Take Off and Landing of Everything

Really and truly, I'm glad I bought all of those already and the year's not much more than halfway through. I bet I add at least another 10 to that list by the time the year's out. Long live albums! Long live rock'n'roll for grown-ups.