Death to shuffle!

It’s funny how, 10 years since the advent of the iPod was supposed to mark the death of the album as a conceptual art form, great albums keep magically appearing. They appear about as regularly as articles proclaiming (yet again) the death of the album.

Cue Diana Elliott in yesterday’s Age. Given this isn’t exactly the first time this argument has been promulgated in the last decade, I presume Diana has crawled through a wormhole from 1965, back when pop charts were ruled by singles.

Remember singles? These marvellous seven-inch creations only had room for one song per side – you could squeeze maybe a couple more in to make an EP, but at the expense of sound quality and all-important volume. Ray Davies, the Kinks’ master songwriter, still speaks fondly of them as his favourite musical medium.

Back then, albums mostly were little more than filler padding out a couple of sure-fire hits. Then the Beatles and Bob Dylan came along and expanded the minds of a generation, at the same time spoiling the party for those unfortunate Baby Boomers suffering from what wasn’t then called Attention Deficit Disorder.

Last week, a couple of friends began frantically tweeting each other about the merits of a new album by Melbourne’s Witch Hats. It was streaming on a local music website for a day, so I tuned in, and was impressed enough to tweet back if it was available on – wait for it – vinyl.

Yes, vinyl. The medium that’s making a comeback for those that, you know, actually care about music and how it was created, and don’t like to see it defiled in cheap-jack formats that throw out half the product before it hits the ears. Put it down to me crawling out of a wormhole marked April 1971, when I was born.

The Rolling Stones put out Sticky Fingers that very month. Now that’s an album. A few great rockers (Brown Sugar, about the merits of interracial cunnilingus, being the best known); Wild Horses is perhaps the band’s most stunning ballad; and Marianne Faithfull’s tortured ode to addiction, Sister Morphine.

I could go through the rest of the track list, but there’s no need. A great album is like a good sexual encounter; it’s all about pacing – ebb and flow, climax and resolution. It’s a cheap shot, but what sort of sex is the iPod generation having? Elliott’s article makes me wonder if they can keep their minds on the job.

For those having trouble with diminishing attention spans, the Ramones should have provided the perfect antidote. Albums of between 12 and 14 songs in less than half an hour! Hey, if you don’t like Beat On The Brat (in which case I don’t trust you) at least you know Judy Is A Punk is just around the corner.

Actually, one of the real drawbacks of the CD age (and a good reason for the cursed format’s slow slide into oblivion) is how many musicians abused the fact that it provided them with 78 minutes to play with, instead of the standard LP length of between 35 and 45.

Suddenly albums that would once have qualified as doubles began to proliferate. It got worse when a few artists began issuing double CDs, the worst offenders being the Smashing Pumpkins, who gave us Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, aka Billy Corgan’s infinite ode to his own genius.

It’s true that double albums, let alone double CDs, do amplify the problems Elliott alludes to. That’s why there are very few good ones. I am one of the unbelievers, for example, that would quite happily junk half of the Beatles’ opus, the so-called White Album. I never want to hear The Adventures Of Rocky Raccoon again.

But if you can’t sit still long enough to listen to Revolver from beginning to end, maybe it’s you who needs to slow down. Not everything in life is an instant hit. Some things take a little longer to give up their secrets, and that is part of the reward.

I was at a friend’s party last weekend, and he’d lovingly assembled a song list on iTunes to impress and entertain his musically voracious friends. Like Rob from High Fidelity, whom Elliott also references, he understood the lost art of the mix tape, the importance of a perfect sequence that also underpins an album.

At one point, he began vehemently decrying the very notion of “Shuffle”. “How can you shuffle the soundtrack to your life?” he spluttered in indignation. It might work if the music fades into the background, like aural wallpaper. But if you’re actually listening, it doesn’t make any sense.

First published in The Age, 17 November 2011

One comment

  1. ericb223

    I really enjoyed your article. I too agree that the album as an entire concept is crucial to listening to quality music. I have taken the same approach with my MP3s. I never listen to the songs via shuffle (although I would love to see an album shuffle feature somewhere) and even take it to the extreme of making sure that all of my albums and singles are in their original format and order (no bonus tracks!). You’re not alone.