Since the Spring of 2014, I’ve been engaged in a one-man mission: to make an album I actually liked. It’s been tougher than I thought, taken longer than I wanted and been more fun than I could ever have hoped. But it’s not over yet.

Are albums dead? And does it matter?

In the past decade, there has been no shortage of articles proclaiming the death of things we have taken for granted. In musical terms, it started with those of the, “Is the single dead?” variety. Personally, I never felt this would be the case. Individual songs will always have more staying power with the general public than entire albums. Sure, White Ladder and other mainstays have practically become part of the furniture for certain generations, but songs are the only short musical medium we hear drifting past in a car, on a tinny shop stereo or even (heaven forbid), played on a nearby radio.

I felt that compilations such as “Best Of”s and “Now that’s what I call vacuous forgettable pop” would easily die out quickest in this era. After all, why would you need a compilation of all of this years hits or the best songs by a certain band when playlists were just as easy to create? (I am still baffled by how wrong I was on this). But albums? I thought that albums would survive. Albums, after all are something else.

I remember sitting in a tiny bedroom in a small village in rural Holland, listening to the final master of the album and thinking, “Shit. It’s like 1977.”

When I dig an artist – hear their song, see them live, see their video – the natural thing for me is to want more. And what better way to get more than diving into a 45 minute playground of that artist? Entering their world where they decide what sounds you’re going to hear, which songs will be included and in what order. Where they control the horizontal and the vertical. I remember getting back from Electric Picnic and rushing to listen to TuneYards’ latest album for this reason. Alas, in reality, it is the album which has lost its place, become ever more expensive to mass-distribute and increasingly considered irrelevant. In some ways, this is probably a fantastic development.

My first album.

The very first CD I ever bought for myself was Ash’s 1977. I had just turned 14 years old, kissed my first girl and learned my first proper chords on the guitar. This album was utterly perfect for me, all loud guitars and thunderous drums with super-catchy choruses and a voice which, let’s face it, sounded like a 14 year old boy’s. But even I couldn’t escape the central issue with a 12-song collection by a band heretofore known mostly for infectious singles and the music off a beer ad on TV: a lot of it just wasn’t very good.

Yes, possibly as many as 6 of the tracks were not only forgettable but difficult to sit through while waiting for something better. That album, for me, set up a constant yardstick – the height of the highs Vs the depth of the lows. If an album could contain a number songs that were truly good enough, they could compensate for the duds. Not all albums manage to do that. But people seem to remember the highs in a lot more cases than the overall impression the album leaves.

Albums on Compact Disc
Looking through my old CD collection and the memories contained therein.

Zooming forward 14 years to April 2010 and the release of my own first album, I could fully understand why albums were so difficult to get right and also, why many consider them a dead art form. Prior to the release of Gentlemen’s Club, myself and the other Dead Flags worked our asses off trying to make the best debut album we could. We had a bunch of fantastic songs, a great producer/collaborator and we figured we could do it. But I remember sitting in a tiny bedroom in a small village in rural Holland, listening to the final master of the album and thinking, “Shit. It’s like 1977.” (In reality, it’s not. I would be lucky to get near that album but the comparison was more in my personal impression). It had some good tracks but yes, mostly, it didn’t really measure up to the lofty goals we had for it.

Why make albums anyway?

So, if the album is difficult to get right, expensive as holy fuck to produce and largely irrelevant to the wider public, isn’t it a good thing that the album is dying out?

Well, no. I don’t love Beck because of “Where It’s At”, I love him because of Odelay. I love Radiohead because of The Bends and Ok Computer, not because of “High & Dry” or “Paranoid Android”. When I think of music I love, the album covers for Electo-Shock Blues and The Soft Bulletin jump into my head. I remember listening to The Best of Blur and even 1 by The Beatles and being underwhelmed. I’m a fan of both of those bands but compilations of hits don’t tell the real story of a band – only an album can give you that sort of viewpoint. That’s why I love albums.

Albums do that crazy thing of taking you to another place. If they’re sequenced just right, you go on a journey with it – you press play and leave the ground, travelling out into the darkness, taking turns and rolls, ups and downs before being depositing safely back where you started. And the journey changes you. Especially as a teenager, albums have the ability to stretch your brain, open you up to new possibilities and make you see the world from new perspectives. Now, in my middle-30s, it happens less frequently but it still happens. That is why albums matter.

And so, yet again, I embark upon the making of an album, hoping to make the best 45 minute collection of music I possibly can. I am still proud of Gentlemen’s Club but I see it as my first attempt and when is the first attempt at something ever the best? 1977 may not be perfect but I still love it. Most importantly, everybody has to start somewhere – you can’t learn how to make a great album by studying or watching others. You can only learn how to make an album by making an album.

Here I go.

February 25, 2017

Posted In: Thoughts