It’s easy and not entirely incorrect to blame the collapse of the music industry on consumers. It didn’t take the general public too long after the advent of Napster to get used to paying nothing (or something directly adjacent to nothing) for music. Artists aren’t making money from selling their recorded works any longer, because very few people are paying for the privilege of listening to them.
This is old news, but if it still smacks of hyperbole to you, consider that not one artist in any genre has had a platinum album in 2014. A recent article in Forbes goes so far as to come right out and say that, in the recording industry, “things have never been quite so bad.”
Consumers reared on a steady diet of streamed or illegally downloaded music have to take much of the responsibility for this, though I don’t think many of them are going to feel too guilty about that fact. To be fair, however, we can’t drop the whole mess on the doorstep of the present-day music consumer. Some of the responsibility must be placed on the shoulders of the artists. (Plenty of that responsibility belongs to the “business” side of the music business too, but that’s an entirely different, intolerably lengthy graduate thesis for another time.)
See, part of the collapse of album sales has to do with the fact that plenty of consumers are only downloading an individual track, or maybe two, from an album, rather than committing – oh, the horror! – to the whole thing. Sure, there always have been casual music consumers, folks who will purchase a single if they hear it on the radio (or a television commercial or movie soundtrack, etc.), but don’t really care about the artist all that much, or at least, not enough to shell out the $9.99 to $12.99 for the full iTunes download. However, these folks don’t account for the whole problem. Plenty of serious music-lovers are cherry-picking tunes from albums because, let’s face it, we’ve gone back to the pre-“Rubber Soul” days, when much of an album was padded out with filler, with plenty of gratuitous tracks just hanging around to keep the hit singles company. We’ve been told for ages that the album as an art form is dead, but this is not really true. What seems to be pretty close to dead, though, is the perfect album, the one that is wholly comprised of worthwhile music, the collection that has no “must skip” tunes in its midst.
“Garbage in, garbage out,” as the saying goes. There is so much awful music out there in the pop mainstream that it is difficult to find much fault with the consumer who says simply “I’ll take the sandwich, but I don’t need the whole meal, because those fries are limp, cold and disgusting, and they’re just gonna make me fat.” Plenty of artists are still making whole albums that don’t stink. But they aren’t really in the mainstream, and they weren’t ever going to be selling a million copies of an album anyway. Underground music is pretty much as healthy as it has always been, which is to say it’s down, but not out.
I can’t help but believe that, if more artists were making records that stand as complete statements – albums that, if you took one song off of them, simply wouldn’t be as good – then more people would buy those albums in full, instead of picking the one tune that ended up on the Volkswagen commercial, or whatever.
Here are a few examples of albums I believe to be perfect, based on the above definition. I’ve skipped the obvious ones – you don’t need me to tell you for the millionth time that “Revolver,” “Pet Sounds” and “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” are perfect albums, or at least you shouldn’t.
The following are at least slightly under-the-radar collections that I’ve chosen to illustrate my argument, based on the fact that it’s highly doubtful that anyone purchased a single song from the collection and ignored the rest of it. Why should they have? They didn’t need to. Because it’s all good!
Jellyfish, “Spilt Milk”
Power-pop perfection, from soup to nuts. If Green Day ever made an album half as good as this, Jan Wenner would probably build them their own separate Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Once you drop the proverbial needle in the groove on “Spilt Milk,” you will let the whole thing play.
One way to attempt to force the listener to take in your whole album as one piece is to connect all the songs together. I’ve always liked this idea. Real music is not for the weak or attention-challenged! Um. Well, that’s not true. Of course it is. But we can’t blame Tool for that.
Miles Davis, “On the Corner”
Davis was so sure you were going to listen to this one the whole way through that he basically composed one long song, employing some forward- looking cut and paste methodology with the help of producer Teo Macero to craft music that taunts, teases and threatens, but never cajoles. It was so nice not to be condescended to for a change.
Public Enemy, “Fear of a Black Planet”
Listening to this, you get the feeling that skipping around between the tracks might earn you a visit from Chuck D. This is music that demands attention that is not of the casual variety.
Chris Whitley, “Living with the Law”
Tune after tune of desolate but consistently compelling beauty. Listening, one felt as if Whitley had come over for a personal visit. It would be just plain rude not to hear him out.
This is a random sample. I’d love to hear from you regarding your own picks for the “flawless gems” category.