The Idea of an Album, or, the Re-emergence of the Record

Dragging a large plastic disk out of a cardboard package from a box under the table, setting it gently upon a metal spindle and carefully positioning a needle onto the disk’s threads seems like quite a bit of effort to listen to four songs (or eight, if you get up to flip the thing over halfway through). Today, as it’s pretty easy to listen to four songs – or four thousand – with the push of a button or a few mouse clicks, listening to vinyl records seems laughably archaic. Modern technology seems to indicate that the labor of hauling boxes of records from place to place will forever remain a relic of our parents’ generation. Nevertheless, despite the ease of digital music, vinyl is making a comeback. Especially within the last four or five years, records have started to become, for lack of a better term, fashionable, especially among alternative culture music enthusiasts. More and more small music stores and even some chains have given over their counters of compact discs for racks of vinyl LPs. To feed the rising demand, many music distribution companies have redoubled their efforts to press and circulate records, even including codes for electronic download of the record’s music with the LP itself. The question, however, is why? Is there actually something special about listening to a physical record that makes the handful of songs worth the effort?

If nothing else, vinyl can sound better. A record in pristine condition can rival very high-quality digital music in fidelity, even if played very loudly though good speakers. What I will say, though, is that vinyl sounds warmer; that is, more like the instruments or artists you’re hearing are sitting in your room playing live. Vinyl has a sort of sense of depth to it that is very hard, if not impossible, to emulate, even with excellent speakers.

 There is something else, though, that vinyl has to offer: it makes you to listen to the album – the whole album, beginning to end, each song in the order that the artist intended. This is something that, by and large, has been lost to us. We live in the era of hit singles, playlists and the shuffle button. When was the last time you picked an artist you like and listened to one of their albums, straight through, in order? Odds are, it has been a little while. We mix our music; we mash it up and scatter songs every which way and that’s okay. It’s even good; you can get a lot out of stuff when you listen to a lot of different artists at once. On the other hand, though, something is still lost. Sometimes, albums are essentially just a random lineup of somebody’s songs. On the other hand, a lot of artists shape their albums very carefully, to tell a story or to squeeze the maximum effect out of the music they have written. When digital music first became popular more than a decade ago, many of us lost track of what it was like to just listen to an album start to finish.

Records began to make their resurgence around the beginning of the most recent “hipster” movements in the latter half of the 2000s, with indie musicians and fans looking for a way to stand apart and simultaneously look back to the roots of underground and home-grown music everywhere. The emergence had another effect though: it brought back to the forefront the idea of listening to an album the way the artist intended. I think a lot of people found this reminder somewhat refreshing, and the throwback to vinyl expanded beyond the hipster underground into a much larger swath of musical culture. Vinyl albums aren’t really just for classic rock “historians” and the collectors of artifacts anymore. I suppose the point of this is twofold. If you have a chance, sit down and listen to a real record some time – you may find the different sound to be worth the effort. Finally (even electronically) pick an artist, get an album and listen to it start to finish. You never know what you might learn about your favorite band.