The SAY Award (we hope) not only celebrates the albums comprising our long and shortlists, it celebrates the album itself : the format, the medium, the concept, the whole nine yards. To dig a little deeper into why so many of us love the longplayer, we’re inviting all of you – yes all of you - to send us your thoughts on our beloved format and we’ll publish them here.
Remember, don’t be shy: there’s room for everyone…
Email your submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the many merciful things about being an own-label, Scottish “folkie”, for want of a better way of putting it, is this. The idea that you might write a daytime-hit-single is a wee bit ridiculous. I mean nobody wants to hear a song about a petrochemical plant and 1980s UFO visitations to Bonnybridge, a song that skips between 5/8, jig time and 4/4, and which features treble-layered piano accordion and Sheffield steel plant samples, whilst listening to Steve Wright in the afternoon. Do they?
This realization, when it finally comes, is a relief.
I’ve nothing against the pop hit. Give me “Love Shack” or “Enola Gay” or “Sir Duke” and I’m one happy wifie. I’d maybe own a house if I could write one.
Look, every other thing I wanted to say about “the album” has been said much more intelligently and imaginatively already on this blog. So I’ll say this on my own account. Until I made my album “Traces” last year, I’d never made a coherent “album”. And I’ve been getting away with life as a full-time musician and writer for thirteen years now. I’d made, instead, various packaged assemblages of songs, some of which were (I think) good songs, and some of which I knew were a bit shite, or trite, or engaged in some kind of sonic and stylistic battle with the songs at either side of them in the running order, even at the time they were about to go to press. And some of which, significantly, were earmarked and arranged in a certain embers-still-glowing hope of a “breakthrough” play on Terry Wogan’s Breakfast show.
Actually, he played me once. The world was not set alight. But my mum got a lot of mileage out of it in Banknock.
I don’t regret any of that stuff. Nope. It had to be done.
I am beyond-chuffed to be nominated, alongside loads of my favourite albums of 2012, for what’s – nominally – my fifth solo album. To my mind, it’s actually my first. I don’t expect anyone to like “Traces”. But I know in my heart that it’s an ALBUM with its own core purpose, intent and sound. I hear that in the other nominations too. That’s what makes an album an album. And, for myself, I can say, hand on heart: take it or leave it. I believe in it. Surely that’s what it’s all about eh?
I have learned this.
It is okay, on an album, to write three songs about dead children. It is not only okay, but a sign (at last) of assured creative judgement, on an album, not to sully those songs with some glib “happy” track that a salesman has said you need, unless you count songs about heartbroken wrens or eulogies to dear, departed old neighbours as straight-ahead cheery. It is okay on an album, and even as a folkie, to have only one song that could remotely be said to have a “sing-along” chorus.
Ach, the breakthrough hit can get tae.
Oh and one wee thing. My album is not just about me, though it’s my name on it. So I’ll take this chance to name and thank my core musical squad, who’re not explicitly recognized in this award. There’s my right hand man and brother Steven Polwart, with whom I co-wrote many of the songs, the mighty Inge Thomson on her many beautiful and subtle layers of sound (percussion, accordion and vocals), all the gorgeous guest musicians (including co-nominee Sarah Hayes of Admiral Fallow), Mattie Foulds (who recorded the record so beautifully), and (co-nominee also) Iain Cook of The Unwinding Hours for his production dedication and vision.
I love albums. I’m looking forward to making number 2.
My Dad had a seemingly vast collection of vinyl and one of those hi-fi systems with a built-in record player, tape machine and radio. My Mum always had the radio on in the mornings and during the summer holidays. For some reason I think of floors getting spring cleaned and Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now” playing on the radio.
One speaker for the hi-fi was on a bookshelf and the other was on the floor underneath the desk that the ZX Spectrum 48K sat on. I used to lie under the table with my ear to the speaker and listen to St Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Ziggy Stardust; trying to understand the words and figure out what it all meant. Then my sister and I would break dance on the floor in the kitchen to Elvis’ “Night Rider”.
Here began my obsession with albums. I felt a bit like Indiana Jones, unearthing timeless, hidden treasures, browsing through records, taking in sleeve designs and figuring out the chronology of releases. It seemed like a secret discovery to put on Duster Bennett, “Smiling Like I’m Happy” or Mothers of Invention, “Absolutely Free” and get drawn into the songs. From Tom Lehrer Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, to Sandy Denny singing Matty Groves through to Nas’ New York State of Mind, I guess what has always fascinated me is storytelling in song. Looking back, I learned that albums tell stories as much as individual songs do and that themes can run through them that you couldn’t grasp by simply hearing one or two songs in isolation.
The first album I bought was Michael Jackson Bad on vinyl from WHSmith’s in Airdrie. I pored over the lyrics on the sleeve as I listened through the album, production credits, MIDI programming (whatever that was) – everything I could find out. The needle kept sticking at the beginning of Smooth Criminal and my Dad asked if I wanted to take it back and get it replaced. I said I’d stick with it and see. A month later I asked my Dad if we could take it back but he said I’d left it too late and played it to death and no they wouldn’t take it back now. In my teens I sold my Bad album at a record fair in Glasgow for 50p. In my twenties I kinda started wishing I hadn’t. A couple of years ago my Dad got me another copy on vinyl.
Albums are important. This isn’t a new concept. A few years ago, I had a drunken argument with a guy in a pub who, quite rightly, prophesied that in a few years time music would be on some virtual ‘cloud’ and we would all rent the privilege to listen to it. I didn’t want it to be true because I couldn’t see how you could have such an intimate relationship with an album if you couldn’t hold it in your hands. As it happens, having all that music available means that there are more opportunities for discovering new bands and songs but I hope we never lose the physical album.
For me nothing compares to sitting alone with an album and playing it from start to finish while absorbing every tiny scrap of detail and information available in the sleeve, inlay card and artwork.
I remember a story a few years back about Chris Martin losing sleep over the track order on Coldplay albums, and the thought that anyone with an iPod Shuffle could destroy his best intentions. I think most of the papers or websites wrote him up with tongues firmly in cheeks, but I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy.
An album is, if you describe it in the most basic sense, a collection of songs. But in reality, regardless of whether you’re an artist or fan, it’s an awful lot more than that. For an artist, everything from the artwork to the thanks to that painful track listing becomes part and parcel of this thing you’ve spent months, if not years, working towards. When you finally release it in to the world, you’re going to have some desire that it be met in a certain way.
And as a music fan, I want an artist to have put thought into all these elements. To show something of themselves in the liner notes, to take me on a journey through ten to fifteen tracks. I want the album to feel personal. And then I want to make it my own.
Whenever I listen to Rock It To The Moon it reminds me of the year I lived in a top floor flat in Cardiff and the couple next door would have horribly loud sex. As a counter, I would fall asleep to a wall of Electrelane every night. Rumours makes me think of my first car, a small blue Ford Fiesta with a tape deck that housed that Fleetwood Mac cassette far too many times. Or there’s Los Campesinos!’s Hello Sadness, which I listened to on repeat for about three months at the start of 2011 after having my heart broken. To add insult to personal injury, I then drunkenly imparted this to guitarist Neil in a nightclub and most definitely said the line, “I listened to your record and cried.” A low point I have no idea why I am sharing online.
I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that an album is not just a collection of songs. It’s an entirely different beast. I can be as overly sentimental about most things when music is concerned. Mention Sonic Youth in my presence and you’ll not be going anywhere for about half an hour. However, there’s something about the album that makes my chest swell slightly fuller. I love albums with a personal thanks section. I love albums that tell a story. And I love albums where thought has been put in to the track order.
And I don’t like iPod Shuffles. I’m with you on that one, Chris.
Jen Long(BBC Radio 1, BBC3)
For about 10 of my roughly 25 years (and counting) as a music addict, I was making a living selling records. I loved it and I still think it was the best thing I ever did as a job, but nevertheless I decided to leave the business some years ago. One of the reasons was that I felt that the music industry had failed badly to deal with the change the internet and file sharing technology had brought upon us and decided to turn against the fans instead of embracing the chance coming along with it.
Since then a lot has changed and although it is always walking a thin red line between sharing and spreading the word and serious copyright violation that robs an artist his well-deserved income I have a feeling that things have kind of settled down now. I personally established a mixed usage of the old and new for myself. I still love collecting records on CD and vinyl. Nothing is replacing the feeling of adding a physical sound carrier to your collection, but I of course have all my recent music on my phone and I adore the huge availability of once rare stuff, back catalogue items, single B-sides and EPs on the online sales platforms.
As positive most of this is, there is one thing that really bothers me and that is the short attention span that a lot of people now seem to have for music. It is awfully popular to pick only a single track out of albums with investing just a pound or even less and ignoring the fact that there are more tunes to a record than the radio single just downloaded. I mean it’s easy, it’s fast and it is fun to purchase and consume this way – I get it. But folks: You are missing out! Badly!
Let me tell you how I listen to music, how and why I am still listening to albums.
I will start with a surprise: I hate having a new album. Boom!
It is actually not that I dislike the thing itself – it’s the opposite. I have my heart racing when the brand new release of one of my favorite bands is sitting in front of me sealed and un-listened. But what I hate is the fact that at this point all the songs are new to me. It is like finally meeting this one person you adore for a long time and then you are finally getting introduced and it’s really awkward because you are full of expectations but in fact do not know each other yet. But it is also the invitation to meet, get close to each other, to go on a journey together. So I of course rip off the foil and start listening usually if possible three times in row immediately to get rid of this initial awkwardness, become friends and start a – possibly life long, ever changing, vivid – relationship.
This leads me straight to an advice out of experience: once you put on the new album – give it time!
I remember when “Amorica” the troubled, long awaited follow up of The Black Crowes’ “Southern Harmony And Musical Companion” (a “best friends forever” record to me) was released I was really Debby Downer, because I could not make myself like it when I listened to it the first couple of times. The band had, to a certain degree, left the musical path I loved them for. They were going much deeper into Blues and Country now and were lyrically looking into darker, more complex places than before. I was baffled and I know I share this experience with a lot of people who follow a band for a while, but artists need to move on and try new things. These changes can become really hard for the long term fans to digest from time to time, but promise me to at least try and keep listening. If it is not working put it down for a while and give it another try sometimes later. There is a good chance that it grows on you while you change as a person like the artist did before.
You know, an album is a very intimate thing. A band (or single artist) invites you to their world, feelings, thoughts or personal developments and if somebody allows you to have such a deep look into the soul it is just fair to put a bit of effort into dealing with it, isn’t it? There is no promise that you end up loving a record but often it works and – at least for me – those with a tough start are the ones who stick with me the longest. In the case of “Amorica” I think it is probably the best album The Black Crowes ever recorded and I love every note of it.
I also think an album is a like mirror for you much more than a single song could ever be. I often realize when it’s a really good album that my favorite tunes change all the time and give me that way a lot of insight into what is up with me. Take – to stay in Scotland – Biffy Clyro’s “Opposites” as perfect example. There are no two days in a row I would name the same song my favorite. Not two. That is why I would not want to miss a single one of them on the album although it is a double record with 20 tunes – something that is considered in our time of short attention span something courageous to release. And that is why you should not even think about going for the shortened version also available for download. There is in general a reason for every song on a record; it was picked by the artist with an intention and it’s up to you to embrace an album as a whole and enjoy it in the most complete way.
That sounds all like a lot of effort to you? It maybe is, but it is also a lot of fun and the really good things in life are always the ones which force you to invest some energy, aren’t they? Keep on rockin’!
The author: Christina Kapaun, 39, is based in Germany. After ten years of selling albums to people she is now working as an online marketing specialist. Off work she is a music lover, concert addict, traveller, hockey fan and blogger at http://slopinginthesky.blogspot.de/
Thanks for the blog Christina!
On more than one occasion I have gone out to buy an album but come home with three, sometimes without the one I had initially intended to buy. I love shopping for them, trailing around record shops, looking at the cover and tracklisting on the way home and finally playing it. I also tend to strike up conversations with those behind the till if they look friendly enough. One recent encounter found me speaking about the brilliant Flamin’ Groovies album Teenage Head, to the middle aged owner of the store clearly more in to rockabilly if his hairstyle and clothing were anything to go by. Thankfully, with the original vinyl hanging on the wall, he too had great respect for one of the best records of 1971, a year not shy of great album releases. To be honest, I think he was just glad someone was in his shop on a Tuesday afternoon.
One of my most enjoyable album buying escapades happened recently when I tracked down two LP’s I’ve been seeking out on vinyl for years by one of my favourite songwriters, the (fairly) obscure American Bob Lind. The fact that I already had the songs on a CD released in 2007 was beside the point. I have searched record stores from New York to Berlin for his two albums from the sixties, Don’t Be Concerned and Photographs Of Feeling but eventually found them not far from my home in London, in the downstairs vinyl section of Flashback Records. My excitement was such that I let out a muffled scream of delight and felt I had to tell the woman behind the counter why I had a big smile on my face when handing over the cash (£9 for both, bargain of the century). As I finished explaining my delight she simply retorted “they’ve been waiting here for you”. I thought that was a great response as it encapsulates perfectly the notion that an album can feel like a cherished friend. They are there for you through the good and bad times and if chosen wisely will not let you down. I’ve yet to witness first hand the sight of three friends being sold for £10 in Fopp and admittedly whilst such an occurrence would at first appear strange and disconcerting, you would struggle to argue that it didn’t constitute tremendous value for money.
It’s easy to romanticise about albums but then again, surely music and romanticism go hand in hand more than say, romanticism and the painting and decorating industry. I say this as my one of my best friends has his own painting and decorating business. He doesn’t tend to talk about matt emulsion much over a drink, but get him started on the merits of Beck’s Sea Change and there’s no stopping him. Like him, it is also my favourite Beck album.
I still sit with friends, play albums and enthuse about them. If drink is involved, I am prone to the expression “it’s f***ing amazing!”, just three words, one an expletive, but they sum it all up. I have extolled the virtues of everything from The Beta Band’s Hot Shots II and Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out by the Stones, to Billie Holiday At Storyville and Tappa Zukie In Dub. There are many, many more besides and I hope many more nights like those still to be had. The conversations on such evenings have often turned in to great debates with matters deliberated over including how Adventure by Television never gets the credit it deserves because of always being in the shadow of Marquee Moon, the fact that Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica is totally overrated while Safe As Milk is undervalued and how during a certain point in the 1980′s, Boris Becker could rightly have been labelled Ivan Lendl’s bugbear. That last one has nothing to do with music but sometimes we stray off topic.
Incidentally, Adventure by Television is not only one of several albums I own on both CD and vinyl but also one of my two greatest charity shop finds. On the same day I uncovered the original Elektra vinyl together with lyric sheet I also came across Howlin’ Wolf’s “The Howlin’ Wolf” album which features the man himself backed with a full band doing psychedelic-esque rock versions of his songs. The album is more famous for the fact that Wolf didn’t like it and this disdain is referenced on the cover which reads – “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like his electric guitar at first either.” It’s actually very good indeed and worth the £10 that went straight to Oxfam. I still regret not buying The Fall album Shift-Work which was also there that day, what a hat trick that would have been. I made the classic charity shop error of intending to go back the next day and get it by which time of course it had already been snapped up.
I do embrace download culture, especially the purchasing of single tracks as we probably all own albums we bought because we had heard a great tune from it only to find out the rest of the album is a tad poor or on other occasions, utter rubbish. Also, it can be extremely difficult to find some songs without going online. The only way I got my hands on In Zaire by Johnny Wakelin or Paul Davidson’s reggae version of The Allman Brothers tune Midnight Rider was via Itunes. It was quick and easy and saved a lot of hassle trying to track down obscure physical formats featuring a particular song. There are some however that will only ever be found after a long hunt. I finally got my hands on the NF Porter track Keep On Keeping On from a bloke in Yorkshire who was selling the compilation soul album The Golden Torch Story on which the track is contained. Download culture has of course changed the way we listen to music and I think it’s a shame that listening to an album from start to finish is becoming increasingly less commonplace. There is much satisfaction to be had by playing an album in its entirety and the journey contained therein. I also like reading books from start to finish as opposed to just chapter 7.
At the end of each year, I publish my Albums Of The Year on my web site. I see this as firstly a chance to right some of the wrongs from the usual end of year polls in magazines but also and more importantly, an attempt to highlight some albums that never got the attention they deserved. In the last couple of years these have included Darker My Love’s Alive As You Are, The Middle East’s I Want That You Are Always Happy and The Warm Digits Keep Warm With The Warm Digits. It’s gratifying to introduce people to good music they haven’t yet heard and for them to let you know they like it, a highly enjoyable public service if you will. It’s also an excuse, not that one should be needed, to listen to as much music as possible and the album as a format to do so is incomparable.
(Broadcaster, Writer, SAY Award Judge)
For my 12th birthday one of my big brothers, perturbed that his wee sister was becoming a classical music geek, gave me a copy of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book. The next year he gave me Abbey Road, and Graceland the year after that. His ploy didn’t work in so far as I became that geek regardless, but he had taught me a thing or two about albums along the way. I mean real albums: albums in which no one track can be extracted without messing up the integrity of the whole, albums whose finely-crafted ebb and flow makes it an act of vandalism to press the shuffle button. Albums that never stop meaning ineffably more than the sum of their parts.
A real album, like a symphony or a sonata or a song cycle, is an intact work of art with its own scale and pace and architecture. And it’s for that reason that classical music and albums often make for awkward bedfellows. (The regrettable fact that there’s no classical music on this year’s SAY longlist is another story, though, down to logistics of the nominating system rather than lack of worthy contenders). There are practical things, like a symphony that’s too long for a single disc or an opera whose stagecraft and narrative are lost on the microphone. There are more profound things, to do with form and intent and purpose. And yet for as long as recording technology has been around the classical industry has shoe-horned its music into whatever commercial format it has needed to fit. Conductors slowed to a halt in the middle of movements to allow listeners at home a suitable hiatus in which to turn over their records – they’d effectively alter the entire shape of their interpretation to fit the commercial market, and it makes for nonsensical listening when those old recordings are unearthed and remastered nowadays.
Plenty of classical artists release compilations that might or might not do justice to the bits of music they’ve cobbled together. Usually these kind of ‘best of’ or ‘introducing’ albums are more designed to show off the artist themselves than the music they’re performing, and so rarely meet my criteria of what makes ‘a real album’. More interesting is when artists match up two or three works in a way that, because of contrast or thematic links or textural similarities or whatever, shines new light on familiar repertoire. One of the classical titles that was nominated for this year’s SAY award – pianist Steven Osborne’s all-Russian disc of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and Prokofiev’s Sarcasms and Visions Fugitives – works brilliantly on that front.
I think it’s a great shame that there’s no classical music on this year’s longlist: partly for the simple fact that there were several fantastic classical releases by Scottish artists last year, and partly because that conspicuous absence only perpetuates the music industry’s entrenched and unhelpful gulf between genres. But when it comes to pondering what makes a real album? Take Osborne’s Mussorgsky/Prokofiev disc again. For all the superlative playing and insightful programming, it’s still not strictly an album – not in the purest sense of the word. That distinction is reserved, I think, for albums that were conceived as such and that somehow uphold the old Marshall McLuhan wisdom that the medium is the message. Regardless of genre, real albums are rare and precious beasts. And as it happens we’ve got a few of them on our longlist.
(Journalist, SAY Award Judge)
I like songs. I love albums. I have two different relationships with ‘the album’. To begin with, it was as a fan of music then, later on, as ‘singer, songwriter, musician’ (I use that term very loosely).
The first album I ever owned was “Everything Must Go” by the Manic Street Preachers. I was twelve years old and went to William Low’s with my Mum for the weekly shop. I usually tried to sneak a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figure under the big box of cornflakes so she wouldn’t notice it until she got to the checkout when it was too late to put it back. This time, instead of the usual action figure (or doll as she called it. FYI: it’s not a doll!), I decided to pick up a CD and casually slide it under the shopping.
I’d seen the band perform “Design for Life” on Top of the Pops the previous week and for some reason that song had stayed with me. Up until that point music hadn’t played a big part in my life. When we arrived home, I stole my sisters Sony Discman then went to my room. My intentions were to skip straight to Track 2: “Design for Life” and I think I did that the first couple of times. Then, after that, I played the record through from beginning to end and that was the start of my on-going love affair with albums.
I love the way songs compliment each other on an album, how it can make you feel one way and then instantly take you somewhere else and make you feel completely different. I love that you have to give some records more time than others and that the albums you don’t instantly love more than often become your favourite records. I love that there can be songs that you thought you didn’t like or didn’t ‘get’ but then put within the context of a record make total sense. Bands can write a great song and that song will be remembered for a while but, in my opinion, if you want people to truly invest in your music you have to produce a great album, put everything on the line within the record and prove that great song wasn’t a fluke or a one off. As a fan I want to be taken somewhere else when I’m listening to music and that can’t happen within one song for me. I want to hear everything that band/musician has to give and I’m willing to invest my time and money to be taken there for that hour.
I began writing music in my early 20′s. I use music to document my life and that can’t be done within one song. The album format allows me to get the highs and lows (mainly the lows) of a certain time in my life off my chest and it will always be there within that album. Our band, The Twilight Sad, have released three albums now and each documents the person I was at that time. I love that when I’m older I’ll be able to look back at my life through music and without the album format I wouldn’t be able to do that. We write albums. When we’re writing it’s never about writing that hit single, it’s about making sure we get everything we want to say out within each song to make an album that flows and takes you from one point to the next. I approach each song like a chapter within the overall story which in the end forms the album.
I’m 28 now and when I look back on my life I don’t remember things from events or birthdays etc., I remember what album I was listening to at the time and then the memories come back to me.
James Alexander Graham
(The Twilight Sad)
The album is a dying breed. The album is a vital force. The album is what you make it. The album is yours to be guided by. In just 10(ish) years of doing this music journalism thing, I’ve seen attitudes towards the album change from month to month, from person to person.
I’ve seen the under-my-editorial-control BBC Album Reviews service canned, presumably because someone, somewhere in the corporation’s hierarchy doesn’t care for what has been, and continues to be, termed the “long-player”, the “full-length”: music for minds not distracted every five – minutes, or seconds, perhaps.
That or, like most of us in this business, money just isn’t what it was and sadly Jessie J needs some free publicity, gobbing her way through primetime telly next to that square-haired chap with the oddly punctuated name, some charmless slick of a pop-rock singer, and Tom Jones. So it’s adios albums, hello gossip-rag-level characters and their various overcomings of obstacles that were never really there to begin with.
But I digress. (And rightly so, as the projects are not connected; I’m just a bitter misery guts at the best of times.) The album. It’s a format that I truly, sincerely, with all my heart and soul, hope never goes the way of Select magazine, Top of the Pops and Tab Clear.
The album is why I do this. The album set me on this course, and I am not going to let the dominance of download culture, the cherry-picking (read: bones-stripping) mentality that sees all 12 cuts from a collection go top 200, or none whatsoever, unsteady my beliefs. (And I hate shuffle functions, too.)
The album is the statement piece, the culmination and the foundation; the album is the start, the middle, the end; the album is everything an artist who believes in their art should want to achieve.
We’ve all seen them: the indie bands with bright eyes, the bedroom producers with heavy ones; the pop mavericks in the gaudy get-up, the folk-strummers with swollen throats. If there’s the slightest spark of passion within their shaking ribcages, they all will pursue the same goal: an album to call their own.
Because, that’s how we’re raised, isn’t it? To be better than we are now, to progress, to evolve. Artists who put out a handful of seven-inches: they’re ripe for your ones-to-watch level coverage. But to make a career out of music, or at least try to – and because you deserve to, for your craft, not because it’s there to be given or stolen via fortunate associations or the aforementioned Saturday night showreel of punishing sub-mediocrity that passes for ‘music’ entertainment – you need an album.
The album. Your album.
And then you take it to Later With Jools Holland and you’re famous.
Again, I digress. What I love about the album is the way in which it both holds the listener’s hand – here is a sequencing that we, the makers, hope you’ll enjoy; here are some lyrics, which we spent a long time working on; and here is some great art that, if you’re reading this on the back of a 12”, looks the absolute tits, doesn’t it – and allows ambiguity to creep into the experience.
I love finding interpretations that aren’t immediate, that aren’t as two-dimensional as much of what qualifies as pop in the 21st century (which is not to say there isn’t brilliant pop out there, even from acts without albums on their mind – as there is, but it’s a different, more mechanised model of writing). I love reading a lyric three ways. I love replacing emphasis. What is the songwriters are having us on? What if, actually, they’re taking a left while feinting right and distracting your eye?
And this can only happen on the album. Only on an album can the pressure – as a big band – of delivering a certifiable ‘hit’ (the term a relative one, naturally) be alleviated to the extent where incredible and unexpected discoveries can be made. It’s where shadows can creep unchecked; where new destinations can be set and fresh tangents taken. I’ll never grow tired of thinking I have a band pegged pre-album, only for that same outfit to bowl me over with something entirely removed from preconceptions.
Somewhere in the above, buried, is a point. I think. But if I’ve failed to stress it ‘til now, it’s this: I like albums. They are a good thing. More of them. They are the biggest windows onto ever-evolving worlds of discovery – places where senses blend, where there is no limit to the format beyond those imposed by its own architects.
And fuck Jessie J.
(Online Editor, Clash Magazine)
“Are you lost?” I still remember hearing these opening words spoken at the very start of The God Machine’s debut album “Scenes From The Second Storey” and realising I had found something special. I took a gamble buying the album in the first place, intrigued by the band name and the enigmatic artwork on the gatefold sleeve of the vinyl. I think I was also intrigued by a band that were brave enough to decide on a 13 song, 80 minute long double album as their debut release. When I took it home and stuck it on my crappy wee record player I certainly wasn’t disappointed. It’s a sprawling, angst driven, dark and dynamic record from start to finish that disregarded many of the typical conventions that most other albums in my collection followed.
It’s a great reminder of why the album is still important to me. The bands I grew up listening to were never usually the type that were going to write hit singles, so the album was a place for them to try out different ideas or to showcase the full range of what they were capable of. I’m not averse to hit songs or chart music in the slightest but not all bands exist to be involved in or driven by that side of things. For many bands the album is the alternative to having to write hit songs and it’s important for that alternative to exist.
To this day I still get a kick out of finding a brilliant song at the very end of a record that makes it clear the band are not interested in padding things out but are making sure that it is consistently engaging from start to finish. The untitled song at the very end of REM’s “Green”, “Raining Blood” at the end of Slayer’s “Reign in Blood”, Bon Iver “re:Stacks” on “For Emma…” and most recently the last song titled “Undertow” on Ane Brun’s latest album all remind me of how exciting the format will always be.
It seems quite clear to me that no-one knows where the music industry is heading these days. I genuinely hope the album will continue to be the best place where musicians get to prove their worth.
(The Unwinding Hours)
I was asked to write this post by the Scottish Album of the Year Award on the merits of the Album. Firstly I love ‘the album’. As a musician I think they’re really important. They capture a moment of thought, a place in time of a musician. Albums are musicians life stories. The album we make at the start of our career is completely different to the one at the end. It doesn’t guarantee quality but it does let you know what’s going on in our lives.
When I made my first album back in 1988 with folk band Seannachie we spent a lot of time researching material, thinking about the track order, designing the massive cover and finally produced an LP that you couldn’t skip tracks without getting out of your chair. It was brilliant. Even when CDs came out and you stopped thinking about the end of side 1 and the start of side 2 I still took lots of time to think about the gaps between tracks or should it be a crossfade (fancy).
So it depresses me now when I think about playlists. Playlists are anti-album, anti-creativity (unless you’re a DJ) and all about not listening and treating musicians with no respect. They fit right into this goldfish bowl concentration generation where everyone wants their fix now and who cares about a great ‘grower’ album track! We listen to a lot of Spotify in our house and I’m constantly dismayed as my children refuse to listen to the rest of the tracks on an album.
What should musicians do? Should they continue to make albums that people may or may not to listen to the inbetween tracks? Should we make albums and give them away for free in the hope that folks might listen to them all? What if iTunes were to buck the trend and support the musicians (like they should be) by only selling albums and no single downloads?
Whatever happens it is the creative process that is the most important thing here. As long as musicians enjoy writing 30 songs for an album, taking the time to record, mix and master, sharing the results with their friends and fans and getting up on stage and performing their new material I think we’ll be alright. I’ll continue to moan at my kids on the benefits of listening to the whole album and maybe one day they will believe me.
Creative Director, Hands Up For Trad
The album, it is often claimed, is a dying art form. The arguments that inevitably follow this claim are always fun to read, because they tend to consist of people lobbing their prejudices at each other rather than saying anything logical. If you’re above a certain age, you rage at young people’s short attention spans. Are we so full of stress and hurry these days that we can’t even spare one hour to sit and listen to an album from start to finish? If you’re older still, you dismiss the fuss over the demise of the CD. Who cares, when it’s such a rip-off format anyway? It’s partly the CD’s fault that people aren’t buying albums any more‚ it allowed albums to become too bloated, too inconsistent, when the right length for an album is the sleek 45 minutes that vinyl comfortably allowed. And besides, how does taking a crappy little jewel box home compare with the thrill of a big, exquisitely designed gatefold sleeve? Vinyl has always been better value for money.
If you’re much younger than both of these people, you wonder what all these ancient dafties are wittering on about. What’s so great about trekking to a dusty old shop run by Nick Hornby characters? Just download the stuff. In fact, just stream it. And if you’re that interested in design, there are plenty of beautifully designed websites to marvel at.
I agree with bits of all of the above. I enjoy discovering new music on the internet, track by track. I also love big, gatefold record sleeves – pretty much everything by Mark Farrow or Peter Saville, in particular, especially Dazzleships by OMD and Low Life by New Order. That kind of design is diminished horribly when reduced to CD size. I also love certain CD designs, like Very by the Pet Shop Boys (the version in the orange box, that is), and I have always loved going through the little booklets, reading the lyrics and the credits.
Most of all I love albums. Or at least I love the ones where all the tracks sit together in such a way that they become more than the sum of their parts; where you have to listen to the songs in a particular order otherwise the meaning of the whole becomes different. Radiohead’s OK Computer is a classic example of this; it starts with a car crash and ends with someone saying ‘idiot, slow down’, and there are a few moments along the way that make you think that the whole thing is the fevered hallucination of an accident victim waiting for an ambulance to arrive. But that’s a whole other conversation.
Last year I had the pleasure of compiling the tracklisting for an album called Whatever Gets You Through The Night, a collection of songs by Scottish bands, all inspired by the hours between midnight and 4am. Even though it was only being released as a download, and I knew fine well that most people would just click straight on to the song by their favourite band, whoever that happened to be, I agonised over the tracklist for weeks, chopping and changing, determined to create an emotional journey for the listener. I remember being particularly proud of the running order of the final four songs – Embassy Approach by Errors was the euphoric climax to a great night out, Rachel Sermanni’s Lonely Taxi, 2am was the drunken journey home, Set in Negative, an ambient instrumental by Talkingmakesnosense, was the slow drift into sleep. And then, finally, Saint Elmo by Withered Hand. Opening line: ‘What a glorious morning.’
Every time I have made an album myself (and I’ve made four now) I’ve put a probably obsessive amount of thought into what will be the opening track, what will close side one (even if there isn’t a side one – old habits die hard), what will be the penultimate track, or the final track, even how much silence to leave between songs (What? It’s important). Lyrically, too, the closer I get to knowing what music will make it on to the album, the more I have deliberately used certain images again and again‚ to the point where my bandmates have actually told me to stop, otherwise every single song would have the same metaphor in it.
This sort of thing has acquired a bad name, that bad name being ‘concept album’. It was a useful description back in the 1960s and early 1970s, I’m sure, when the album was still establishing itself as an art form, but my feeling is that, these days, if something ends up being labelled a concept album then the chances are it’s fallen short artistically in some way. It means the concept is too conspicuous, clunky or superficial. (Unless you’re Roger Waters or Trent Reznor, and you pride yourself on stating the screamingly obvious as loudly as possible.) I suspect you couldn’t even get away with Sergeant Pepper any more. It was hailed as popularising the concept album at the time, but in hindsight, of course, the closer you look at it the more shaky the concept becomes – not much more than a fancy cover and a couple of references to Pepper and his band. This isn’t surprising, given that the Beatles had gone off the whole concept by the time they finished it, but it’s never been an album with anything particularly coherent to say.
One of my favourite albums is Carbon Glacier by Laura Veirs, because the songs work so well together. Veirs wrote Carbon Glacier in Seattle during a winter of what she calls “deep, seeping cold”. The opening song, Ether Sings, is like a welcome and an introduction to the whole thing: “Come with me we’ll head up north where the rivers run icy and strong.” The songs are full of heavy weather in chilly, remote places, themes announced immediately by the titles: The Cloud Room, Wind is Blowing Stars. The artwork – woodcuts of a black, storm-tossed sea – complements this very well.
There are subtle lyrical connections throughout, and the 13 songs all meld into one bigger story about human survival against the force of nature. In the last one, Riptide, she sings about floating in the open sea “here with the shrimp and brine”, maybe dead, maybe metaphorically looking for a direction in which to swim. Pondering that question makes you think afresh about the closing lines in Ether Sings: “Souls lost out to the ether of death come back wise in the eyes and‚ the arms of newborns.” For a while, every time I got to the end I wanted to go straight back to the start. I remember thinking: ‘That’s the kind of album I’d like to make.’ I also remember reading a lot of reviews that shared my enthusiasm, but I don’t remember anyone ever calling Carbon Glacier a concept album.
I write about music (among other things) for a living, so I got to interview Veirs about it. It turns out she studied Buddhism and geology, which explained a lot. She had started out studying Chinese history, but it was ‘too gory’, she said. ‘I couldn’t handle it.” So she switched courses. But after a while learning about rocks, she missed stories about people and found a way to combine the two worlds in her songs, and the place where she’s chosen to live. She liked Seattle, she told me, because “I do feel quite isolated but also surrounded by really creative, brilliant people who inspire me all the time.”
It sounded, we agreed, a bit like my chosen home city at the time, Glasgow, a hugely creative place cut off enough from the London media whirl to be a hothouse for artistic experiment, mostly unspoiled by careerism or scrutiny, and which offers a big city buzz less than an hour’s drive from the middle of nowhere. The best of both worlds – people and rocks. So I related to Carbon Glacier. It transports you to a place a lot like the wilder parts of Scotland, full of mountains and poetry, but also feels rooted in the city.
And I happen to think that, when it comes to music, you can only get this experience from albums – you need time to drift, be absorbed, take in its whole meaning. If a song is a weekend holiday somewhere, an album is like actually living there for a while. Both have value as experiences, but one is completely unlike the other. So I’m very pleased that a prize like the SAY Award exists, and to support it in any way I can. Hopefully awards like these help extend the life of this artform for a while longer, in the imaginations of both musicians and listeners.
Andrew Eaton-Lewis is arts editor of the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday. He has released two albums as a member of the band Swimmer One, and two more under the name Seafieldroad. www.swimmerone.co.uk. Whatever Gets You Through The Night, a compilation of songs by Scottish bands (including 2013 SAY award nominees Meursault, Errors, and RM Hubbert) is available from www.throughthenight.net
Hearing an album that you like – really like – for the very first time, can be a pretty thrilling experience. It happens more often for some than for others, I’m sure, but nevertheless when it happens…wow. It was ‘Doolittle’ for me, by The Pixies: bought blind at the age of 17 on the recommendation of a music-obsessed work colleague ten years my elder (I’d just left school to work in an office job before starting University). Taking it home after work, I did something I’d rarely done before which was to stick it on the turntable, plug in the headphones, sit down on the couch, pull out the limited edition booklet…and wait.
We’re all guilty of retrospectively dousing the mundane in the magical, I know, but when Kim Deal’s bassline flew out of those headphones it ushered in a whole lot more than Black Francis’ deliriously brilliant yips and yowls: it was, unquestionably, my ‘floodgate’ moment. That album pointed me in so many different musical directions that I’m not entirely sure I ever made it back: it ignited touch paper that I hadn’t even realised needed to be lit and that’s what makes the album such a powerful, wonderful thing.
A much loved album is a priceless gift, plain and simple. It lasts a lifetime without being static or inert: it can prime you for a night out in an hour’s time and capture in amber a night you had in twenty five years ago. It’s a tranquiliser, a stimulant, an ice-breaker, an aphrodisiac, a counsellor, an agitator, a social convenor and a constant, unerring companion. No other artform inhabits and enhances our lives more than music and nothing packages and delivers that art more efficiently, more effectively and, at times, more dazzlingly than the album.
Let’s hear it for opened floodgates and sliced-up eyeballs.
(SAY Award, SMIA)