Friday, June 10, 2011

Ditch the Shuffle

I've been going back in time. I'm real believer in the potential of pop music, though I'm a lover of modern orchestral music and classical. I think pop is the music with the most creative potential, even if it is the area in which the least creative potential is realized, as things stand. Anyway, I have been going back in time to check out the the particular tunes of the pop greats that we don't usually hear.

My latest purchase is Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection. (It's really, really good. But this isn't a music review. I hate music reviews.) The album got me thinking about something that has floated through my head ever since the iPod era began: the advent of the MP3 has some great effects, especially on young people whose diversity of musical experience is surprisingly broader than it was ten years ago. (I have seen kids with Metallica, Abba, Wu Tang Clan, The Beatles, Eminem and Sinatra on their playlists. Of course, this could indicate either a total lack of musical discernment or a delightfully broad musical view, depending on your perspective.)

(Yes, I called it an "album". It is an album of songs. A "CD" is a data storage medium. An album, in music, is a collection of songs.)

The problem? The album is getting forgotten about as a work of art.

Of course, it is not as if everyone in the pop music biz has cranked out St. Pepper and Pet Sounds (I got your back, Brian) and Dark Side of the Moon on a regular basis. But, albums, at the least, have a reasoned-out song-order and they were created during a certain period of the artist's life, with certain musicians at a certain period in their lives, in a certain studio, in a certain political climate, etc. Albums have connections between the tunes, even if the writers didn't purposefully create a thematically connected album. That makes them undeniably cool as artistic phenomena.

Worse, the great ones, like Elton, get reduced to just their "hits" under the iPod mentality. The problem is, these hits can be great, or they can simply be the most popularly palatable of their canon; the icing on the cake that is the genius. We've all heard "Rocket Man" -- but what about "Son of You Father"?

-- or "Come Down in Time"?

-- or "Where to Now St. Peter?"

A student of mine once said he plays new downloaded albums on "shuffle" so he never gets tired of them. But, what he is doing do support his (a phenomenon that is no fault of his own) stunted attention span is undercutting months that Elton and Bernie Taupin poured into an album like Tumbleweed Connection.

Have an iPod, my friends -- I do. But download albums in their entirety and turn off shuffle once in awhile. There are lots of pearls to be found between the hit tracks.

Funny how the whole world seems to be like that, too.


  1. Let's not forget what it's done to album cover art too. It's just not the same on a 5x5" space as it is on a 14x14" space.

  2. Chris, as a New Jersey-affiliated guy who believes in the power of pop, are you familiar with the ouvre of Fountains of Wayne?

  3. You know, Jeff -- I have heard great things about them and they have been on my musical "to do" list forever, but I haven't looked into them yet. A recommendation?

  4. "Utopia Parkway" is a nice introduction. "Welcome Interstate Managers" was their big hit, but the follow-up, "Traffic and Weather," is full of good material, too.

    Basically, they specialize in catchy, highly formulaic pop songs about life in the New York/New Jersey 'burbs, but they rarely suggest that all of their characters must be unfulfilled or doomed, which makes them a nice departure from the usual anti-suburban snobbery.

  5. Excellent -- I'll add it to the list of "Jeff recs." It's good to hear they steer around the usual cliches.

  6. Even more lost than the concept of "album" is the concept of "album side". For albums that were originally released on vinyl, this is lost on iPods even if you play the album in its entirety with the songs in order. For albums originally released on CD, the concept simply doesn't apply. It used to be fun to rediscover a neglected side, having worn your favourite side out by overplaying it. Sides also allowed songs to have the privileged position of "last track on side 1" and "first track on side 2".

  7. Donald -- you couldn't be more right. It's funny -- that cpncept has gotten so lost, that it didn't even occur to me for this piece. I also distincly remember(and miss)having a different sense of the tone of one side of an album compared to another. Side one of ABBEY ROAD compared to side two; side one of MOVING PICTURES compared to side two -- very different, indeed.