Albums are an odd cultural product these days—quasi-relevant, but not entirely, or at least not in the way they were in previous eras. This is obvious, in the era of Spotify, I-Tunes, et al. Here’s a litmus test—do you know the title of an acclaimed contemporary album and could you recognize its album cover right away? If you can, perhaps you are a music junkie like yours truly. But if not, you are most likely “normal.” Great albums out there—many, actually—but, like everything else these days, they cease to be a cultural phenomenon. Albums are niche products, buried under an avalanche of Netflix, video games, Youtube, books, and the vast array of entertainment—no more Thrillers or Purple Rains. However, this doesn’t mean they don’t still exist.
In fact, just as HBO, Showtime and Netflix have ushered in a new era of “great television,” it is becoming readily apparent that albums that hang together cohesively are far from rare. I could write a column once a month about terrific, top-shelf albums. Encouragingly, as vinyl gains more and more retro-traction, albums are valued inherently, not just part and parcel, a la I-Tunes—broken up into little bits. Big hits and still big hits—or big downloads. It’s not the same, of course. It’s not as if suddenly we will be transported to the ’70s where every other city corner featured a record store and where psychedelic album art ruled the roost. Yet, high-quality to outstanding albums abound and the album art ain’t too shabby either, even if you are like me and prefer CDs to other formats. The more you listen, the more the argument that the 21st century is the era of the single fails to hold water.
The 2000s were actually a great time to be a music fan: Bon Iver, Beck, Wilco, Sigur Ros, Flaming Lips, Beck, Yo La Tengo, Cat Power, Lucinda Williams, Outkast, Grizzly Bear, White Stripes, the Strokes, Blood and Iron, Sufjan Stevens, Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Just to pull a few notables from the stack—it’s impossible not to crown Radiohead as the kings of the aughts in terms of cohesive albums. Kid A, Hail to the Thief, Amnesiac, and In Rainbows are all top-tier albums, but each is distinct and great on their own terms—both sonically and thematically. The shimmery beauty of In Rainbows (for example, “Nude” and “House of Cards”) is a total contrast to the unnerving, serrated paranoia exhibited in Kid A. Is This It by The Strokes, is an unvarnished glimpse into the modern urban world. The songs are of a whole—brittle, youthful, rebellious, racy. Elephant by the White Stripes is a vast and propulsive blues-inflected howl. Essence by Lucinda Williams, on the other hand, is all smoldering sentiment, desire and loss.
However, if a classic rock album like The Wall by Pink Floyd is your litmus test for cohesive album production (where each song bleeds neatly into the next, where the songs tell a story or offer a thematically-tight vision), then you have to look at the OutKast’s—Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by the Flaming Lips, For Emma, Forever Ago, or The Greatest by Cat Power. In Bon Iver’s masterpiece, for instance, almost every song—famously written and solidified in his father’s hunting cabin in Eau Claire, Wisconsin—is an attempt to transcend pain. It’s not a perfect album (I can’t stand even occasional Auto-Tune usage), but it’s 100% amalgamated. Likewise, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot captures something in the air circa 2000—eerily foreshadowing 9/11 and the massive discord to follow.
I could go on and on, going back and detailing the progeny of Hounds of Love, Under the Pink, London Calling, Let it Bleed, however, this is well-trod ground and I’m sure you don’t really need another list of amazing albums. Instead, let me take you on a brief tour of a few recent albums over the past few years which, to my mind at least, point to the reemergence of the album song cycle mindset. A good place to start would be Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest—a band that toured with Radiohead at about the same time as they were working on this masterpiece. The museum-ugly album art by friend-of-the band William O’Brien belies the unearthly beauty of the music on the disk. Though the album sonically springs from the seeds the band planted in 2006’s Yellow House, they take their Beach Boys inflected, choral sound much deeper and further in their 2009 effort. The songs are somehow both malleable and brittle at the same time—drawing the listener in, but simultaneously keeping them at arm’s length. A song like “Fine for Now” comes at you from five sides at once—the slowly amplifying guitars, clattering cymbals, and high-low background vocals. On the other hand, “Two Weeks” is more directly catchy in its Oh-oh-ohhhhhhhhh refrain and prolonged stopover theme. It’s one of their best, most accessible songs. But the thing that strikes me most obviously about Grizzly Bear is that overall they avoid singles—they are thinking about the landscape of the album first, and the rest follows. This is thoughtful, trippy music for focused, dare I say, rapt listening.
Similarly, artists such as Damion Jurado, Yo La Tengo, Washed Out and My Morning Jacket have all made tour de force albums over the past few years. Damion Jurado’s Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun (2014), produced by Richard Swift, is another album entirely lacking in the singles-mindset. However, the songs have a huge sound—Jurado’s falsetto swooping above layered guitars, drums, synths and, seemingly, a Theremin. Having listened to this song-cycle many times, I’m of the belief that Jurado’s masterpiece is essentially about a Christian sect which believes that Jesus will arrive from a flying saucer to bring resurrection (the album cover features Jurado facing a geodesic dome hovering in the middle of a mountain lake). Songs like “Silver Timothy” shimmer and float, but propulsively (several other songs feature the word/color “silver”). The loveliest song from the song cycle, however, is “Metallic Cloud,” which seems to usher in the arrival of the Jesus alien upon his metallic cloud. This is a weird, twinkling world and utterly convincing in its verisimilitude.
Washed Out’s Paracosm (2013) is more ambient and nature-centric, featuring bird chirps, harp, and synths. Hipster magazines refer to this as “Chillwave,” whatever that means. Washed Out, aka Ernest Greene, noodles around a bit on this album, but in a good way. At times the songs feel more like background music but the songs are so cohesive and so much of-a-whole that Greene’s underwater singing (“It All Feels Right”) and digital embrace works. In addition, Paracosm features one lights-out mid-tempo hit single (“It’s All Over Now”), which is the rare example of an indie song that finds a way to soar into the pop-g-spot stratosphere. And yet, at no point in listening to the album do I think that I’m listening to a haphazard collection of singles. Greene has deftly woven the songs together here into an aural blanket.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention My Morning Jacket, whose The Waterfall is perhaps their best, most unified album—focused on the notion of de-thawing from the blight of winter and facing the spring anew (especially “Spring Among the Living”). “Tropics” is about escape entirely, “erase traces/of the past,” throwing caution to the wind and losing oneself in the immensity. My Morning Jacket fully takes on the mantle of prog-rock masters—expanding the songs on this album with fuzzy guitars and synths. The breeziness of “Compound Fracture” obscures its hard-choice message. Even the slow songs—“Only Memories Remain” and “Get the Point”—reverberate in the ear differently than they may have had on previous albums. The Waterfall was my go-to album for most of the summer of 2015.
As always, it will be interesting to see where these artists take us next. As you listen to and purchase singles, don’t forget about the complete albums. The hidden gems are often right in front of our face.