Simon Theory: “Great Album vs. Great Music”

I don’t know if I’m getting old or getting complacent, but the never-ending rebellion against change with regards to my beloved pop-culture is waning and I’m starting to jump on board the remix culture. Perhaps it’s Techno-Optimist Jason Silva’s influence on my perspective towards change, or my unwavering inner-conflict every time I listen to The Beatles “White Album” and keep trying to reorganize the track list to make a bunch of great songs into a legitimately playable album. Whatever it is, the loss of “Great Albums” to iPod playlists and reshuffling track listings is something still being thoroughly discussed by journalists, rock critics, record executives, and audiophiles throughout the world. And for a long time, I joined in the antiquity of vintage mindsets and misplaced nostalgia. However, over time, I’ve finally witnessed first-hand enough change to the music industry to categorically state that albums with great songs can be just as great as a “Great Album”. And the “Remix Culture” is no longer a scar on the face of popular music.
For decades, the music industry has debated the greatest albums, what constitutes a great album, necessary criteria to be in consideration for a great album, what role time should play in judging the quality of a great album, etc. However, only with the advent of the Compact Disc (CD, to the illiterate and pre-pubescent) was the criteria of “skipping tracks” added to the list. “Album Playability” has always been an important contributing factor and “filler tracks” is nothing new, but music lovers were never made so aware of how passable most music tracks were until technology advanced far enough for us to skip a track with the push of a button (another crucially important cultural touchstone from the 90s). Only then, were we consistently forced to raise our standards for what songs warranted three and a half minutes of our time and which ones didn’t. And nothing has been the same again. Vinyl collectors will tell you just how prejudicial they have become based off the criteria of “Album Playability”. Once every cell phone turned into an MP3 player, skipping a track on a vinyl record can be far more time-consuming to anyone spoiled by an iPhone.
However, while many may feel this encouraged the general audience’s fascination with “Disposable Art”, I’m a firm believer in the free market and the concept of “Supply and Demand” as it pertains to music. Near the end of the 1970s and leading into the 1980s, while the counterculture slowly began to invent punk, it was Disco, ballads, dance tracks, and the early stages of “Pop” that were dominating the once-exclusively RocknRoll America. An America that had never really lived through an era of pre-fabricated, disposable pop music on such a massive scale before (although The Monkees continue to be a complicated exception to many theories on pop culture). It was the 80s that was responsible for some of the worst, gadget-like, soulless, by-number music production of the past century. Of course, the decade had tremendous talents from pop stars like Michael Jackson, Madonna, and prince or Rock bands like The Clash, Def Leppard, and AC/DC. However one forgets the billboard charts were more frequently topped by some of the most dated and era-specific one-hit wonders in history (up until that time). And music fans were growing tired of music so formulaic, uninspired, and technologically lifeless. So skipping tracks on a CD was not (necessarily) born out of the diminishing attention span of our youth, but by the rejection of poorly-produced, half-assed pop records. In fact, even before the invention of the CD, the “single” market was exploding in conjunction with the ever-expanding audience for national radio so albums as a whole were already becoming less of a necessity to the music industry while the “single” was becoming more important than ever.
I know the goal of a great album is not one shared by most recording artists anymore, but doesn’t that free them up to be more creative, musically diverse, and free from the guidelines/restrictions of the “album” mentality?
I remember back in 1997 reading a couple articles on the, at the time, upcoming release of 311’s platinum-selling album”Transistor”. What was being covered was not so much the actual tracks of the album but the bands goal to make a loaded double-album worth of music, pack it tightly on 1 disc, keep the music insanely diverse and they had 22 uniquely solid tracks that blended horribly together, but give their fans their moneys worth. Their theory was based on the rudimentary economic principle that, if you’re going to pay 15-20$ for an album, wouldn’t you rather have 21 tracks of good music in lieu of the average track length of 10-12?
The only thing the tracks really had in common was that the album was “Made by 311”, and it had a SoCal influence. But every 311 fan loves every track it their own way. Is that any less of an achievement in the world of iTunes, playlists, remixes, and compilations?
When I asked T.W.O-Timer “Barry Jive”, he brought up a good example of the remix culture already in full effect with the advent of “Soundtracks”. Not film scores, but soundtracks that have been mixing and matching artists & producers with styles & genres for decades. While vintage audiophiles bemoaned the corruption of the “Album” for the A.D.D.-inflicted Millenial Generation’s love of playlists and an over-abundance of “filler”, they never fail neglecting to mention some of the greatest, most played, copied, and diverse albums in the past few decades have been soundtracks. From 1986’s platinum-selling “Top Gun”, to 1996’s soundtrack of original compositions for the Tom Hanks film “That Thing You Do”. From the Simon & Garfunkel classic for “The Graduate”, to its 21st Century equivalent; Zach Braff’s writer/director debut film “Garden State”, which introduced us to the 21st Century Simon & Garfunkel, “The Shins”. We’ve been cutting and pasting artists and genres for soundtracks that have defines multiple generations. Even the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack dwarfs most albums for its diversity, musicianship, and pop sensibility and going as far back as “The Sound Of Music” to the musical films of Baz Luhrmann.
Therefore, I’ve gotta believe that breaking up the “Album” mentality of nostalgic purists can’t be as bad as it sounds. Artists have become more diverse. More experimental. Albums are designed to be changed up and remixed and tracks moved around. It gives the music lover more freedom to do with music what they want and the artist creative license to make any music desire without worrying about “Album Cohesiveness”. Here’s to the 21st Century.



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