In an age of TikTok videos and audio streaming, it feels as though the single has had a resurgence. Here’s easy access to one song. Here’s the ability to craft your own playlist of your favourite tunes. Here’s an automated list of songs you might like because of the one you just listened to. But here’s something else to consider: albums still matter.
There’s something magical about listening to an album all the way through; an experience that is easy to forget given how simple it has become to hear exactly what we want, whenever we want, wherever we are. Listening to an album, particularly if it isn’t one you know inside-out, requires a certain amount of dedication, especially in today’s fast-paced world.
Now is the time to listen
Perhaps one of the few benefits of the global pandemic is that it has allowed those of us spending a lot of time indoors to slow down and to take stock. To find comfort in the things that we have around us, and to either re-engage with the things that brought us joy, or to commit some time to the things we always thought we would get round to focusing on, but never did.
If ever there was a time for sitting down and rediscovering why the album still matters, perhaps it is now. Whether it’s a CD you bought and treasured years ago, a vinyl you still haven’t opened, or going for a long walk and queuing up an entire album instead of just selecting your favourite songs, listening to a full album demands a level of attention that we can really give it now.
An experience the artist intended
The beauty of the album is that every song is there for a reason and that its placement in the tracklist is carefully decided. By listening to an album as a whole piece of work, you get to experience the record the way the artist intended.
There are some albums where this feels particularly special. In 1967 and 1968, bands began to really push themselves to see what they could achieve with an album. Gone were the handful of cover songs and the round-up of singles; in their place were weird and wonderful experiments. Take The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: a whirlwind of ideas in under 40 minutes. There’s that opening track, with the sound of an orchestra warming up, before Paul McCartney bursts in, introducing “the band”; there’s sampled laughter, brass, rock’n’roll, applause… before it shifts into With A Little Help From My Friends. There’s the beautiful Within You Without You, with its Indian influence; a reprise of the title track and the phenomenal A Day In The Life, with its iconic sustained chord ending, repetitious babble and dog whistle. It marked a shift in The Beatles’ creative output, and set a bar for other artists to experiment with their own records. As an album, with layers of detail and songs that run seamlessly into one another, it demands a listener’s full attention.
Thinking outside the box
Other acts were also thinking outside the box with their approach to the album. The Who offered up The Who Sell Out, a weirdly wonderful concept album that interspersed fake commercials and public-service announcements with songs. The album also featured a locked groove ending, in a nod to Sgt Pepper. Small Faces also took a similar path, with 1968’s Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, which weaved together a variety of songs, from the cockney delight of Lazy Sunday to the thundering Afterglow. Come the second half of the record, the comedian Stanley Unwin adds his nonsensical “Unwinese” language to accompany Small Faces’ story of Happiness Stan and his journey to find the missing half of the moon.
All three of those albums – Sgt Pepper, The Who Sell Outand Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake – were also packaged beautifully. Sgt Pepper’s sleeve, a collage designed by Sir Peter Blake, set the standard for album cover art with its inclusion of stars ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Bob Dylan, and featuring The Beatles on the sleeve twice, once in the grey suits and bowl cuts of their early years, and then again in the flamboyant satin suits of the Lonely Hearts Club band. Inside, there was also a cardboard sleeve with cut-out decorations of a moustache, epaulettes and the fictional Sgt Pepper himself, among other things. The Who, meanwhile, posed on the front of The Who Sell Out with oversized items, including Roger Daltrey rubbing a large stick of Odorono deodorant into his armpits and Pete Townshend sat in a bath of Heinz baked beans. The first five hundred of the mono and stereo vinyl copies of the album also contained a “free psychedelic poster” of a butterfly. Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake took this a step further: parodying the packaging of a real product, Ogden’s Nut-Brown Flake Tobacco, the album came in a circular tin in a nod to the loose-leaf tobacco.
For the late 60s and beyond, album artwork would prove just as important to the artists as the music within, making the best album covers an exciting purchase for fans.