by Brian Cook
on Thu, Jun 7, 2012 at 1:01 PM
Pitchfork staff writer Rob Mitchum initiated a writing project on Tumblr earlier this week wherein he listens to an artist’s entire discography and writes a short blurb about each album. I’m always in favor of these exercises. I also respect his motivation behind the project:
But I do recognize that this unfettered access to the flood of recorded music history has changed my listening habits. My participation in Nick Southall’s Music Diary Project underscored that I have become a fickle consumer of music, flitting from stream to internet radio station to iTunes playlist to blog to YouTube jukebox on the smallest of whims. What I rarely do any more is listen to an entire album, from start to finish. And while I know albums are a dying breed and all, this makes me kind of sad, not because I think there is any objective superiority of one format over the other, but because I like listening to albums. I like the narrative sweep, intentional or unintentional, of a collection of songs, and the more textured snapshot they provide of that particular stage in an artist’s evolution.
I’ve found myself going through a similar kind of musical ADD in recent years, and have deliberately reduced my mp3 listening habits as a result. Believe me, I would never forsake my iPod; I won’t try to put a nostalgic spin on leaving for a six-week tour with a box of cassette tapes or trying to walk around town without the CD skipping in my discman. But I have a difficult time listening to a full-album on my iPod, whereas I’ll listen to an LP on my turntable two or three times in a row when I’m at home. And as a fan of albums, I hate that about mp3s. Again, I can understand Mitchum’s assertion the album isn’t the evolutionary apex of musical expression. But writing a good song does not require the vision or discipline necessary to write a good album. And the experience of listening to a good single does not compare to experience of basking in the entirety of a good album.
It makes me think of the piracy advocates who argue that they shouldn’t have to pay for a full album when there are only one or two good songs on any given record. As someone who made the realization all the way back in the sixth grade that Top 40 albums are basically a couple of singles padded with filler, it’s extremely frustrating to think that any post-adolescent “music fan” wastes their time on singles-oriented albums. Or perhaps these advocates are so over-inundated with free music that they don’t learn to appreciate songs that aren’t instantly catchy. Either way it’s a shameful reminder that—as is evident in pollution, sitcoms, and the ever increasing gap between the rich and poor—progress isn’t always without its downside.
Perhaps that’s why I take issue with Mitchum’s defense of the decline of the album:
If you had told me 20 years ago that I would someday be able to stream, download, or steal any album I could think of, I would have asked if that technology was compatible with flying cars. I think people who have nostalgia for the good old days where you had to hunt through a dozen record stores to find a Flipper album because Kurt Cobain was photographed wearing one of their shirts are cuckoo crazy — it’s the music fan’s version of walking uphill both ways to school.
Actually, I do miss those "good old days." But I’m that old curmudgeon that treasures hard-won records and hates digital clutter. Regardless, I look forward to following Mitchum’s project.