Commercially recorded and released music hasn’t been around for too long––roughly 130 years, give or take a decade––and in the nascent days classical music still reigned. Those early discs took their cues from the prevalent concert, opera, and recital programs of the time, the compositions of which were carefully sequenced to take an audience on the most engaging and entertaining journey possible.
With the rise of pop music in the 1920s and through the 45 era to the 1960s, the paradigm slowly shifted to emphasize a group or artist’s big hit, which was eventually employed to carry LP releases predominantly populated with sub-par cuts called “filler,” which were quickly cobbled together and thrown on an album to maximize revenue. This became especially useful after a band or artist’s debut album, which often found them suddenly bereft of new material under the pressure of looming production deadlines and in the throes of near-constant touring (it boggles the mind now, but the labels used to expect two albums and several singles from a band/artist PER YEAR).
The Beatles changed everything. The self-proclaimed working-class quartet from Liverpool were dead set on providing wall-to-wall value to their fans, making sure a consumer got their money’s worth on every album track and two-sided single (and also securing a larger piece of the pie by writing their own songs). This approach culminated in the release of first, the “Penny Lane” / “Strawberry Fields Forever” double A side on February 13, 1967, and then, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on May 26, the album that definitively redirected commercial focus to the entirety of a single, consolidated program made up of separate, superlative compositions.
From roughly the mid-’60s to the early ’80s, the long-playing album was king, aided and abetted by the emergence of FM radio and all its simpatico programming formats. Artists were given carte blanche to make records that were cinematically transcendent experiences wherein one could don immersive, often noise-cancelling headphones, perhaps inhale and/or ingest various mind-altering substances, and be taken on a sonic vacation. It’s no accident that the best-selling albums of all time come from this specific period, when commercial and artistic considerations were most harmoniously aligned with an attentive public that craved engrossing soundtracks for self-exploration and evasion.
In 1981, MTV and its videos began to take imagination out of the equation, pickpocketing the public’s focus away from the music itself and initiating the transition back to single-song emphasis. The advent of Napster and the MP3 in the early ’00s was the crucial pivot point that quickened the already in-progress shift back to the singles and playlist era in which we now find ourselves. Increasing financial and social austerity and diminishing attention spans of new generations weaned on ADD-coddling distractions in multiple mediums facilitated the transfer back to attention-grabbing, stand-alone hits that were now procured for little to no money. The album––and the music of its time––lives on in the hearts and minds of mostly Boomers, Gen-Xers, and older Millennials who came up during that era. Who knows if it will ever enjoy a return to either cultural or commercial primacy.
Album track sequencing is a lost art because the album itself has become a lost art, though it still manifests in DJs and streaming sites’ playlists, bands’ live set lists, and the slow and steady resurgence of vinyl sales over the past 20 years (yay vinyl!). And though it’s true that usually only single songs from classic albums still find their way onto radio, we tend to think of the other songs from their respective collections when we hear them, especially the ones directly following in the sequence (the terrestrial stations that still do always play Queen’s “We Will Rock You” / “We Are the Champions” and Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” / “Living Loving Maid” back to back because of how interrelated they are in most listeners’ minds, mostly due to the virtually nonexistent lead-in time between both pairs of songs). The Concept Album, the albatross epitome of compositional unity on a record, is probably worthy of its own separate essay under the rubric of this column.
An effective running order is like a rollercoaster, with each section contributing to the overall thrill. There’s the steep climb at the front end that builds momentum and tension for what is to follow. Then there’s everything in the middle––the exhilarating corkscrews, loops, and speed-building straits in between (including the aforementioned lead-in times, which when short or nonexistent can go a long way to connect an album’s songs to one another, heightening the sensation of listening to a cohesive whole). Finally, one last maneuver and the slow, spent, but elated deceleration back into the loading bay.
As with certain sections of the rollercoaster, there are recognizable archetypes for each song’s position in an album’s running order. The first and last tracks have the most specific and crucial functions, which are to effectively kick off and wrap up a record respectively. The opening cut invites us into the artist’s world, while the last delivers us annihilated but whole out of it, perhaps with a sign of what’s to come on the next opus. Everything in the middle is up for grabs, though there are some noticeable patterns (to wit: vinyl and cassette formats necessitated two separate programs––one per side––within the entirety).
Most bands tended to put the album’s biggest single right up front (Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” FUGAZI’s “Waiting Room,” Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” The English Beat’s ‘Mirror in the Bathroom,” Prince’s “1999,” RUSH’s “Tom Sawyer,” U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name”), as it started things off on a grand high note and acted as a gate-keeping siren to lure the listener in. Others used a no less compelling but not necessarily upbeat hit (Fleetwood Mac’s “Second Hand News,” U2’s “A Sort of Homecoming.” Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters”) to act as a kind of overture.
The last track on an album put a bow on everything that came before it and ushered the listener out of the trance. Led Zeppelin’s version of “When the Levee Breaks” is the perfect coda to IV/(Symbols), with John Bonham releasing the Kraken of his signature beat. The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” is the cherry on a wildly experimental sundae, as is “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “Bold as Love” guides Jimi Hendrix fans through the psychedelic pearly gates after a thrilling ride of wide-amplitude dynamic shifts. “Gold Dust Woman” gave Fleetwood Mac the perfect séance closer for Rumours, as did “Dream Brother” for Jeff Buckley’s Grace. But it doesn’t get more fitting than The Doors’ aptly titled “The End” from their eponymous debut album, with its invoked ritual dream state punctuated by dynamic swells, ebbs, and implosions; it’s the perfect record-closing apotheosis.
The other key archetypes are the song or songs directly following the opening cut and the penultimate one just before the final track. The latter’s primary function is to set up the coda, start the album’s wind-down, and, if the final song doesn’t, pull the greatest ace from the sleeve (no pun intended). The former runs the gamut, with some artists employing anywhere from one to three more high-energy tracks after the lead-off, but somewhere amongst those there is usually a “chill-out” cut that gives both the band and listener a breather and perhaps grants the artist an opportunity to show a slightly different side of their creative personae.
An album’s artwork gave the listener some visual cues as to what to expect from the aural contents, provided a little information about the artist, and granted a platform to impart additional messages, lyrics, and/or credits. It also brought several other types of equally talented artisans into the collaboration and allowed them to contribute creatively. During the vinyl age, the visual canvas was a magnificently vast feast for the eyes (at least two 12 3/16” square panels and also, occasionally, the two-sided record jacket on which a photographer, illustrator, and/or designer could take their own solos), and conjoined synergistically with the music to heighten the sensation of a transcendent aesthetic experience. Illustrators like Roger Dean, photographers like Henry Diltz and Charles Peterson, and designers such as Klaus Voormann and the Hipgnosis collective created visual imagery that played up to the music (and vice versa) and helped albums––and the recording artists themselves––reach the zenith of their cultural influence.
It’s difficult to discern whether or not the album has any chance of returning to zeitgeist prominence. The major labels responsible for nurturing album-oriented artists during the golden age no longer exist in a recognizable form, and advancing technology and de gratis access have made it all too easy for the music itself––even single hits by big artists––to be feloniously devalued (so much for music presented in a medium you literally had to care for in order for it to play back properly). It’s never been easier for an exponentially expanded population of artists to create and release stifling masses of new music, but even the established ones are only earning fractions of pennies on the dollar from streaming sites for entire collections, much fewer single songs (and cover art has been lamentably reduced to a single, infinitesimal square panel). Albums also take too long to make in an era when constant visibility has become more of a pressing concern. If anything, shorter EP releases are the new normal. Rising vinyl sales offer ersatz hope to the nostalgic, but it will be interesting to watch the way things trend over the next decade or two. Until then, those of us who still believe in albums will continue to keep the faith by pouring a glass of wine, smoking some now legal cannabis, and letting the turntable or iPod or Spotify playlist roll uninterrupted through the whole damn program.