Opinion

Why albums still matter in the age of streaming

[Something from contributor Adam Morrison. -AC]

It’s easier than its ever been to listen strictly to songs you already know you like. You can create your own playlist, or just pick any track and see what else the streaming service thinks you’ll like, based on your song choice. You can listen to music all day long and hear no two songs by the same artist.

But albums still matter. Albums provide music fans with things they can’t get anywhere else.

While a single can capture a certain mood or moment, an album serves as a snapshot of an artist at a certain stage. The full picture that a full-length provides is how fans can tell all that their favourite artists are trying to accomplish with their music—and maybe even what issues are important to the artist right now, and what kind of state of mind the artist is in. And you can chart an artist’s musical evolution from album to album much better than you can from single to single.

Few artists, if any, can show everything they have to offer through singles. With albums, we expect variety. And artists have the freedom when creating an album to try out ideas that wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate for a single. The scope of an album can include experimentation.

As cool as it is to discover songs in a playlist, I just don’t think it can compare with the experience of listening to an album. Albums are sequenced to provide listeners with an experience similar to watching a movie, with a range of feelings. And there are many, many great albums that are unified by a theme, a concept, or even a story that’s told over the album’s running length.

At what point can a listener call themselves a fan of an artist? To me, it doesn’t come from being into an artist’s singles. When I hear a song I like, I want to explore what else the artist has to offer. And that happens through the album experience. That’s how I can tell what an artist is really about. Their albums are their main statements. Albums are what determines if I’m a fan or not. Albums, not singles, are what determine if I want to see an artist live. And speaking of which, I think that live albums are the only way to have a good sense of what an artist’s concerts are like without having to have attended one first.

Time for some examples. Progressive rock band Porcupine Tree released three singles from Closure/Continuation before the album came out in June 2022. I liked each single. After listening to the entire album, I loved the album, and I appreciated the singles even more within the album’s context. I immediately bought a ticket to see Porcupine Tree live on the Closure/Continuation tour.

If I’d heard only the couple of singles released from the Smashing Pumpkins’ Oceania, I’d have missed out on hearing a lot of great songs. One of those songs is “The Chimera,” which is one of my favourite Pumpkins tracks of all time.

I love every song from Death Grips’ debut album, 2012’s The Money Store. But after each song ends, I want to hear the next one, so it’s an album I always listen to in its entirety. NSFW warning on the following video

What are your habits? Do you still listen to albums you haven’t heard before, or are you content with single tracks? And what are some of your favourite albums that you love as a single piece? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38296 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

3 thoughts on “Why albums still matter in the age of streaming

  • Alan,
    Great article. Great points.
    Although I agree that the album has an invaluable purpose in music, storytelling, and conceptualization, I think that playlists can serve the very same purposes. I am an avid curator of playlists, myself. My friends and I battle back and forth about whether playlists are the downfall of the album; we’ve come to believe that they both play an important part in the music world today. We should hold space for both.
    The “death of the album” is certainly a negative side effect of playlists and modern streaming. However, making a playlist or a mixtape can be a magical experience. If done so with care and intention, the curator can use music to communicate, create, explore, define, all the while appreciating the artists included therein. That is what I strive to do, at least!
    Check out my many Spotify playlists and you will see what I mean!
    Albums I love to listen to start to finish include:
    Hunky Dory – Bowie
    Inner Peace – Yellow Days
    In these Silent Days – Brandi Carlile
    Mt. Joy – Mt. Joy
    ALPHA – Charlotte Day Wilson
    Skin – Joy Crookes
    The Baby – Samia
    Brand New Eyes – Paramore
    Caress Your Soul – Sticky Fingers
    Cautionary Tales of Youth – Lapsley
    The Life of Pablo – Kanye West
    Cracker – Cracker
    And all albums Kendrick Lamar, of course. That’s just the beginning though!

    Reply
  • I’m still buying albums (in CD format) from my favourite artists because I agree that there’s an invisible threshold that’s crossed when you go from liking a few songs to being a fan, and the act of purchasing an album is the rite that signifies you’ve made that leap. An album is more than a random collection of songs: it provides context and tone that comes through not just from the individual tracks, but how those tracks are arranged and even the album art. Taken as a whole, albums are like journal entries that, years down the road, will provide invaluable insight into where an artist or band was at key points in their artistic and technical development. I hope the album never dies… 🙂

    Reply
  • Albums I have loved:
    Raw Power; The Wall (ok, anything by Floyd)
    – But let’s skip ahead in time.
    Appetite For Destruction; Use Your Illusion; Ride The Lightning; Metallica; Licensed To Ill; BloodSugarSexMagik; Ill Communication; Doggystyle, Cypres Hill; Black Sunday; House Of Pain; Nevermind; Ten; Enter The Wu-Tang; Exit Planet Dust; Dig Your Own Hole; Homework; Dirty Vegas; Californication; By The Way; Get Ready; Veni Vidi Vicious; Glee; Tragic Kingdom; Rock Steady; Gorillaz; Undertow; AEnima
    – Let’s skip some more.
    Carnavas; Swoon; FIDLAR; Too; Disgraceland; City Club; You’re Not A Bad Person, It’s Just A Bad World; Songs That Don’t Belong

    Then there’s;
    Arctic Monkeys right up AM
    Bob Marley (C’mon, It’s Bob)
    Jimi Hendrix (pick one)
    Michael Jackson (Thriller & Bad, I was a child)
    JJ Cale (really)
    Wu-Tang (Enter The Wu-Tang)
    Steve Miller Band (just throwing this in because, yes, I like SMB)
    Bloody Tourists (don’t ask me how I came across Kink)

    But at this point I’m literally going through my Spotify to try and remember what kind of stuff I’ve been into. There’s just so much music out there. And so much of it that I have simply forgotten with time. I haven’t always been in one place for very long nor had the resources. I’ve bought & sold & bought & lost & stole & broken & countless other reasons. Life gets in the way.

    The older I get (I’m 45 now) it’s just easier to turn on the radio and listen. I don’t even make Spotify playlists. I add entire catalogues hoping to listen but then I just forget and keep adding more music to My Library. It’s almost like having it there makes me feel like I own it. But I don’t, do I? It really is NOT the same as when I had to spend the time & money (or risk charges).

    There’s the idea that as a teen there was really nothing else to do but kill time with friends and listen to music (or play video games). These were formative years, as they say. Self-formative. And so much of those years is influenced by what your friends share with you.

    Those years were also unique in the amount of breakthrough genres of music that arose, seemingly out of nowhere. But we now know that those musical family trees do actually have branches & roots of influence.

    I never fit into any specific “social group” because I could at best be called eclectic in my taste. My social circle was fairly diverse. I was a misfit & a delinquent.

    OMG, the parents (or parent). Who completely disapproved of anything that wasn’t Salsa, Merengue, Cumbia, Vallenato. Do you know what I mean? I’ll never forget the day my father asked me if I knew what was really being said on a Fat Boys album. How I got it, I don’t know but I enjoyed their movies. I was still in single digits back then.

    I also really like classical music. I played the piano as a child. With a little practice I can read score. I reached Conservatory level 6 by the time I was in grade 5. I lost interest the more my parents requested performances for their visitors. Gave the trombone a go in grade 7 & 8 at St. Leonard Catholic School. Then, well, I refer you to the beginning of this… recollection? Life! What a vicious cycle. Like the jagged 3D path of a stylus, add time (4D) and you get sound (5D?).

    Oh, and I’ve always wanted to learn guitar. Problem is, people always start by talking tab to me. It never makes sense to my brain because I want to see it on score. Where the hell is middle C on a fret? It’s not the same, is it?

    Told you I’d write you novels.

    Reply

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