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Why We Still Need the Album

Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief
anthony.deanharris[at]nextbop[dot]com / @retronius

Editor’s Note: This piece is a companion to contributing writer, J.D. Swerzenski's ”I Am So Bored of the Album.” It’s sort of a point/counterpoint thing. Feel free to read both sides of this argument.

It has been glaringly apparent that the music business has been going through a certain degree of change. As technology has advanced and the exchange of music has become easier and easier (to obtain both legally and illegally), the question of medium has become more apparent. There are those who have said with the ease of publication and production, there is little need for releasing work en masse. Yet, this kind of thinking cannot be. Art is relevant when it is connected to something.

The notion of the album is not only a means of conveyance of a work, but it's also a mile sign post in an artist's life. It indicates where that person is creatively. When s/he releases an album, it represents an intentional collective of work in which the artist had to discern what fits? What should the track order be? Should I provide explaination for this collection of works? What image will convey how I feel about this? How long did it take for me to put all this together? This one grouping of songs, this concept, does all that.

To release songs piecemeal into the mass that is the internet, where tracks float about hither and thither, is to demean them to small bytes devoid of true meaning. To think of them this way is to fall victim to the same sort of thinking myopic iTunes store executives use while haggling over another thirty cents per unit. Music, while a commodity, cannot merely be considered content for consumption, distributed to the public in a piecemeal fashion just as quickly as it is produced.

Albums function as a mass of similar of work, as concepts and collections. Because of this, they also function as moments in time to which a listener can connect. If I were to wonder what Stevie Wonder sounded like, I’d have to look at what he sounded like in a particular period. I could look at the five albums he recorded between 1972 and 1976 (what is considered his classic period). The vibe he made then is distinctly different from his latest work, 2005’s A Time to Love, and I doubt the songs of that album would be received any better if they were released one at a time over the internet.

Call it antiquated or not but albums are how we connect and relate to music. Specifically, it’s how we refer to music. While Radiohead may be oscillating around the idea of releasing songs one at a time through their website, they still go through transformations in their sound and those transformations are noted in the album form. The listener usually holds a belief that a certain cohesive sound this band has is better in some periods than others. In Rainbows is considered a better work than Hail to the Theif.

To bring things back to jazz, the same can most certainly be said for this genre. The album form is truly a large basis on how we think about Miles Davis’ career, not because this was the only format in which his music was released, but because his albums are a timeline of his various stages in his career. When one thinks of his electric period, we point to Bitches Brew. When he championed the modal sound, we point right to Kind of Blue. These works display similar sounds from the same period in Davis’ career. They logically form together. While I may love “All Blues,” I recognize how it fits between “Blue in Green” and “Flamenco Sketches.”

Have we so devalued music that our computers and iPods are just hold a bunch of music instead of albums? When we get new music, do folks really just toss a dozen tracks into their libraries and let the chips fall where they may? This cannot be so. If it is, maybe we get the music business we deserve, where songs are served a la carte and message and meaning fall by the wayside. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to look at music for what it is: art. It has a meaning and a context and I wouldn’t dare separate one from the other.

Anthony Dean-Harris is a contributing writer for African-American Reflections and hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.