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The Friday Morning Listen: Joe Jackson – Night and Day

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Every few months or so, you'll see several articles laying out the latest raw data showing that music sales are down again, with digital downloads heading lower and with CD numbers taking the worst hit. The ultimate outcome is uncertain, but the general consensus seems to be that we're heading back toward consumption of music as single tracks, with the album being the latest casualty of 'progress.'

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not lamenting the future of my music consumption, because I'll be purchasing albums for as long as they're made — and I'm actually fairly certain that they won't be vanishing any time soon. No, what makes me a little sad is the idea that we don't need them, that the concept is outdated, and that the return to singles-only is a good thing.

What makes the album a superior delivery package? Mostly, it's the ability to tell a story that's greater than any individual song. Any upper-echelon jazz or classic rock record will provide a good example: "Tomorrow Never Knows"? Great song. Revolver? Stunning album. "All Blues"? Terrific Miles Davis composition. Kind Of Blue? Phenomenal album. Part of this story I refer to is the one created by the listener. This goes beyond mere nostalgia to include individual interpretations. What a single song means to a person can't be discounted, but an entire suite of songs has that much more weight. There have been so many times when I've heard somebody say that this or that album "got them through" a particular period. A song can do that too, it's just not as common.

There are all sorts of other items that I could serve up, but most of them are meaningless to the singles consumer. Things like cover art and lyric sheets. Yeah, nobody cares, I know. I also know that this things can be provided online for easy download. In that case, it's me who doesn't care.

But there's one other thing that the album can do that's not easily replaced and that is the phenomenon of the 'perfect album.' This is when the story is so good, so intense, so…right, that you can't imagine any individual song existing separately from its collection. Yes, there can be 'hits' from the album, but they don't rise above the host collection: "Won't Get Fooled Again" – The Who/Who's Next, "Badlands" – Bruce Springsteen/Darkness On The Edge Of Town, "Peg" – Steely Dan/Aja, "Steppin' Out" – Joe Jackson/Night and Day. Though "Steppin' Out" is a great song, it is enhanced by being a part of the same record that includes "Breaking Us In Two" and the moving "A Slow Song."

The music-writer cliché here would be "major artistic statement." There's a lot of truth in that. Maybe the album will be resigned to being thought of as just another artifact of the history of recorded music. Yes, things change. Progress can't be stopped. It's just that I'm pretty sure that some of our forward motion might actually set us back.

I dunno…maybe it's just me.

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About Mark Saleski

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    I wonder if the sales numbers aren’t skewed. Album sales are figured from what? Physical album purchases + full album downloads from iTunes? And singles come mostly from iTunes/Amazon single song purchases?

    It seems to me that the types of people who purchase online music likely go towards the singles. Whereas people who want an entire album either pick up a physical copy or illegally torrent.

    Maybe I’m wrong but when I browse a torrent tracker the majority of the music is in album form not singles and the majority of digital music being purchased is singles not albums. If this is true wouldn’t it inheritable skew the data? Maybe the album isn’t dead, but the suits just don’t know it.

  • http://dracutweblog.blogspot.com/ Mary K. Williams

    Even though I’m not going to go back to album(vinyl) buying, I don’t think “it’s just you” (not this time anyway): )~

  • http://willkillforfood.com Lisa McKay

    Definitely not just you, Mark. There’s a reason why my iPod is almost never on shuffle play. I almost exclusively listen to music an album at a time — not sure why, it just feels better that way.

  • Josh Hathaway

    Well first, I think we can all agree that an album without liner notes just isn’t worth a damn at all. ;-)

    I’m with you, Mark, mostly. Once again, what I hate to see is the erosion of choice. I’m not saying someone is oppressively trying to deny us anything, but I see what you do which is a slow evolution to a place where albums are deemed unimportant.

    My listening is balanced. I often listen to work in the concept of “album as a whole” and I love that and need that. There are also times when I cherish and obsess over a single moment, something so compelling or perfect that it’s completely self-contained. I want there to be a world of choice that allows me to have both. I want broad artistic statements and snapshots. That’s part of music’s inherent beauty.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    The other thing not addressed here, but equally valid, is the fact that the sound quality of most downloaded music (at least on the most common MP3 formats) is so much poorer.

    Given the fact that this is the way that most music is consumed these days, what gives today’s artists the motivation to create work with the sonic layering of something like Born To Run, Abbey Road, or In Rainbows?

    Progress? No thanks!

    By the way, I also love Night & Day…and you mentioned my three favorite tracks from it. Play us a slow song….

    -Glen

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd
  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    well yes, i didn’t address the sound quality issue because it’s not directly related. yeah, downloaded music does sound bad, but sadly, nobody cares about it. and to tell you the truth, i’m not sure any EVER cared about it…not the way we do.

    it’s an interesting full-circle kind of thing that has happened. think of the people who were first knocked out by stuff like “Good Vibrations” or “Be My Baby”…and they might have heard those songs on a crap-ass little transistor radio down at the beach.

    …then we’ve come all this way, passing through an era of higher quality recordings and components, having then returned to the ipod and the mp3…quality tossed out the window for convenience.

    nothing we can do about it.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Well, nothing except this, anyway…

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Be My Baby was made for mono. Good Vibrations on the other hand…well, lets just say that those who’ve only heard it on portable record players and transistor radios have no idea what they’re missing…

    -Glen

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    sorry, i think Steve Wilson blowing up an ipod is..well…it’s stupid.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    What you call stupid I like to think of as a political statement. Viva La Revolution baby!

  • Josh Hathaway

    Back to the topic that started all of this; “popular” forms of music didn’t always have the album as its basis. Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, The Beatles- early jazz, blues, rock, artists recorded and emphasized singles. Albums as artform came later. I love the album but some works were meant to standalone or be experienced on their own terms. It’s why I like a “both” approach.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    In Rainbows isn’t that old, Glen. MP3s were in full form by then. Given that most people have always listened to music in crappy forms, what has ever made a musical artist create a full flowing album?

    Sure the masses now get their music in bite size form, but haven’t they always? Before the MP3 was the cassette single and the little records. Radio stations still play singles off of Dark Side of the Moon and thats an album that demands to be played in full if I ever heard one.

    Has anyone of you actually crunched any numbers to see if their are less albums being produced now than ever? I suspect we’ll continue to see wonderful albums being made for years to come.

  • zingzing

    in the 150-year history of recorded sound (yeah, 150 years,) there was a grand total of about 35 years where the album format dominated. lament it all you like, but things are just renormalizing. i like the album as well, but if this gets rid of rap skits and little “it works in the context of the album” crap tracks, i won’t cry too hard.

    as far as sound quality of digital music goes, it’s getting better. flac and other lossless formats, even if they are a pain in the ass and still a little too big, rival cd quality. or at least you really can’t tell if your using human ears and brains to listen to it.

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    yep, i understand the history.

    on the issue of digital music sound quality, i don’t think it’s getting better for rock music. at all. still waaaaay too much compression.

  • Josh Hathaway

    We have a “no food fights allowed” sign in the music section. Kids who like to throw strained beets need to take their sippy cups back to the politics section where they belong.

  • zingzing

    hrm. well, some of that doesn’t have to do with listening on mp3 or cd. it’s just the loudness war. i don’t know why record companies continue to do it.

  • zingzing

    who’s throwing beets? you know, once i ate a shitload of beet salad and thought i had stomach cancer for a day and a half. terrifying.

  • http://thingsalongtheway.blogspot.com/ Cindy

    i love beet salad. do you make it with mayo and onion?

  • zingzing

    i didn’t make it. a friend did. oh, how she laughed at me. i wish she had put onions in it, because she’s allergic to onions. (or is that her bf?) horrible person.

  • http://thingsalongtheway.blogspot.com/ Cindy

    lol…

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    i don’t know why record companies continue to do it.

    because they think it sounds better on low-rent earbuds.

  • zingzing

    but even that’s not true… record companies are so dumb.

    i recently got this album of miami bass music (“rock this planet” by bass patrol) and i was all like coool! i’m gonna bounce down the street to this one. severe disappointment set in. i dont even know what i was thinking, how i thought that might work. it does shake plaster off my walls when i listen on my speakers, but there’s nothing but drums and silly chanting on my ipod.

    moral of the story is that, while i love sound and am a production nut, i’m no audiophile. i accept that music isn’t going to sound as good on a ipod. it really doesn’t bother me except in extreme situations (like that above).

    i’m not saying any of this to denigrate your worries over the death of sound, but just stating a fact. maybe it’s because of attitudes like mine (convenience trumps sound quality) that this is happening. in fact, i’m sure it is.

    but then i take a look at my 40,000 songs (i can’t remember how many albums i have… used to be the other way around), all lined up in alphabetical order and searchable and at my fingertips, then i look over at my cds, tapes and records, all out of order and scratched (and beautiful)… there are just some marvelous things about digital music, which are amplified by my laziness.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    #13 –

    In Rainbows is a recent album Mat and I included it on my short list for that very reason — to demonstrate it as an exception to today’s rules.

    Most artists record these days with those shitty earbuds in mind, which as why (as Mark said) you have so much compression and the record companies wanting louder sounding records.

    -Glen

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    I’m definitely a digital music guy myself(FLAC,WMA 9.2) but on my Zune(yup,I got it when they first came out and now the battery sucks but I can’t afford a new media player)I listen to albums not singles because I get into a mood for a particular type of sound or a certain band’s style. Sometimes, I get rather frustrated when I can’t figure out what I’m in the mood to listen to because I hate the “shuffle” mode. I would rather not listen to music at all then to just play it for the sake of background noise. I’m all for cover art & lyric sheets,as well, and I think with some of the newer media players they could actually offer that material with an album release. BUT, unfortunately, most consumers are only interested in music to back-up their cellphone calls or shallow & mindless party music,so yup, Mark is correct in stating that a lot of people don’t care.

    As for the “Loudness Wars” I think it also has something to do with Radio Airplay. I’m not sure,but, it definitely f*cking sucks! CD has been around for close to 30 years. They should move on to a format that gives them more bandwidth to work with instead of compressing the sh!t out of the music until you can’t tell the difference between Mp3 and PCM. AND, they still charge you $12-$15 bucks for that poorly produced garbage.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    I guess my point Glen is that really great albums have always been in the minority. The album as we love it has only been around for a relatively short while. But even during that period the single still had power. The masses are always going to love short pop songs.

    But for all the mourning of the album it still seems to be around. True, really brilliant albums are a hard thing to come by, but that’s been a problem for a lot longer than the mp3.

    Does that make sense? Its like I keep hearing about the death of the album, and yet they are still being made. Every week new albums come out. Sure not all of them are great, most of them are crap. But name me a year when that wasn’t true. Since the birth of the MP3 I for one have heard some really great albums and I don’t see that trend ending any time soon.

  • http://tylercbrown.blogspot.com/ Tyler Brown

    I’d give my standard answer: its not a matter of what’s better, the album and the single are just very different things. Its also a fact that the album, by it’s very nature, takes longer to fully experience and there is no doubt that time and attention spans are on the decline for most of us.

    The fact that the delivery mechanism has changed and I am no longer forced to buy the record or CD for that one great single has to be a good thing no? By the same token, nothing about online digital music precludes the long form so I’m sure it will be around as long as there are those of us who love it … and buy it.

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    while this whole ipod/earbud/mp3 thing has influence labels to do bad things to their ‘product’ (gawd, so cringe-worth), i don’t think that it influences musicians one bit.

    you hear the sounds forming in your head and have a need to make them enter the world. no amount of technological hijinx at the delivery end is going to change that.

  • http://www.themidnightcafe.org Mat Brewster

    Exactly. So why are so many people thinking that musicians are going to suddenly stop wanting to make albums? The power of the big record companies is getting less and less. Which means they have less influence over the final product. Which, to me anyways, means musicians are more and more able to create what they want. Surely some of them will still want to create great albums, not just singles.

  • http://www.soundclick.com/bands/default.cfm?bandID=463156 JC Mosquito

    Sound quality? Phooey – you can’t shine horsepucky is how I see it. Does The MC5 really sound that much better in whatever format? Didn’t think so.

    Anyways, I was just gonna say how I haven’t listened to Joe Jackson’s Night and Day for at least 10 years til you brought it up – I luvved it the and still do…… I think. I was just wondering how it’s possible we forget about music we like?

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    i try not to forget, which writing this thing helps with sometimes.

    and hell, this isn’t even my favorite Joe Jackson record, which is either Big World or Blaze of Glory…depending on the day.

  • http://www.soundclick.com/bands/default.cfm?bandID=463156 JC Mosquito

    Go with Big World. Actually, the soundtrack for Mike’s Murder is a nice addendum to Night & Day.

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    i have a pristine copy of Mike’s Murder on vinyl.

    and i have to say that Laughter & Lust is probably in my top three.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Well… This might be a little off point, but, on Saturday I visited an excellent Hi-Fi shop here in MA. and it was pleasant to see that end of the spectrum still alive and kicking. Getting the opportunity to hear an all digital system from Meridian(priced in at approx. $40,000) was a vision from the future. And, boy, you wanna talk about sound quality.

    It really makes you realize that Ipods/Zunes/Whatever really aren’t the pinnacle of digital engineering and that Mp3s aren’t going to take over the world.

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    what shop did you go to brian?

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Natural Sound in Framingham.

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    ah, didn’t know about that one. the last place like that i went to was Goodwin’s High End. a friend of mine made an appt. to audition some Wilson speakers. i think the watt puppies.

    anyway, man they have an incredible listening room there!

  • http://www.kitotoole.com Kit O’Toole

    First of all, Mark, I commend you for mentioning Night and Day, an underrated album in my opinion. Second, your article reminded me of some recent conversations with friends. They were telling me how wonderful iTunes is because you can just buy the hits and skip the “lame tracks” on the rest of the album. Sure, we’ve all bought albums that had one or two good songs and the rest sucked. But as you said, I’d hate to see the album concept (or concept album) vanish. As you mention, how could anyone simply download “the hits” off Revolver? Certainly Sgt. Pepper should be listened to in its entirety. Also, some of my all-time favorite songs are album tracks and not the big hits. If I simply downloaded the singles, I’d miss out on some hidden gems.

    I indeed hope that the album as an art form never goes away. Thanks for a thought-provoking article!

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Wasn’t Goodwin’s in Worcester? Well, Natural Sound doesn’t have any flashy type listening rooms but their reference equipment is absolutely amazing.Plus, it’s basically a house with a bunch of listening rooms which makes it that much more comfortable. Just ask for Peter Zagwyn. That dude knows his sh!t. Also ask to check out the Sonus Faber bookshelves

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    goodwin’s is in waltham. it’s got a bunch of audition room plus one room that’s an example of the room design service they have. here’s a link to a photo gallery. the sound in that room was stunning.

    p.s. i loooove my speakers

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Ahha… I thought it sounded familiar. I don’t think I’ve been there. I used to go to Spearit Sound in Boston quite a bit. Natural Sound only has the pic on their company page.

    Nice speakers, man and I’ve never heard of that company. Just goes to show that there are tons of speaker manufacturers in the audiophile world.
    I have a pair of Jamo 707s. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore so that’s the only info I could pull from the net.

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    yeah, my sister had a set of jamo’s many years ago, but they were bookshelf speakers.

    my system is pretty much dialed in for all of the acoustic music i listen too. crossover-less speakers driven by a flea-powered (2W) tube amp. the sound is incredible….unless you put on heavy rock music.

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Yea, I love the small but powerful acoustic set-ups especially with balanced cables. My brother had one with some 1960 MacIntosh tube amps (one for each channel) that he refurbished on his own with a just a CD player and some Mirage bookshelves.

    That’s the great thing about most high end systems, you can basically build a system to perform how you want it to, maybe spend a little more but it usually lasts quite a long time.

    My Jamos are set up for just about any kind of music as long as it has good source material. I use a Yamaha RX-V3200 that I picked up about 9 years ago and I have a KX-Sub1 by DCM that helps with any low end that the downward firing 8″s in my Jamos can’t(especially DTS movies). I also have the Jamo Bi-poles and a center as well.Still, I wish I could spend the cash to set up a McIntosh integrated with some Sonus Fabers. But, i feel that my system still does a damn good job and I’m in no financial position to upgrade.