12/21/2005

so I was fooling around on iTunes the other day and I noticed you can add album covers to the iPod pretty easily, which is cool, you just drag the image over from wherever - I was using Amazon. But doing this a few times got me thinking how album covers are sort of obsolete now - I don't really think I would recognize one of the CDs I've bought recently, because I basically take it out of the case, put it on my iPod, then put it in a binder, and put the case wherever. Which is too bad, because some of the album covers are pretty cool, like Kanye West's new album, for instance. It's good that the iPod shows the album covers when you play the songs, but I wonder if albums as a physical thing will be obsolete. I mean, I guess they already are to some extent. Which would suck, because I always used to like opening the CD, which is always a pain in the ass, and smelling the new paper smell of the booklet, and perusing the liner notes or whatever photos they had in the booklet as I listened to the CD. I'm sure vinyl would have been even better, but I never really had any of those.

2 comments:

Donkey Kong said...

Seriously, I love mp3s -- I pretty much wasted my entire college career on downloading mp3s. But one of my biggest pet peeves is this idea that mp3s and the iPod can replace the album and the CD.

One of the greatest feelings is buying a new album -- from a band you love that has just released their first set of songs in over a year -- getting home all excited, plugging it in the CD player, putting on my head phones, turning the sound up to 11 as i lie in bed reading the liner notes and lyrics as the CD plays.

Plus, as someone who truly loves music, listen to a Zepplin song on a CD and on an mp3. MP3s are compressed files that lose some of texture of a song in the compression. Again, a great album has great production where the band and the producer add texture to the song, by maybe adding a soft xylophone or violion into the background of the song -- but that can go missing in the mp3 during compression.

And what makes some of the great albums is the album cover. Even something like AC-DC's "Back in Black" -- great album cover because its spawned so many other bands albums like Metallica. The CD makes music a true multimedia form -- music, stills (album covers and photos), and even video with music videos embedded on the CD.

Imagine the great concept albums -- Sgt Peppers, Ziggy Stardust, The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd -- none of those would exist if the main means of selling music was to try to deliver a hot single, because no record label would invest the time, money and effort in a band when they could have Diane Warren write some catchy but heartless song for Ashlee Simpson to lip-sync to.

The great bands of rock music define their greatness not by putting together a catchy tune or two and then having 10 songs of mediocrity, but by putting together 45 minutes of transcendental rock several times over their career. Thats why most bands put out CDs only once every year or two -- because it takes a long time to put together 10-15 good songs out of maybe 20, 30 or even 50 songs they may experiment with.

A great album has an order. It has an ebb and flow. It'd be if a band in concert, played the encore first. An album has a bit of foreplay, first getting you warmed up, then finally getting it on, before bringing you back to Earth at the end. Imagine if you randomized Abbey Road and then re-re-released it. It'd be missing some of the magic in its pacing.

I love mp3s as a vehicle for experimentation -- for trying new music. But the mp3 can never replace the experience of listening to an album.

Edmund Schluessel said...

For the most part I agree -- which is why the album format is already, with few exceptions, dead; it was dead long before mp3s came around. Simplistic production, careless packaging, these have all been pandemic in the record industry from the beginning, and it's only in the cases of lucky synergies between songwriter, artist, engineer, producer, publisher, and consumer that albums greater than the sum of their parts came together.

I think that the conditions in the recording industry have now poisoned these reactions, making a good album well-nigh impossible. Short version: too many crap songs are being played by too many mediocre musicians too willing to do what their managers tell them, recorded by crap engineers under the advice of cookie-cutter producers who either rely on computers because they don't know any better or need them to make the artists listenable, the results boxed up as soon as possible and sold on hype by record labels who treat artists generically and sell to their target demographic of 15-year-old girls who shop at Hot Topic and their idiot emo boyfriends. Everyone's input pulls in a different direction, and none of those directions point towards a good album. And none of this has anything to do with mp3s.

I will grant you that there are technical limitations in the mp3 format; however, these limitations are, fundamentally, surmountable -- as availability of broadband grows and computers get faster, we become more able to afford 10MB of space for an ultra-high-quality copy of a song. I think the only reason we don't yet is we're in a lag phase akin to the 1950s in recording technology: for a long time, nobody recorded songs that were longer than three and a half minutes, because the acetate discs that were the only thing going until vinyl came around only had room for three and a half-minute songs, and it took a few years for people to wake up to the new possibilities. The CD, meanwhile, has a much firmer technical limitation: it simply cannot store any frequency information above 44.1 kilohertz, a conscious decision which was made to save space but that is so firmly entrenched as to be practically unshiftable. DVDA offers some way out, although I think that the technical improvement of computer I mention above will outpace any hardware standard. And as nostalgic as it is possible to be about vinyl, I remember well how easy it was to ruin them with a scratch, or with a few minutes in a sunbeam, or slightly too much humidity -- it was harder than cellaring wine.