by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, September 10, 2020
Early in my life I listened to songs. Then there was a period of years when I played whole albums. After that, in the 1980s I switched from buying LPs to CDs, which made listening to individual songs practical again. MP3 and streaming music services further conditioned me to focus my time exclusively on songs. Maybe that was bad.
Recently, for some unknown urge, I started playing whole albums again. Album listening is very different from song listening. For a decade now I’ve mainly played my favorite tunes via a Spotify playlist, becoming my own DJ who constantly spun a lifetime of Top 800 hits in random mode. That put me out of the habit of playing albums. Oh, I’d occasionally try a new album as they come out, to see if there was a hit-worthy song to add to my ultimate playlist, but after one play I’d forget all about the album. This went beyond seeking immediate gratification to always wanting to hear songs that tune my emotional settings to 11.
Some fluke of fate I don’t understand has made me tired of my Top 800 playlist. I’ve gone back to playing whole albums after lunch. I’ve wondered if this is an aging thing, or if I finally just worn out all my favorite songs after playing them constantly for years.
The albums I’ve turned to are mostly from the 1940s and 1950s. Because I don’t know the hits of those decades I need to listen to the entire album. This has put me in album mode again. Is this why so many young people have resurrected the LP from extinction? Have they discovered album mode listening? (By the way, it horrifies me they are paying $20-50 for new albums, but it’s reassuring to know that albums are making a comeback.)
In 2019 a total of 18.84 million vinyl LPs were sold. Back in the 1970s some hit albums sold almost that many copies alone. I’m not sure if it’s a significant revival movement. Since the pandemic sales have fallen off — with some people claiming it’s the economic downturn, and others wondering if it’s due to rising costs of new LPs, but I’m curious if album mode listening is also wearing off.
Most of my friends dwell in song play mode, listening to their lifetime of favorite tunes on their phones. It’s possible to create playlists of whole albums on streaming services, but if you listen in random play mode, it ruins the song order, destroying any sense of an album. I think most Baby Boomers I know lost their album mode listening abilities too. I guess we all just got too impatient.
I wonder how many people today call up an album on Spotify, Amazon Music, Qobuz, Tidal, or Apple Music, and let it play through? (And you don’t hit the skip button.) This got me to thinking about how at different times in my life I listened to songs, and other times albums.
Back in the 1950s while riding in a 1955 Pontiac I discovered pop music. I was maybe six, and I had no idea what music was, but certain songs enchanted my little mind. Oh, I’m sure I heard music on television, in the background, but it was the rock ‘n’ roll songs on the car AM radio that caught my attention. My father hated that music though, and seldom let me stay on those stations.
Christmas 1962 was probably the best Christmas ever for me. That’s when I got a AM clock radio and my sister Becky got a small portable record player. We lived on Homestead Air Force Base. Around that time an airman asked my father to keep his console stereo and record collection while he was stationed overseas. So I was introduced to Top 40 hits, 45s, and LPs all at the same time. From 1962 until the beginning of 1966 my main source of music was Top 40 songs from WQAM and WFUN Miami. I was too young to have money to buy my own 45s and LPs.
That was the era of song mode. 1960s hits are burned into my brain. As I got older, started mowing lawns, throwing papers, and babysitting for money, I began buying my albums. That’s when I joined record clubs to get a dozen albums at once. That’s when I progressed from song mode to album mode.
It’s possible to play just one song off an LP, and I did, but it’s much easier to play whole sides at a time. And usually, if you played side A, flipping the disc over to play side B was a habit. Listening to whole albums involves listening to songs you don’t always like on first listening. But eventually, an album becomes an holistic experience, a whole work of art, and I became conditioned to expect each song in its order, even learning to like the minor cuts. Album mode requires a whole different head space to appreciate. It represents a kind of patience, a kind of open state of mind, a kind of willingness to go with the flow.
When CDs came out it became easy to play specific songs from an album, and even program favorite cuts to repeat. CDs allowed me to be impatient with songs that didn’t push my “It’s a Hit” button immediately. I eventually bought a couple thousand CDs. Then several years ago, when I thinned out my collection, I found for many albums, I only remembered one or two songs. I reduced my collection down to about five hundred CDs, keeping only those that had more than a few remembered songs.
After switching to streaming music I seldom played even those CDs, or played whole albums on Spotify. This changed this past couple of weeks when I started playing albums by Doris Day, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Patti Page, Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker. Yesterday I jumped forward in time to play albums by Bette Midler and Michael Murphy, and liked them. Right now I’m listening to After Bathing at Baxter’s by The Jefferson Airplane.
What has given me the patience to go back to album mode? I found it relaxing to just listen to whatever came up. That’s a very different listening experience than what I’ve grown accustomed to in recent decades. Am I experiencing a paradigm shift, or is this only a momentary fling?
For a while, I called my main Spotify playing “Songs Rated 10.” I could play it in random mode and always intensely love every song. I think that ruined me for album listening. Yet, somehow, I’ve broken out of that habit and fell into album mode again. Cool. I’m really digging it for now. I’m avoiding my playlists. I crave albums. It’s disappointing that a lot of early albums no longer exist on Spotify because they’ve been replaced by retrospective compilations.
I’ve also discovered that I like reading about old albums or remembering an old favorite album, and then putting them on. But it depresses me when I discover they no longer exist to play online. I guess that’s why some folks collect old LPs. An example of this is The Secret Life of J. Eddy Fink, my favorite album by Janis Ian. It’s included in Society’s Child: The Verve Recordings which I have on CD and can play through Spotify, but psychologically I want it as a separate album.
If you really get into album mode you get accustomed to it being a specific set of songs in an exact order. I still haven’t lost my conditioning to the American versions of the Beatles albums, but the only way to relive those albums would be to buy old copies of the American releases. Luckily, I’m not that anal for recreating all my music memories – yet. It also annoys me that some CDs didn’t perfectly recreate the LP album, either from reordering songs, adding new tunes, dropping cuts, or even including different versions of songs. Extreme audiophiles even get annoyed at reissues that sound different because of new pressings, production runs, or remastering.
I’ve become curious about why I’ve returned to album mode listening. I thought writing this essay might reveal why, but it hasn’t. It all started with Doris Day. I played her first LP from 1949, You’re My Thrill, which Spotify considers an 8-song EP. The whole album was pleasant. I then began playing other albums from the late 1940s and early 1950s and they were all pleasant to just put on and let play. I had no expectations. I knew no cuts to feature. I didn’t favor any style of singing or song over any other. It was a completely new era of music for me, so I just went along for the ride. I found that exceedingly pleasant.
After several days of playing albums from that era I jumped forward to the 1966-1985 years when I played whole albums before and tried some of them. It was still very pleasant to stay in album mode. So it wasn’t just for unknown music.
I don’t know how long I’ll stay in album mode listening, but I’m really digging it at the moment. Eventually, I think I’ll like to try some 21st-century albums. I have a very hard time getting into contemporary music, but maybe being in album mode again will give me more patience to try today’s unknown artists and styles.