The Big Lookback: The Singles vs. Albums Debate
Remarks from a 2013 New Music Seminar panel
Why do I do these things, especially for free? For the exposure, in part. But more out of a sense of respect for and connection with the genuinely committed if artistically unreliable bizzers without whom my lifetime of rock criticism could never have happened. So when in 2013 I was asked to join a New Music Seminar panel called “The Great Debate: Singles vs. Albums,” I said why not. The setup paired me on the album side with Anand Wilder of the well-regarded little Brooklyn band Yeasayer—whose 2012 Fragrant World had eked out a B plus from me and is sounding song-deprived but nicely shouty as I replay it for the first time in a decade—who to my surprise proved not just sweet but somewhat overawed when we confabbed before the main event. On the other side was digital-music pioneer Jay Frank, an up-and-coming bizzer who would die of cancer in 2019, and Bay Area hip-hop/electro producer Niles Hollowell-Dhar, who shortly after this event would rebrand himself as the all-capped Kshmr and remains active in the electro-house world. The moderator was Billboard’s Bill Werde, now the dean of the music business program at Syracuse University. At one point Wilder disagreed with Werde about the placement of a podium and Werde, who is not known for his calm demeanor, subjected him to a fearfully immoderate tongue-lashing. Later Werde sightings on my part—we both taught in NYU’s Clive Davis program—included similar outbursts.
I went first, as so often at these affairs the only presenter to read from a written text rather than winging it, which Frank in particular had presumably done dozens of times as he promoted his digital vision to conventioneering bizzers from coast to coast. I revive said text in this context because I believe it does a good job of making a case that will continue to pertain for as long as artists feel compelled to string songs into a whole, as they somehow still do whatever the financial payback. In the closing remarks Frank insisted that “Singles are how people consume music. Keep it tight,” and to me that “keep it tight” reads like a tight slogan he’d long since perfected. In response I implored: “Work within the commercial restraints and then expand them. You want to make your audience better.” One contemporary report was unconvinced to say the least: “Wilder and Christgau made the usual argument of art this and art that, but at times they were hilariously mocked by the moderator, Billboard’s Bill Werde, as well as the opposing side (to the audience’s pleasure) as being out of touch and holding onto the album as sacred.”
When Werde polled the panelists, all of them—including, notably, my teammate Wilder—came down on the singles side, as did most of the audience. Except for Wilder, whose band bit the dust in 2019, none of this was a surprise. But I’d been replaying the albums-versus-singles argument for decades by then and in a way still am. Are albums “sacred”? Of course not—few things are. Do singles rool in today’s streaming era? Of course they do. But are albums therefore kaput? Far from it, in part because so many musicians feel they have lots of music to make or things to say and in part because they hope to make their audiences better. The brief lecture I spent a day or two writing in 2013 adds historical detail to this dichotomy, which is why I’m proud to publish it here for the first time. In the end it’s about art this, art that, and art some other thing you could never have thought of yourself.
Let me begin by pointing out that the albums-versus-singles debate is the direct descendant of ye olde rockism-versus-poppism debate, which I’m on record as considering a crock of shit—a classic faux controversy in the shallow, provocation-a-week tradition of British music journalism. As a rock critic who’s proud to call himself that, but whose ideas about culture were changed utterly by the Pop artists Tom Wesselmann and Andy Warhol and who never uses the word “pop” pejoratively, my basic tastes in rock have always run to smart, catchy songs with a good beat, and to this day what I most often mean by a good album is a well-put-together collection such songs.
Track by track, my tastes lean “pop”—I value novelty, frivolity, and crazy energy, which at their best endure just fine, and I love my one-hit wonders as much as any trivia hound. But as the world’s most prolific album reviewer, I do have my sobersided side, which is supposedly the problem with “rockism”—a self-serious attention to vision, meaning, morality, politics, and so forth. So to me this squabble always looks like cross-generational nitpicking. Any critic who can’t make room for both rock and pop, as if they’re so different, is unfit for the job.
Of course, things have changed since 1967, when I began publishing criticism. Moreover, the main change was already underway in 1967, only rock critics, myself included, took a while to catch on. By this I mean understanding what constitutes a good beat. In my version of history that change took place with James Brown’s 1965 pop hit—it was top 10 Billboard—“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” That’s when funk went pop, and when rhythm established itself as a crucible of musical experimentation in the pop realm every bit as significant as Bob Dylan’s lyrics and the Beatles’ concept albums—only Sgt. Pepper, rather than the set of linked songs many heralded, was actually a variety show that owed its concept to British music hall.
As a publicity coup, however, Sgt. Pepper—which to be clear I regard as a great album topped in the Beatles’ oeuvre only by The Beatles’ Second Album—was momentous. It was in the wake of Sgt. Pepper that us pioneering rock critics began to hear from artists and record companies and obediently bruit about a term that fell into such disuse that no one remembers it anymore: “artistic unit.” The album was an “artistic unit.” In 1967, there was no so-called “underground” or “progressive” or God knows “college” radio; the FM band was just getting off the ground as an economically viable medium. Supposedly “underground” artists like the Doors and Jefferson Airplane still broke commercially with hit singles in the top 40 format on AM radio. But they had bigger ambitions than that, and so did their record companies, which quickly perceived that the profitability of an 89-cent 45-rpm single sold to teenagers could be greatly exceeded by the profitability of a four-dollar 33-rpm LP sold to post-teen college students and even college graduates. Artists like the Airplane and the Doors really did have serious aesthetic ambitions that exceeded in accessibility and sheer quantity what singles could provide them. But the record companies definitely saw the advantages in it, and by 1969 we had what was trumpeted as a “billion-dollar business.”
Once that goal had been reached, the term “artistic unit” quickly faded from view. Everyone, including the many rock bands who were getting rich temporarily and the few who would stay rich forever, understood that the album was also a “commercial unit,” and before long underground radio had been rechristened AOR: album-oriented rock. Which format, while making room for some albums of significant artistic quality (Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac) and ignoring others perfectly suitable for the format (Randy Newman, Joy of Cooking, the Move, Richard & Linda Thompson) was soon defined as objectively racist and male chauvinist sludge with the help of formatting geniuses epitomized by the loathsome Lee Abrams, credited with inventing the term AOR and singled out by Def Jam publicist Bill Adler as “the greatest cultural criminal of the 20th century.” What saved popular music from AOR hegemony were two singles-oriented genres. One, disco, never cared much about albums, although it produced some good ones, and took to stretching singles into six- and ten-minute “disco disc” 12-inches that quickly lost use value off the dancefloor. The other, punk, was a singles music by economic necessity, although it helped that no genre ever has been more committed to the catchy song with a good beat. Just like in the ‘60s, the best punk bands on both sides of the Atlantic soon proved to have more good songs in them than the singles economy could handle and produced an enormous store of albums that endure to this day.
It was in reaction to the surprising propensity of punks to take themselves seriously as album artists that the rockism-versus-poppism nonsense began, as next-convolution proponents of the so-called New Romantic movement and its Culture Club-Eurythmics-Kajagoogoo offshoots made their stand for the shallow, disposable pop pleasure that meant nothing more than the moment it evoked and encapsulated. But it was really disco that made the difference, as it evolved or transmuted after supposedly dying in 1980 into acid house and its supposed revolution and, after many more name changes, what we currently call EDM. EDM is not my world, and I am unsuited to judge it aesthetically, although I enjoy some tiny portion of it in my own clueless, sensation-hungry way. All I want to say about it is what I always say: modern dance music is site-specific. It is designed not just for the club, but for the club sound system. Those who have learned to love it there can enjoy it elsewhere in diminished form. Those who haven’t usually can’t.
But disco can be said to have evolved into something else too: hip-hop. And there none of my reservations apply. Hip-hop has proven the great popular music of the last 20 or 30 years. It’s also engendered an enormous quantity of great albums that combine catchy songs with a good beat with the rhythmic explorations I’ve traced to “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” But let me make clear what I know full well: its adepts love many singles that I’ve never noticed or in some cases heard, sometimes because they’ve never been released on albums, sometimes because they’re on terrible ones. I am poorer for that, and I know it. But there are only so many hours in a day, and despite what some MP3 bloggers believe, you can’t speed-listen and expect to hear what’s there. I have other things to do with my ears. I listen to albums. Since 1969, in the Consumer Guide I began writing then and on my weekly Expert Witness blog for MSN Networks, I’ve reviewed something like 13,000 of them. Most of those albums I’ve heard between five or 10 times, many a lot more. I find more good ones now than I ever have. So I know from my own experience that the album is very much with us and shows no signs of going away.
Ten years ago already, Wired magazine asked me to comment on whether the album was, and I quote, “a dying art form,” and in the antilabor tradition of Silicon Valley somehow got me to write 100 words or so for nothing even though I don’t like Wired as much as I do Tom Silverman. Here they are: “One never knows, do one, but to me the idea that the album is ‘a dying art form’ seems balmy—and the saner theory that it’s an obsolescent cash cow only computes at all if you assume the music business equals a few major record labels. Obviously musical information has become more fungible since digitization, and obviously some artists and consumers favor single songs/tracks. But even assuming an unlikely worst case for the record biz mega and indie, let’s say this: for as long as artists tour they’ll peddle song collections with the rest of the merch, and those collections will be conceived as artfully as the artists possibly can.”
Ten years later, and remember that the “artistic unit” idea only goes back 45, this remains rather more prophetic than Wired probably figured. But that’s not to say I’m an optimist about this stuff. Never mind how file-sharing damaged the biz’s economic weal, which I’ll be happy to discuss later but which in the end isn’t my department. I’m in business for the art, and admit to being appalled by how the availability of MP3s has changed listening itself. Without question downloading’s pay-per-track sales scheme favors a song aesthetic in which said song is relatively disposable if you’ve purchased it and totally so if you’ve gotten it free. Instantaneity becomes key. Grab it and play it, love it or leave it—I’m oversimplifying, and cramming authorized and unauthorized downloading into one model, but among younger listeners that’s often how it’s done these days. Left behind is the album effect in which your craving for a musical confection exposes you to less hookful fare—savories, meat and potatoes, crusty bread, strange fruit, castor oil. In its stead find a technology that enables artists to retweak the same tracks endlessly for promo and profit.
Still, I know from personal experience that there are other alternatives, and one way to describe that alternative is that it’s nice to hook up with somebody for kicks and end up with a friend—and that this works better with music than it does with sex. The number of artists who can sum up a distinct vision of life by putting together a sequence of catchy songs with a good beat is easily in the thousands. They keep coming, and they keep on keeping on. For one thing, rock and roll is not, as everyone used to assume and fools still believe, a youth music. Artists stick at it into their forties and fifties, and though most repeat themselves to dulling effect, especially if they were dull to begin with, a surprising complement remain fresh as they sharpen their skills, a few deepen, and some even find themselves at 50 or 60. The internationalization of the record industry also enlarges the pool. And crucial is the durability of the alt-rock subculture. Through countless competing fads and fashions and the cruel contraction of the collegiate economy, music has remained the chief locus of youth bohemia since punk came of age. Most of this music is way too site-specific. But some of it pops out of its box.
Economic viability? Scary, and not my department. But anybody who believes the album should kick the bucket is just too easily bored. And believe me, that’s a shitty way to live your life.