Tumblr doesn’t let you reblog someone else’s response to a question, so here’s how Jonathan Bogart responded to the question “What’s your top 10 albums shaping up like so far this year?”:
I have never made a top 10 albums list and I don’t plan to change that this year.
The more music I listen to, the more it seems to me that the album — the LP, the CD, the mp3 bundle — was a temporary aberration, the result of first, huckstery greed (“make ’em buy it all again” did not start with the CD), and second, a failure of imagination, in 1948. If a song wasn’t good enough to be issued on one side of a 78, (or, fine, 45) it isn’t good enough to take up space between the actually good songs on a 33 1/3, and unless your album is through-composed and conceptualized as an album (in which case ugh, you’re boring, it’s not 1969), then what’s the point? If I’m going to listen to a single thing for more than half an hour, I could be listening to jazz or classical — music that made sense on LP — or to a DJ mix, which even at its most banal has more thought and care put into it (from a listener’s perspective, anyway) than the average album’s tracklisting. To fetishize the album as the primary mode of musical delivery is to buy into the music industry’s deluded sales pitch, to privilege a particular rock-oriented, historically-bound mode of music-making over every other mode, to insist that the only music that has value is that which has received the imprimatur of some mediating label, to shut one’s ears to variety and immensity in favor of repetition and narrowness. Every album is made up of songs: songs are what matter, and a top 10 albums list is a way of saying “these 100-to-180 songs by ten different artists are more important than all other music made this year.” My democratic soul revolts.
I found this to be a really interesting and valuable way to frame this ongoing debate, but above all, I found it challenging (in the most positive sense of the word). I think it’s really key here that Jonathan doesn’t frame this as an “albums versus singles” debate. Though there’s a lot of overlap, that debate is a different one: it retains the subtextual tension between album-oriented genres (such as rock) and singles-oriented genres (such as pop) and is thus also a debate about aesthetics. It’s easily possible to take a stand on one side or the other as a sort of ideological gesture. But Jonathan’s clearly talking about albums versus songs, and this sharpens what’s really at the heart of this.
The reason I found this “challenging” is that looking at music in this light really elevates and sharpens one’s standards. An album is usually just a collection of songs, and and as Jonathan points out, it’s kind of absurd to privilege the 100-to-180 songs spread across 10 albums above all other songs in a given year. I used to think the reason why we separate music into albums and singles at the end of the year was in order to give singles a fighting chance—after all, how can one song stand up against a dozen of ‘em (it’s David versus Goliath)?—but now I think mostly the opposite is true, that if we were all really honest with ourselves, “the best music” of any given year would have to be predominantly individual songs. In fact, I’m in favoring of collapsing the segregation of songs and albums and having just one list, and I don’t see why it couldn’t include anything you want (albums, singles, songs, EPs, DJ mix, live performance (even one that wasn’t, gasp, recorded), etc.).
It seems silly to me now to keep them separate. Of course, there’s a lot going on in terms of why we do this, but one important thing, I think, is our unjustified privileging of a coherent and unified aesthetic (the more monolithic the better, sometimes). When I first fell in love with hip hop (circa high school, about a decade ago), what I loved was that each song sounded pretty different. It wasn’t like with a guitar band where there was this one “sound,” and the artists tried to see how much they could do with it without really changing it (but hey, I love the Ramones too). With a hip hop album, you might have horns blaring triumphantly on one song, a hypnotic piano line looped indefinitely on another, or that weird, hollow pipe sound on “Come Clean.” I saw this as fundamentally “experimental,” a word that has risked becoming perverted to mean “intentionally off-putting and withholding pleasure.” This was experimental in the sense that it was creative and exploratory, and the artists were interested in finding new and odd ways to create pleasurable music (which, importantly, always remained the goal).
I feel the same way about pop too, where individual songs warrant as much attention as people are inclined to give albums. Each song is approached as discrete work, a blend of composition, musicianship, and performance. What bothers me about the extreme focus on albums is that we move away from praising actual music (these discrete works, i.e. songs) and towards praising abstract aesthetics, an album’s “sound,” considered most generally. This is why reviewing music today has become such a referential activity, and to sell an album, a reviewer might offer up some formula, wherein the group’s influences are identified and their sound is broken down like this is all a science. I remember recently seeing Machinedrum’s Room(s) album described as “footwork’s Untrue,” which is certainly evocative, but it makes listening to music feel like you are picking out colors to paint the walls in your home. Great songs aren’t really a selling point (except, you know, to the vast majority of people who listen to music but who are ignored by the internet intelligentsia), but if you describe an album as sounding like the product of three iconic bands being thrown into a blender with some drugs mixed in, people get really weirdly excited.
The album as a format isn’t so much creating the way we talk about music now, but the current era has certainly adapted the album’s fundamentally commercial nature (as Jonathan points out) to suit our fashionable play with signifiers and identities. The fact that smart people don’t see the ways commercial pressures shape a band’s actual aesthetics is alarming, but maybe what’s more alarming is that a lot of people are pretty much okay with this, even eager for this to become the norm. Probably the number one problem with this is that we’re not actually talking about music. You can describe the concept of, say, Remain in Light all you want to me, but it’s not going to matter unless there are actual songs that don’t just wear this aesthetic but channel it into creating great, discrete works of art. Of course, it’s hard to separate out the aesthetic from the song itself, so we have a difficult time talking about this and pinpointing the difference between something profound and something shallow. It’s like how we say that 90% of contemporary art is crap but no one can agree on which 10% of it is actually good.
So for me, Jonathan’s critique of the way we privilege the album format should serve to return us back to the songs themselves. I’m really tired of people being impressed by the cleverness of an aesthetic or concept. Let’s talk about actual music: songs and performances. Think about it like this: next time your inclination is to describe an album’s sound without actually referencing any of the songs, ask yourself, “Could I imagine another album with, more or less, this exact same sound (ignoring for a moment the songs themselves) that just plain sucks?” If you cannot, you may be drinking the Kool-Aid just a little bit too much.
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- imathers said: Mine tend to have little overlap, too
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- calummarsh said: I don’t agree with Bogart’s thesis, but I’m having a weirdly difficult time articulating *why* I don’t. Nostalgic impulse? Arbitrary fetishization? This is causing my world to crumble.
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