November 9, 2010

2010 in Music: An Argument for Albums

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It is a well-known fact that the Internet killed music. By allowing people to download music, anarchy has reared its ugly head, with unregulated blogs reigning supreme for finding new music and album sales plummeting. But the digitization of music has had a larger effect on how the media is consumed, with even the idea of an album seemingly rendered irrelevant by the iTunes shuffle feature. However, more than anything, the challenges that the traditional album faces only reinforce its essential nature to an artist and his or her output. Especially in the age of information overload, it becomes increasingly important to have physical documentation of an artist’s trajectory.

In many ways, the Replacements represent one of the most chartable arcs of any band. Their debut album in 1981, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, was a ramshackle collection of tracks that epitomized teenage punks trying to get out of a small town. Over the next two years, they released the Stink EP and Hootenanny, two pieces of music that saw the band trying out different genres in an attempt to legitimize their brilliantly juvenile sound. They hit the mark with 1984’s Let It Be, arguably the greatest album from the ’80s underground, which stands as a testament to their earlier noise, as well as the increased influence of structured songwriting. The albums that followed, 1985’s Tim to their 1990 swansong All Shook Down, were hit-or-miss, but all shared the sense that the band was striving for mainstream appeal by abandoning its punkish roots. Many aspects contributed to this shift, from the new reality that alternative bands could be on major labels, to the increasing influence of frontman Paul Westerberg’s controlled pen over guitarist Bob Stinson’s manic squall.

Why bring up a band that hasn’t released an album in 20 years in an article that’s ostensibly about the trends of 2010? The boys from Minneapolis serve as the perfect model to examine the importance of the album. The Replacement’s musical output exists as a traceable linear path, proving that you can’t tell a band’s history without looking at the similarities and differences in what they produced. The albums gain greater meaning in the context of what they came after, as well as what they preceded. In 1984, you couldn’t define them by just one track off of Let It Be, as epitomized by the back-to-back punch of the emotional outpour of “Androgynous” followed by the guns-a-blazin’ cover of Kiss’ “Black Diamond.” At this point in their career, were they balladeers or hard rockers? It is impossible to tell from one track to the next. To fully understand the band, you have to look at the album as a whole.

Bringing this to the present, the album structure has stayed as a model for bands to push the limits of creativity in ways that singles just don’t allow. One of the most stunning songs off of the year’s best debut album, Surfer Blood’s Astro Coast, is “Neighborhood Riffs,” a wordless, surf-driven guitar track. Despite its appeal, “Neighborhood Riffs,” has absolutely no commercial viability. In a market of three minute pop songs, which Astro Coast is chock full of, this song would be very likely to never see the light of day if not for being included on this album. It shines in its difference, standing out as a stark juxtaposition to the tracks it is hidden between, while completing Astro Coast as not just a collection of potential singles, but as an artistic statement.

Likewise, some of 2010’s singles stars may have lost steam due to the lack of variety in their full-lengths. The prime example of this is Best Coast, whose Crazy for You dropped this July as the reportedly perfect summer album, following a string of strong singles, most notably their first effort, “When I’m With You.” However, the album, while positively received, proved to be more of the same from the Los Angeles band, and besides a few stand-alone tracks, really couldn’t hold the same interest as their three-minute pop gems. Although catchy, it was revealed through their efforts that Best Coast right now is nothing more than a catchy beach escape.

Like it or not, artists can never escape their past. One of the year’s worst reviewed album, M.I.A.’s MAYA, was criticized in large part for its departure from her previous globe hopping pop sensibility. Similarly, Weezer’s latest, Hurley, was lauded not as a standalone album, but rather favorably compared to the band’s previous strong efforts, namely their two self-titled albums. Albums, not singles or tracks, determine how an artist is viewed, both by their contemporaries and by history.

Original Author: Peter Jacobs