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Vital signs; Death of the album remains greatly exaggerated

Like the proverbial boy who cried wolf, the naysaying portion of the music industry punditry continues to report sightings of the "death of the album" on yonder hill. Citing the increase in digital downloads, the "cherry picking of favorite songs" factor, and the implied truism that an artist like Rihanna is not likely to come up with enough worthwhile songs to fill up "an el-pee's wortha tunes," the wolf-criers seem to take great joy in letting us know exactly for whom the bell tolls -- it tolls for you, music geek! So quit dreaming and get on board the pop single download train! It might not be bound for glory, but hey, it's fast, it's easy, and sometimes it's even free!

Trouble is, a significant portion of pop/rock/whatever-you-need-to-call-it artists are ignoring all of this nonsense and getting on with the business of making great albums that are exactly that -- full collections of songs that sound good together, are sequenced with care and are released to the public with the artist's seal of approval. No, it isn't like it used to be even 10 years ago. You aren't likely to find hordes of consumers hanging outside their favorite record store on "release days," waiting for the doors to swing open so that they can swoop in and snag new release X by favorite artist Y. But oh-so-happily, this doesn't seem to have affected many of the artists. They seem to understand that, while the "album as primary commercial enterprise" may be breathing the death wheeze, the "album as favored means of conceptual representation" is still young, healthy and ready to hit the bricks for a night on the town.

There has always been a singles market, and there always will be, of course. Today's finds artists like Maroon 5, Justin Bieber, Flo Rida, One Direction, 2 Chainz and Jennifer Lopez clocking the highest numbers on the iTunes Top 10 downloads chart. Recall, for the sake of perspective, that both Herman's Hermits and the Monkees came close to outselling the Beatles back in the day. Same as it ever was, then.

In the current issue of Sound & Vision magazine, Shirley Manson -- vocalist with alt/art-rock outfit Garbage, a band clearly still held in thrall by the album concept -- is quoted on this very subject, as it relates to the group's excellent new effort, "Not Your Kind of People."

"We grew up with albums," Manson is quoted as saying. "They're more meaningful to our ears than, 'Your download is complete.' "

Point well taken, particularly when one factors in the more than obvious care, craft, passion and talent that went into every aspect of "Not Your Kind of People," a collection that all but screams "I am an album!" from the rooftops.

Similarly, Australian alternative quintet the Temper Trap's eponymous new album is of a singular piece, a collection that flows rather seamlessly from song to song, and is best heard in a single sitting and setting. (In this instance, that doesn't necessarily make it all that great -- seems to me these guys have listened to a bit too much Coldplay. But they are clearly on board with the whole album thing, regardless.)

There some screamingly obvious examples, too, and many of them come from the modern prog-rock world. Folks who fit this idiomatic mold have been ignoring the industry "album is dead" mantra forever. If your favorite albums are "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway," "Close To the Edge" and "In Absentia," it is not likely you are perusing the iTunes Top 10 anyway. Not surprisingly, the long-awaited collaboration between Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree and Mikel Akerfeldt of Opeth, who together go by the name Storm Corrosion, is an album aimed squarely at the sort of listener who cares deeply about audio quality, is not in any hurry to "get to the chorus," and most likely can't wait to cough up the cash for the deluxe vinyl, 5.1 surround and Blu Ray editions of the wait for it! album. It is a bloody incredible record, too, no doubt about it.

Equally as impressive, though radically different stylistically, is the just-released effort from Boston, Mass, funk collective Lettuce. That group's "Fly" is a gorgeous collection of "fat" grooves and stellar musicianship, and it is certainly a grouping of songs that demands to be heard en masse -- to the point where Lettuce has released the thing on gatefold vinyl, in addition to the digital realm.

The numbers don't lie, naturally. Last year, the majority of consumers who bought full albums didn't do so digitally, favoring instead the purchase of vinyl, CD or Blu-ray via or their favorite record store. iTunes does not seem to be the go-to place for the album-obsessed music lover -- it's far more the terrain of the single-song cherry-picker. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily. The question is this, however -- if a healthy portion of artists continue to ignore the trend, will the trend then disappear?


Grace(land), too

Though reviewing Paul Simon's "Graceland" reissue seems more than redundant, since it was released 25 years ago, I feel honor-bound to let you know that the just-dropped 25th anniversary box set edition of the album is well worth the investment. There are a ton of extra tracks, a remastered edition, a Blu-ray, and a DVD copy of "Under African Skies," a riveting documentary dissecting the original creation of the brilliant "Graceland." This particular album sure ain't dead!