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Death of the Album

Mac Hendrickson | Monday, January 28, 2013

No one buys CDs anymore. Not really. They are not as extinct as say, the cassette tape, but it is safe to say that the birth of Napster, iTunes and the MP3 put a quick end to the reign of the compact disk. So perhaps its time we had a frank discussion about the Bermuda Triangle of music critique, the “concept album.”

As most fans of post-1980s music can tell you, the phrase “concept album” has been overused and misused to the point of futility. The phrase has described anything from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” to Trick Daddy’s “Thug Matrimony.”

The whole system revolves around the idea that a concept album is a collection of songs united by a theme or idea. Basically, an artist working on a concept album is not simply throwing together the best songs he has written since his last album. Rather, an artist works on the album the way a director shoots a movie. There is a consistent desire for cohesion and flow. In this loose sense of the word, very few musicians since the late 1970s have tried to make anything but a concept album. It’s part of the music culture now. Skits, tracks that flow seamlessly into the next track, intros, outros and interludes are all the illegitimate children of the concept album.

Lesson No. 1 of music criticism concerns the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In our early teens, we listen and wonder why this strange artifact is unanimously believed to be the greatest album of all time. It is not nearly as danceable as “Please Please Me” or “Rubber Soul.” It is not as much fun as “The White Album” or “Abbey Road.” What is the big deal? Even ELO made some albums more listenable.

Part of this might have to do with the time it was released. It might be strange to think of an album as a “you had to be there” phenomenon, but that is exactly what it was – apparently. It was an event. It was released in 1967, the most exciting and infamous year for rock and pop music. It was the heyday of Beatles hysteria, right after they decided to stop performing. It was a shift from pop to pop art. It reminded people of Andy Warhol, and made many believe that what they listened to while they made love in the mud was actually something of value. Basically, it was one of the first concept albums.

This isn’t a defense or condemnation of “Sgt. Pepper’s.” Some people get it. Others do not. Some read all about it and then get it. Some pretend to get it to preserve their self-appointed music cred. It really doesn’t matter. “Sgt. Pepper’s” was a big deal either way.

And still is. No matter how old or outdated it might seem, “Sgt. Pepper’s” is still very much part of the discussion. The “concept album” obsession has crossed over into all popular genres and continues to dominate artists’ work. Consider two of this year’s most popular releases. Frank Ocean’s major label debut “Channel Orange” is filled with TV-sound effects and commercials, giving one the sense that each new track is a different television channel or program. The themes of sexual alienation and lonely affluence semi-explain the gag, but mostly it feels forced. Such great material does not need the support of a physical cohesion.

Kendrick Lamar’s equally brilliant major label debut “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” has the subtitle “A short film by Kendrick Lamar.” Nearly every track ends with conversation that introduces the next track. Kendrick is presenting excerpts from his life, and the album flows like an indie film.

In a Pitchfork.com article titled “Classic Material,” writer Andrew Nosnitsky argues that “good kid” is really only assessed as brilliant on the basis of its relatedness to Nas’ landmark debut “Illmatic.” The article is spot on and worth the read. But in reality, this whole concern really goes back to “Sgt. Peppers” and the concept album. Both Lamar and Nas’ albums were designed under the pretense that the album is more important than any individual track. Clearly, we are still obsessed with the concept album.

And how foolish to obsess over such an arcane idea. The concept album was birthed during the halcyon of the LP record. The painstaking process of switching records created a desire for something that worked as a whole – an album one could throw on, sit back and relax. If an album was just that good, one only had to get off the couch once during its duration. And if the album had a deeper artistic intent, it made the whole process more rewarding and defendable. The baby boomers wanted concept albums for reasons of convenience and validation.

But the LP is dead. So is the CD. And our mothers are using FloRida songs as ringtones. We have nothing to prove and nothing to flip. So why do we still need the concept album?

The introduction of the MP3 was really the introduction of chaos. We can mix and match now. We can create playlists and mixtapes and skip from track two to track seven. If the concern for a concept album was a chef’s concern for the order of the dinner courses, the MP3 made dinner a buffet. The presentation of an artist’s music is just a formality. We really shouldn’t care all that much about the album as a whole.

Let’s put a pin in the concept of the “concept album” for a minute, and talk about Green Day. It was not a particularly dynamite year for the 40-something stoners, other than the fact that lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong ended up in rehab. Green Day also just happened to release three albums in a four-month span, but anyone who wasn’t paying close attention probably missed this. It was a hot-potato dishing of mediocre material that more or less fell on its face. The albums were titled, un-entertainingly, “Uno,” “Dos” and “Tre.” Most of the tracks were meh, and the chosen music aesthetic was unimaginative and typical of the band.

But this rapid succession of music release created an interesting possibility. All in all, the band released 37 songs. This isn’t a huge number of songs to be written and recorded in a year. But all 37 songs were packaged and released – this is unusual. Typically, a band will record a multitude of material, then cut back to somewhere between 12 and 18 tracks. In this way, the band decides what makes the cut. Green Day, in a sense, ended up giving the listeners the choice. The discharge of 37 songs is less of an odious challenge to enjoy a juggernaut of substance, and more of an invitation for the listener to pick and choose. Here are 37 songs. Pick whichever ones you like. If you do not like any, chances are you are not a Green Day fan.

Maybe this was never Green Day’s plan. In fact, it most likely was not. Perhaps Billie Joe thought none of the songs were bad enough to cut. Perhaps he thought none of them were good enough to choose. Either way, Green Day ended up putting the power of the album in the fan’s hands.

I ended up crafting my own album from the collection of songs. I called it “Vamos,” and it featured my 14 favorites. This self-made collection found a surprising amount of play on my iPod. Perhaps part of the allure is the freedom I was afforded in crafting the playlist.

And what a beautiful direction for the album. Maybe in 10 years we will not only be choosing what to pay for albums, but also choosing what songs make up the album. Getting dizzy? Do not worry, I’m sure Bruce Springsteen will still be crafting “concept albums” blaming the rich for all the world’s problems. Albums that Rolling Stone will treat like royalty despite how mediocre the songs actually are. Basically, nothing is ever moving as fast as it seems. It’s 2013 and we are still waiting for the next “Tommy.” We do not learn particularly fast.

So no, the concept album isn’t dead. Perhaps, in a few years though, it will be free. Free from the constraints of its original author. Free from the odious expectation of cohesion. Maybe it’s for time artists to start sending everything our way, so the listeners can decide what makes the cut.