Apr 102012

A couple of weeks ago I attempted to help a friend work through his difficulty with buying individual songs vs full albums. In this digital age he has struggled with buying only the tracks he thinks he’s going to like off iTunes or eMusic. I told him it’s all right, that he should buy what he wants to listen to, save space on his hard drive for more of the good stuff. But he holds deep, sincere feelings that doing so does not respect integrity of artist’s work. He’s as true a believer in the album format as any rock nerd I’ve ever encountered.

“I’ve got to buy the whole album and listen to the whole album in the sequence the artist intended,” he told me. “I want to respect the integrity of the artist’s work.”

“When you go to an artist’s exhibit,” he continued, “do you walk into a room and immediately skip half the paintings?”

“I look at them all in some order, as they’re presented,” I said, “but I don’t spend 3 minutes and 30 seconds on each painting. I first glance at them, the way I listen to the 30-second sample of each song on an album I’m checking out on eMusic.”

“How do you know a song’s not going to get better after the 30-second clip you hear?”

“I don’t know for sure,” I replied, “but there are certain devices that usually suggest I’m not going to like a song, like a long, slow, finger-picked minor chord intro.”

My friend was incredulous. “When you buy a new album do you skip right to Track 3, or do you listen to the entire album?”

“The first time through I listen to the entire album, but the second and third time I listen I may start lifting the needle over the songs with long, slow, finger-picked minor chord intros. Life’s too short for that shit!” Then I assured him that I eventually give  these songs another chance and sometimes learn that I do like one of them.

This went back and forth until I learned a key detail in my friend’s Rock Nerd Profile: my friend had never bought a single (ie, a 7-inch, 45 RPM slab of vinyl), not even as a little kid. Now it all made sense.

I was compelled to restart our debate, which was now growing quite heated.

“That’s your problem. You never experienced the joy of a single Buying a single mp3 from an artist is like buying a single! I’m going to buy you an old-fashioned record player and load a couple of 45s on the spindle.”

My friend appreciated the thought, but he had commitment issues: he was too committed to the integrity of the LP to see this any other way.

“Would you be happy if someone just bought one song off an album you released and took care to sequence?”

I assured him I’d be thrilled if they liked no more than the opening riff of a song I wrote and recorded. “Come to think of it,” I said as I thought of it, “if I may call myself an ‘artist’ of any small degree, our band has only released one record that felt to me like it truly stuck together as one organic piece.”

I agreed with my friend over the notion of a record album that truly functions as a coherent record album, but for the most part the format is a convenient way to package a collection of songs, most likely written and recorded over the same span. Then I challenged my friend on how many  many albums truly maintain the integrity of the album format. I asked him if he could name 20 albums that truly functioned as works of art, meant to be experienced from start to finish, promising layers of insights? I rejected a few of his initial suggestions, pointing out, for instance, that any album sequenced to give the drummer and/or bassist or otherwise third-wheel writer a bone was almost automatically disqualified, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and London Calling excepted. That left a few Pink Floyd albums (Dark Side of the Moon, Animals, and The Wall) and not much else.

As a group, can we agree on 20 albums that truly function as coherent works of art rather than a lucky collection of great songs (or, on the other hand, a forced “concept album”)?

Finally, to help my friend, if you had to suggest one (1) single track from an otherwise less-than-stellar recent album for him to download this week, what would it be?


  64 Responses to “Albums That Truly Function as Albums”

  1. hrrundivbakshi

    I repeat: hands down, the greatest album-length musical journey I ever took was with Spirit’s “12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus.” I would not add or subtract a single cut, and I look forward to long road trips precisely because they allow me to break out that album and listen to it, uninterrupted, from start to finish.

    A few months ago, my wife and I were driving back to DeeCee from Watkins Glen, NY, and I put “12 Dreams…” on, warning her that we were going to listen to the *whole thing* without interruption. She was game; the driving thing had reached its zenith of boring-ness. After the album reached its close. she turned to me and said “that was fantastic.” And she’s no fan of psychedelic pop/rock/jazz freakouts. Many years earlier, townsman mockcarr and I had a similarly revelatory experience with the album driving back from Tennessee after studio sessions for an album. I know he became a big “12 Dreams…” fan after that experience as well.

    I should also point out that “12 Dreams…” has the best bass sound on record. Ever.

  2. I’m much more of an individual song guy than an album guy but I submit The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and the Ziggy-era trifecta (Hunky Dury, Ziggy and Aladin) for your consideration as albums which work very well as a whole.

    I’ll have to check out that Spirit album.

  3. pudman13

    Love’s FOREVER CHANGES is a perfect example of a record that is not a concept album but can’t possibly be imagined as something other than the complete album it is.

    That Spirit choice is interesting because I think it’s a wonderful album whose pieces fit together beautifully, but when I was a college DJ I used to play a few songs from it regularly on my show and they sounded swell out of context too.

    A few other choices of mine, off the top of my head:
    Prince: DIRTY MIND
    Ramones: RAMONES
    Iggy & The Stooges: RAW POWER
    Rolling Stones: STICKY FINGERS
    Television: MARQUEE MOON
    The Clash: THE CLASH (original UK sequence)
    Beach Boys: PET SOUNDS
    Marvin Gaye: WHAT’S GOING ON
    Sly & the Family Stone: THERE’S A RIOT GOING ON
    Velvet Underground: WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT and the self-titled third album
    Leonard Cohen: DEATH OF A LADIES MAN (not really a great album but I can’t imagine any of those songs in any other context)
    Randy Newman: 12 SONGS
    Patti Smith: HORSES
    John Lennon: PLASTIC ONO BAND
    Paul McCartney: RAM
    John Entwistle: WHISTLE RHYMES
    Raspberries: STARTING OVER (power pop concept album)

    I’m afraid this thread is headed towards choices like CLOSE TO THE EDGE, Tangerine Dream’s PHAEDRA, and Soft Machine’s THIRD.

    The first person to non-ironically choose OK COMPUTER, knowing the slings and arrows that will come their way, wins my undying admiration

  4. hrrundivbakshi

    Mod said nothing about albums that *only* worked as albums. You’re right: “12 Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus” also works quite well on a piecemeal basis. I’ve always wanted to cover “Mr. Skin,” for example.

  5. misterioso

    I think we’ve clashed on this before: I really like some Dr. Sardonicus but too much of it hits me as dreamy creamy pretentious Californiana. But as I probably have said before, my biggest complaint about Spirit is that everything doesn’t sound like “I Got a Line on You,” one of the greatest records ever.

  6. misterioso

    Confession time: I never bought a 45 when I was a kid, either. Only when I became a “record collector” (high school and college) did I start to pick them up. I’m an album guy from way back and basically still am, though I’ve lightened up a bit. Mod is looking for “a record album that truly functions as a coherent record album,” but I think we (I?) often impose coherence on records regardless; that is, if we are so inclined. As for “meant to be experienced from start to finish, promising layers of insights,” that gets increasingly subjective. Do I think A Hard Days Night “truly functions as a coherent album”? I do indeed. Would it matter if the order were changed? Probably not much. Does it deliver “layers of insights”? (Are those like “sheets of sound”?) Well, I don’t know. Does its joyousness and excitement tell us something profound about the human condition? God, I hope so.

  7. misterioso

    pudman, some great choices and some I don’t get; but special bonus points for Ram.

  8. I think Arthur is a bit forced, but I’m not that interested in rejecting suggestions unless necessary. Many of pudman13’s suggestions I’ll agree with, whether I particularly like the album or not.

    An excellent indication of just how strong a unified album that Love’s Forever Changes is is the fact that someone like myself, who thinks that album is terrible, is content with flushing the entire piece down the toilet, not feeling the impulse to save a single track. THAT, my friends, is a sign of an album made with full artistic integrity.

  9. Happiness Stan

    I’d also nominate, on the grounds of feeling like going on a very satisfying journey with a beginning, a middle and an end, so that they feel like a unified whole without being concept albums:

    The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers, or alternatively Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers – Modern Lovers Live
    Gorky’s Zygotic Myncki – Barafundle
    The Fall – Grotesque
    Joy Division – Closer
    The Bonzos – Keynsham

    I’ll also throw in Trout Mask Replica, which still feels as if it couldn’t exist anywhere outside of its own time and space.

  10. pudman13

    My, I’m horrifed that anyone could dislike FOREVER CHANGES. Wow.

  11. pudman13

    RE: ARTHUR being forced, I think you should listen again. That’s about the last thing I’d say about it. My biggest criticism is that the only somewhat weak song (“Australia”) is the longest, but otherwise I think it’s a perfectly conceived collection of songs.

    TROUT MASK REPLICA is a great suggestion, but I’ll add one caveat—it would be easy to listen to any song on LIKE MY DECALS OFF, BABY and think it was a TMR outtake.

  12. Bigger confession time: One of the first 45s I bought was Come Sail Away by Stxy. Please forgive me.

  13. Funny, “Australia” is one of my favorite songs on that album. I’ve listened to it at least hundreds of times and truly like the album, but a song like “Some Mother’s Son” does nothing for me, and the whole concept of the album can be summed up with half the songs. I just don’t get that deep a meaning out of it for the attempts at creating a story arc. Musically I also think the album gets thrown off course by the an over-the-top rocker like “Brainwashed” then a purposely goofy song like “She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina.” It sounds too much like the band is “putting on a show,” which is not a vibe I get on an album we agree on, The Village Green Preservation Society.

  14. misterioso

    Mod, I disagree with you on Forever Changes. There are one or two songs I might save for a bullfighting music compilation, if I ever decided I wanted one.

  15. Really? What is there that’s so obvious to like about that album? I like brussels sprouts, for instance, but I can understand why many people don’t. Is that album considered an acquired taste?

  16. Happiness Stan

    Interesting point on Decals, although I’m not sure that the reverse is not also true.

    A few times I’ve introduced people to TMR through Decals, which suggests to me that it works as a sort of TMR-lite, a gateway to the hard stuff, as it were?

    Woe Is Uh Me Bop and I Love You Big Dummy are so accessible that even Mrs H would probably not complain if they were being played at very low volume in a different part of the house.

  17. Happiness Stan

    An interesting point, M, and it applies to practically all aspects of life. What is coincidence if not a result of people trying to bring order to the random and chaotic sequences of events? I saw a popular magician/ hypnotist/ illusionist on the telly recently demonstrating the fun which can be had with people whose minds work in this way more than most – the groups he focused on were Pagans and Christians, and although I am neither of these, I think that the sort of people who allow themselves to be taken over with the power of music, both alone and as a group (i.e. just about everybody in the Hall) would, if we stood back and looked at ourselves, respond to a bunch of random songs which spark off something in our brains the same way.

    I grew up with singles, so began from completely the opposite place to the one you describe, I’m not sure that I’ve ever really even convinced myself that Tommy or Quadrophenia or any of the Alan Parsons Project albums which I’ve allowed ladies I have known to play to me in moments of weakness are anything other than just a bunch of songs with a pretend plot superimposed.

    I used to know someone who loved both singles and albums, but would go nuts if asked to listen to any song outside of the context of its album, and likewise would have to play the b side as well in the case of a single. It always seemed a bit OCD to me, particularly if the b side was rubbish.

  18. pudman13

    You have a good point there–DECALS is a bit more accessible (though TMR has a couple of catchy bits too.) I think I might have a hard time hearing an unknown song and guessing which album it’s from, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work on their own on their own way.

  19. Happiness Stan

    I think it probably is an acquired taste. It took me quite a while to get into it, and once I had listened to it a lot. Even though there were and are still bits in practically every song which grate on my nerves and wish they’d done those bits differently I still think it hangs together as a very good-but-flawed album, just not the masterpiece of legend.

    I never liked it as much as their first album, though, which has no such pretensions.

  20. pudman13

    I’m not sure something that completely changed my world and turned me into a record collector from the very first listen at the age of 12, and which may well be the only album I own that I have completely enjoyed every single time I’ve listened to it could be considered an “acquired taste.” Nonetheless, brussels sprouts may be a good comparison, because they’re dependent on genetics (true story). Some humans have an enzyme that allows them to taste bitterness from sprouts, while some don’t. Those who don’t have the enzyme will like the sprouts. Mod, apparently, you’re missing a key rock and roll enzyme.

  21. That’s good stuff, pudman13!

  22. Happiness Stan

    Well said, Mr Pud! I’m sure that we all have that sort of album or bunch of singles which hit us in a way that no-one else, particularly our older selves or others in a different time with a different set of ears or enzymes can hear.

  23. tonyola

    There are lots of prog and demi-prog albums that come off well as listenable whole works without being concept records. For example…

    Jethro Tull – Aqualung
    Genesis – Selling England By the Pound
    Yes – Close to the Edge
    Frank Zappa – You Are What You Is
    Procol Harum – A Salty Dog
    Steely Dan – Katy Lied
    King Crimson – Red
    Eno – Another Green World
    David Bowie – Lodger
    Robert Waytt – Rock Bottom

    I spent my childhood with singles but I stopped buying them as I entered my teens. Even now, I tend to listen to albums all the way through and I only rarely skip tracks, despite the easy programmability of a fully-digitized music collection.

  24. tonyola

    The Kinks were “putting on a show” with Arthur. It was written to be a soundtrack for a TV movie that was eventually laid aside. Doesn’t it fall within your “forced concept” elimination?

  25. tonyola

    I’m afraid this thread is headed towards choices like CLOSE TO THE EDGE, Tangerine Dream’s PHAEDRA, and Soft Machine’s THIRD.

    Not a problem for me. Not in the least.

  26. tonyola

    12 Dreams is a favorite of mine, too.

  27. machinery

    Well I’m going to sound like a cliche here, but Double Nickles on the Dime hangs together for me very nicely. It ebbs and flows in all the right places and — probably since the songs are so short — I never think of picking up the proverbial needle.

    I also think all the Big Star albums feel solid except for the obvious exception of the Indian Song.

    Unironically, I do like OK Computer, a lot of Beck Albums (Sea Change is a song cycle, I think) and Title TK from the Breeders.

    The one song that’s great on an otherwise crappy album is my old stand-by “White Lies” from Nils Lofgren. Maybe the only good song the guy has ever written, actually.

  28. tonyola

    Any album, concept or not, ultimately lives or dies by the music. The best story in the world won’t save a musically indifferent or substandard record. On the other hand, I can soon ignore a woefully dense and pretentious story if the music is great.

  29. 2000 Man

    Man, I love Nils Lofgren’s first solo album. I think it’s damned near perfect.

  30. Eternal Mad props! to you, machinery, for turning me onto “White Lies.” I agree, anything else I’ve heard by that guy fails to interest me.

  31. Ah, but what a number you did on that Moody Blues album! 🙂

  32. Here’s one that just came to mind, and it’s the lyrics that tie the album together that extra notch for me and make it worthy of at least my own list of Albums That Function Like Albums: Sam Phillips’ Martinis and Bikinis.

  33. tonyola

    Thanks, but that one needed all the help it could get.

  34. pudman13

    Interesting to hear this because I’m a major Big Star fan but I think the first album is a mess—songs that don’t fit together, poor sequencing, inability to figure out who they are as a band. And THIRD isn’t even an “album,” really, since the running order and song choices were put together by PVC without the band’s knowledge. The funny thing about that is that the original PVC version is way better than any of the later reconstructions of it, though it still has too many slow ones in a row on side one.

    Also…”White Lies” is the only song you like on 1+!? That album is full of great songs. Your heart doesn’t melt when you hear “Lost A Number?”

  35. pudman13

    I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, but I think it’s pretty great too…maybe even better than 1+1.

  36. I agree that I’ve definately imposed coherence to albums that others may not see — because to me — the greatest praise for an album was/is that “you can listen to it all the way through.”

    I appeciate many of the classic albums listed here, but to me, the real thrill was buying the record when it came out — and just enjoying the hell out every cut. Here some that always seem to be near the top of my stacks.

    Peter Case — debut solo album
    The Replacements — Let It Be
    Whiskeytown– Strangers Almanac
    Son Volt — Trace
    Kathleen Edwards — Failer

  37. Excellent — another one always near the top on my stacks. My wife like it too, which is a bonus.

  38. machinery

    Sorry guys, that 1+1 has sappy harpsichord and strings and sentimentality all over it. Too much for me!!! White Lies is great because it’s kinda corny great … the bad acoustic solo, the “take me” at the end, the way he gets all gravely when he sings “broken inside.” So it’s great in kitch sort of way that doesn’t quite hold true for the other songs IMO.

  39. I feel that Bachman–Turner Overdrive’s “Best of BTO (So Far)” really hangs together as a unified thematic work (the theme being akin to a collection, or “compilation”, of BTO’s greatest, or “best”, songs up to the point in time of that album’s release).

    Similarly, I feel The J. Geils Band’s “Blow Your Face Out”, while satisfying in shorter doses, really rewards the listener who chooses to make the entire sonic journey, from the Southside shuffling beginning, to the “Give It To Me” full-on facial blow-out of the final track. Believe you me, it’s a heady experience for the musically adventurous.

  40. cliff sovinsanity

    Can I play?

    Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
    Tom Waits – Closing Time
    Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back
    Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots

    Mr Mod, may I suggest the following for your friend as a single download. http://youtu.be/1_aDtCp1hAY

  41. trigmogigmo

    XTC – Skylarking
    Midnight Oil – 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1
    Kate Bush – Hounds of Love
    The The – Infected
    Stan Ridgway – The Big Heat
    NIN – Pretty Hate Machine

  42. BigSteve

    You say dreamy creamy pretentious Californiana as if that’s a bad thing.

  43. BigSteve

    Well, Decals has lots of marimba, which TMR does not, so those songs at least sound different to me. And Decals has songs that border of accessible as well as stuff like Japan in a Dishpan that’s harder on the ears than the farthest out TMR tracks.

  44. BigSteve

    I’m a dedicated album listener. There were singles around the house when I was growing up, but I think they must have been my sister’s. I have no recollection of buying any, though I did buy singles collected into albums (Dave Clark 5’s Greatest Hits and High Tides Green Grass). I bought singles in the punk/new wave era, but that was either to get B-sides, or because some artists never made albums, or never made good ones.

    I would say very Kinks album from Face to Face to at least Sleepwalker work as album-albums, but that’s me. I think all albums ‘work’ as albums. Or not.

  45. BigSteve

    Every Kinks album.

  46. Good calls on XTC and Kate. I have to listen to that Stan Ridgway album.

  47. Back in the day (early 80’s) my band played “Mr. Skin” and “Animal Zoo”. Every naked hippie party jam I ever attended (a few) included a heartfelt rendition on “Nature’s Way”. Those were the days, thanks for reminding me.

  48. trigmogigmo

    OK Computer is a good choice, I’ll second/third that one for sure.

  49. sammymaudlin

    Sounds to me like your friend is some kind of unknown genius. At what point did the “album era” actually start? That is, when did thematic, complete visions in which order of tracks was considered begin? Certainly there are no Chubby Checker “albums” so singles of his would certainly make sense as would the early singles of The Stones or Beatles for that matter.

    But at some point musical artists started to conceive and produce complete side A – side B visions. Did they all? No. Were they all successful? No. But I agree with your gifted friend that most anything produced post-album-era should be given a top-to-bottom listen in order.

    I’m not a Pearl Jam fan but when the fuss started around their first release, Ten I bought and listened to the whole thing. I immediately enjoyed the harder rockers and was tempted to skip the slower songs. But I didn’t. I stuck it out. I stayed true to the artist and within a couple of weeks I was digging the slower tracks much, much more. Wouldn’t have happened if I had just handpicked singles.

    I know, Pearl Jam isn’t the best reference in these lofty parts but I offer the truth.

    When I was in college I borrowed the dB’s Repercussion from Mr. Mod and recorded it on cassette. For over a year I listened to it before I realized that I had put side B on first, followed by side A. D’oh! Turns out I dug the album way more when I listened to it the “right” way. Can’t really say if this was justified by feeling a better flow to the songs or simply because I knew that I was listening to it in the intended order.

    Doesn’t really matter. I felt what I felt. And that brings me to this notion of naming coherent beginning-to-end albums. Aside from the obvious narrative works like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, sometimes the beginning-to-end flow is more ethereal and based on bumps and grooves and volume and instrumentation and instrumentals and…

    Sometimes it is as simple as Led Zeppelin putting The Crunge at the end of side A of Houses of the Holy so that when Over the Hills and Far Away is over you can flip sides and go right into Dancing Days. Don’t point fingers and say this is an example of “singles” or track skipping. It’s not. It was strategically placed in my opinion to test my reserve and offer me an out as only an album can.

    Beatles did just about the same thing by putting Revolution 9 virtually at the end of The Beatles (White Album) before following it with something that could have been in the movie Brazil.

    Don’t get hung on these skipper examples though. I encourage everyone to seek out the flow. If you find it, float downstream.

    “Buy the ticket, take the ride…” Hunter S. Thompson.

    So I hope your friend comes forward and collects his overdue accolades for he may not be 100% right all of the time here, but he does right by the artist and is more open to the potential.

    Good night… Good night, everybody… Everybody, everywhere… Good night.

  50. trigmogigmo

    That’s an example for me of hearing about it repeatedly but not being exposed to it for whatever reason. I’ll have to check it out, the reviews and samples sound like something I’d like. Also, unusual sideman: Colin Moulding on bass.

  51. Colin Moulding’s involvement is what made me take a chance on that album.

  52. mockcarr

    Mr. Skin has the one of the best examples of a thrown off “yes” in recording history. Usually I prefer “girl” or “yeah”.

  53. tonyola

    I also like the campy little “Oooh” just before the sax break.

  54. mockcarr

    Odessey and Oracle by the Zombies

  55. pudman13

    Well, if you don’t like the stuff on the “dreamy side,” that’s understandable (despite the fact that “Lost A Number” is the most heartbreaking song ever written), but if you like “White Lies” I don’t see why other “rockin side” songs: “Moon Tears” or “End Unkind” or even “Slippery Fingers” are all that much different…no sentimentality on those.

  56. misterioso

    Stan, may I suggest this as a recurring feature: “Happiness Stan Presents: Albums Which I’ve Allowed Ladies to Play to Me in Moments of Weakness.” Serious potential there, and I’m not even joking.

  57. misterioso

    The (original) Modern Lovers is a great call, and yet in many ways illogical. A collection of songs recorded at various times and (I guess) for varying purposes (were some supposed to be demos?), but with a real unity of sound and purpose.

  58. misterioso



  60. tonyola

    Ah, the things we guys suffer through for the promise of sex. I let a lady subject me through the entirety of Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night live album.

  61. machinery

    Had one more, way too late of course: Imperial Bedroom. Total album, carefully sequenced and selected. Works as a whole and to loose a song would be a crime.

  62. 2000 Man

    I’m with you. I like albums, and if I don’t like part of it at first, I’ll probably start liking it sooner or later because I’m not getting out of my chair and lifting the needle for maybe five minutes of not as great as the last song music. Sometimes, after years of listening halfheartedly, something comes through and I’m happy to have another song to like, or even love that I didn’t before.

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