Songs in context

From time to time something reminds me that I'm not so young any more. Video games do it. I remember Pong in bars, then later PacMan and Space Invaders. But I was never big on video games, and I've never had a game console. Mainstream newspapers now review video games, but I'm, like, whatevs. There's nothing to say that I couldn't take up playing video games, but I don't find it compelling. Video games don't have the place in my growing-up psyche that they do for generations younger than me.

One thing that does distinguish me from many people my age is that I am open to new music. Some of my favourite music is new, made by people who weren't even born when I was playing in bands. I love music from all the times of my life, and some from before my time. My interest in music didn't stop when I graduated from high school or university. I am rarely nostalgic.

I'm still weird though. I actually listen to albums.

Not on a turntable. We have one, but it's not set up (yet). Not very often on CD these days either. No, we're talking MP3s, either ripped from CDs we own or downloaded from pay sites like eMusic. Well, most of them (I'm not a saint).

I can download individual tracks from eMusic. Sometimes I do. But most often, if I like a band, I buy the album. Occasionally I'll skip a track that I really don't like, but for the most part I listen straight through.

At its best, a record album is a work in itself. I don't mean concept albums in particular, just records of songs that fit together and flow from song to song. That's what a good producer can do—not only get the best performance out of the band, but also assemble a product that works as a whole.

Some bands really are singles bands. I'll listen straight through to an album by Buzzcocks or The Muffs, but that's just because I love the songs. The songs stand by themselves.

When I find an album that's really a whole, however, it's wonderful. Just the other day I was listening to PJ Harvey's Stories of the City, Stories of the Sea. A couple of years ago, I had ripped a few tracks from it to use in my DJing, and I hadn't listened to the whole album since then. When I finally did, I realized what a gorgeous album it is and how well the songs work together. The ones I ripped now have a context.

The band that made me realize that some people are still creating collections of songs that work together was Bloc Party. The first time I listened to Weekend in the City, I was blown away. The album is thematic, but it's more how the album starts jagged and hard, then ebbs and flows until you reach "Kreuzberg," which leads to the amazing climax of "I Still Remember," followed by the quieter beauty of "Sunday" and the devastating "SRXT." I cry listening to that album from the sheer beauty of the composition. It's about the songs themselves, and it's about how they work together.

Not every album has such cohesion (at least to my ears), but many give me a listening experience greater than the sum of their individual songs: Cloak and Cipher by Land of Talk, Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair, Grab That Gun by the Organ, Fantasies by Metric, The Con by Tegan and Sara, Naveed by Our Lady Peace (which they never came close to again). Going back a ways, I remember the impact the first time I listened to Document by R.E.M., the first Pretenders album (especially what was then called "side one"), and The Clash's London Calling (a desert island album if ever there was one). Even further back, The Beatles did it time and time again. The Who's Who's Next has to be one of the greatest rock albums of all time, from "Baba O'Reilly" to the explosion of "Won't Get Fooled Again." Neil Young's Tonight's the Night and Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones don't contain the best songs of either artist, but they capture a time, place, and mood so well.

I still love to DJ and mix songs up. But whenever I do, it's about creating something coherent out of the individual songs, almost like my own album. I never set up my songs ahead of time but rather go with the flow and the moment. Like any improvisation, sometimes it falls flat, but when it works, it works very well (I don't just say so myself—I've been told numerous times).

People do the same, with somewhat more planning, when they create mixtapes. And stringing songs together is, or can be, a creative process. The result is a "work." And that's what many bands and their producers do. So I like to listen to their "mixtapes" as well as my own.


Aerin said...

For the most part, I also listen to albums rather than tracks. Is this yet another indication that I'm no longer a spring chicken? Sigh.

Have you read/watched High Fidelity? The relationship between life and music, as well as the delicate art of mix tapes, is a major theme.

Véronique said...

@Aerin: No, it just means you're cooler than the average bear. :) When I was exploring my last.fm "neighbourhood," I saw a 27-year-old whose list of recent plays indicated that she listens to albums too, at least sometimes.

@Caroline: I find new music in all kinds of ways. And these days, I think "mixtapes" are really "mix CDs." At least I hope so. No cassette player in my car!

I do know people who make mixtapes. They are usually DJs. Like, real ones, not virtual ones.

@Stace: I've never really understood digital reproduction, so I couldn't tell you whether there was any real sonic difference between the 1s and 0s on a CD and those in an MP3 file. Now analogue I understand. :)

On long trips, we usually rely on my sweetie's iPod shuffle. Given her eclectic taste, that can make for some interesting segues!

I've heard Muse on the radio, but they're kinda big for eMusic. :)