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The Decline of the Album a Tragedy

Observer Scene | Monday, February 25, 2008

The hit song is everything.

In this day and age, the music industry has become increasingly oriented toward hit-singles. For example, you probably own an iPod. Do you have a lot of artists on your iPod? But how many songs by each artist do you have, exactly? I’m sure you have a few full albums from your favorite bands in your plastic pack. But how many songs are there, on average, under each artist?

This is an issue that has become more pressing as the years have gone by. No longer is an artist appreciated for his or her album, but instead are more well known for their one or two song contribution to your mix. This is fine for the artists out there who really did blow their talent on one song, but for all the iPods I’ve spent shuffling through, I’ve come upon an artist I really like, picked it, and found there to be two songs available.

This is not only frustrating, but also unnerving. Are all great musical artists doomed to have only their top two songs listened to?

It bothers me to scroll down and realize there is not one full album on a person’s iPod. That’s like taking survey classes all your life and never committing to a major. Albums are precious, a snapshot of an artist’s life.

Songs are rarely written to stand on their own. They are usually part of a bigger work, and if one song presides over the others it’s because that song is the calling card. To listen to an album is to experience the journey as a whole, to go start to finish with the singer or the band. Death Cab for Cutie’s “Plans” is brilliant. And, even though “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark” is great on its own, it gains a new level of meaning when listened to as a part of the album.

An artist might release a Limited Play album, but when it’s time to present the new body of work, it is usually longer and complete. Songs fit together for a reason, whether it is the lyrical story, the shift in sound or the order the artist determined them to fall on the album.

Albums are more personal. One song can be shared by a group, listened to in the car or danced to at a party, but people rarely sit down and say, “Let’s listen to this whole album together.”

To really get at an album, you usually have to do it on your own time, while doing homework or driving in the car alone. There may be certain songs that are more enjoyable or hold more weight for you personally, but their impact should be set against the backdrop of the rest of the album.

Next time you go to buy a song on iTunes, think about what it is you are not buying. Look at the rest of the songs on the album, and trust that there may be more to them than a 30- second snipped determined to be the “highlights” of the song. Take a chance on the album as a whole. You might just find that little gem of a song that rocks your world.