When my friends used to ask me to put music on over dinner, I always defaulted to a Spotify playlist. In the mornings, while taking a shower, I would often put on a singalong playlist, or the road trip one when I was in the car with my dad. I make my own playlists, too – songs to dance to, folky tunes that make you cry your heart out, new discoveries. I love playlists. But this hasn’t always been the case. I only got a Spotify account two years ago, but before that, I only ever listened to albums, apart from the occasional music video on Youtube.
I hadn’t noticed how much my listening pattern had changed until I was having coffee with a friend and he put on some music in the background. As I was listening to it, I realised it was all the same artist, and I thought to myself: “How boring.” Only an hour later, as I was walking down the street and listening to my ‘Bad Bitch Playlist’ (obviously), I realised what had occurred.
What was the point of musicians making albums anymore if other listeners reacted the way I did? Did they? Or was I an anomaly? But talking to other friends, I realised most of us didn’t listen to albums anymore, apart from, maybe, some albums we had grown up with and didn’t know how to listen to differently.
I went back to that friend for another coffee, and, while putting on another album, he said: “I never listen to albums on shuffle. It had taken me weeks to figure out what order to put the songs in on my own album. They’re meant to be in a certain sequence.” It’s true. Frank Zappa’s Joe’s Garage would sound ridiculous on shuffle. The transitions between the songs on Kate Tempest’s The Book of Traps and Lessons wouldn’t sound nearly as smooth. For any musician I listened to, there was a thought process behind the tracklist.
That hadn’t answered my question, though. Why did we still bother making albums? And what was the benefit of listening to an album over a playlist?
I had always been the type of person who would become obsessed with a certain album and listen to it until it made me sick. I got to know the artist behind it, their inner world, by spending time with them and only them for the duration of the ten, twelve, sixteen tracks on their LP. Now, I was the person who listened to a mishmash of different songs, forgot artists’ names, and only vaguely knew what a certain lyric meant in whichever song. I wasn’t diving deep into music anymore, it felt more like window shopping. I wanted to learn to listen to albums again.
I started with Josephine Foster’s I’m a Dreamer. Listening to an album again felt like watching an arthouse film after binge-watching a Netflix show. My attention span was not trained for such a sustained effort. I hated it and told my friend as much. But a week later, over breakfast and coffee, I listened to it again. Maybe the combination of a mellow Sunday morning and Josephine’s voice was a good combination because I couldn’t stop listening. I felt like I was on a journey.
Now, I can’t listen to playlists anymore. It feels like a job half-done. I don’t get to know an artist by only hearing one song. I listen to playlists to find new artists I want to hear more of, but that’s different from never stopping to find out more about specific musicians at all. That’s why albums remain important. A single doesn’t tell the story of an artist. It’s the elevator pitch, the business card. To get to know an artist, to know what they’re worth, what message they’re trying to convey, what they sound like when they’re not trying to get on the radio, you need to listen to the album.
Since I started listening to albums again, I started remembering the names of the musicians I listen to. Not only that, I started listening to more music. Knowing more about the people I listened to, I started feeling more in control, and less like I was being spoonfed songs by Spotify. I became more curious and adventurous in my listening instead of relying solely on the Discover Weekly playlist. Do yourself a favour and listen to an album today. And if you catch yourself thinking how boring it is, keep listening.