Jake Old: Don't let the album die

Feb. 22, 2014 @ 11:27 PM

Technology is wonderful, particularly for those who are passionate about music, like me. Just about any song ever recorded, I can look up on my phone or computer instantly.

Pandora, iTunes, Spotify – they're terrific services that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. But they cater to one specific way to enjoy music: the single.

The art of the album, a complete body of work from start to finish, seems to be left out. Whether it has a running theme, or tells a story, or just stands as a collection of songs to represent the writer's frame of mind, the album is a unique musical experience.

Singles are great. A quick, catchy chorus. A memorable melody. It's all good fun, but it does not provide the same sort of satisfaction that sitting back with a good album can provide.

Take the Rolling Stones 1972 classic "Exile on Main Street." At the time of the release, it was considered a flop. There was no clear-cut, radio-ready "hit single" that stood out, and the music seemed a little sloppy.

As the years went by, the album's popularity grew. It has a theme – it's just not quite apparent at first. Stones fans and rock music historians are familiar with the story of that album's recording. Lots of drug abuse, lots of partying, lots of promiscuous sex and a dash of deportation thrown in for good measure (the album is called "Exile," after all).

We now have many accounts available to fill in the blanks, such as the fantastic Martin Scorsese film "Shine a Light." The band recorded in a house in France, partying constantly, and eventually going down to the basement to record a few tracks.

Guitarist Keith Richards tells a story about blacking out. When he regained consciousness, he realized that much of the band's musical equipment had been stolen. Equipment getting stolen at live shows is, unfortunately, a normal part of the business. Equipment getting stolen while an album is being recorded – leading to the band getting new gear mid-album and continuing recording – is an anomaly. Stories like that contribute to the charm of the album.

"Rocks Off" starts the album and sets the tone with its in-your-face attitude, no punches pulled. The bar sing-along "Sweet Virginia" manages to bring depressing lyrics to a song that sounds happy, eventually leading to "Shine a Light," the song devoted to the late Brian Jones, a founding member of the band. The album is all over the place, but when listened from start to finish, it feels like a complete story.

For a more recent example of an album that tells a great story just through the music, look at John Mayer's 2006 "Continuum."

Mayer burst onto the scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s as an acoustic singer-songwriter who sang sappy love songs. In 2003, he released an album called "Heavier Things," in which he tried to shed this perception, plugging in his electric guitar and even going so far as to publicly say that he was going to put the acoustic love songs away for awhile.

That album could be seen as a defining change in his career, and a point at which many musicians realized that they had to take him seriously; for all the catchy pop riffs he came up with, he proved that he was a versatile and talented guitar player, and a capable songwriter who could do more than "Your Body is a Wonderland," a signature Mayer love song.

But "Continuum" demonstrated something more important. Mayer returned to acoustic material, while mixing in the electric touch. He played what he wanted to, not worrying about the perception of outsiders. It was really an album all about growth, and you can hear it in the diversity in the music, from the heartfelt ballad "Dreaming With a Broken Heart," to the melodic and catchy "Heart of Life."

This was an album that came out right in the middle of the digital age. And there are several other examples of fantastic albums that have come out recently.

But I worry that the album may be slowly going the way of the buffalo.

Classic country music has proven that stories can certainly be told in a single song. But for those of us who desire the bigger picture, the story behind the story, nothing beats the album.