Sapporo Source DEBITO column Sept 09 on “albums” vs “tracks” culture


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Hi Blog.  On this very important day of an election that might change everything, let me offer you this tangent:

As I promised Sapporo’s monthly international magazine SAPPORO SOURCE, I would be creating columns off the beaten track and not human-rights related.  Take in September’s latest indulgence:  “Album” vs. “Tracks” culture, and how that has affected the way we listen to music.

Next month:  Zombie Movies, and why they are the ultimate in terror and horror.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo

The entire issue of SAPPORO SOURCE for September 2009 can be downloaded in pdf format here.  Click on the images below to expand.






Keeping track of musical albums as an art form

Column three for the SAPPORO SOURCE Debito Column

Submitted August 1, 2009, to be published in September Issue


I turned 44 this year, but in terms of musical tastes I might as well be prehistoric.  Music
“generations” (as in, the life cycle of a genre that people identify with, like “Psychedelic”, “Heavy Metal”, “Funk”, “Punk”, “Disco”, “New Wave”, “80s Music” etc.) seem to be getting shorter, lasting four years or so.

When I was young and the earth’s crust was still forming, we’d listen to music that our parents couldn’t understand (Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath usually did the trick).  After all, it was “our” music, not theirs.  The fogies would dismiss it as some kind of unsyncopated noise that we had better turn down before the Devil carried us off.

Nowadays, however, I’m the fogy who doesn’t get it.  I flip on MTV and see scantily-clad line dancers working out to “rap music” (to me, an oxymoron).  Or I listen nonplussed to “hip hop” or “house”.  Somehow I missed whole genres.  “Grunge”? “Trance”? “Techno”?  Meanwhile tunes familiar to me have either been relegated to “Classic Rock”, or else are getting recycled by American Idol as “remakes” and “updates”.  Sometimes I wonder if we’ve run out of ways to manipulate the 120 notes audible to the human ear.

Ah well.  That’s the way generations of genres work.  If kids they want to buy something new just because it’s new (and why wouldn’t they — we did), then fine.  But I will harrumph that you whipper-snappers have lost something.  Due to the way your music is packaged.

Back in my day we reached a high water mark.  I’m not talking about the technology — ours was lousy.  Cassette tapes taping lo-fi from radios?  Car stereos with crappy “8-track tapes”?  You young punks get great sound effortlessly:  CDs that take up less space and are indestructible compared to vinyl records.  Or you just download “Tracks” from iTunes and put your entire collection in a palm-sized mp3 player.  You win.

What I’m talking about is what you lost by having a “Tracks”-based musical culture.  By being able to cherry-pick a few tunes without having to listen to the whole record, you miss the culture that sprung up around the limitations of vinyl.  With vinyl’s total playback time of around 45 minutes (that’s why the typical cassette tape is 90), some musicians who wanted to be taken seriously had to think about how to frame their music.  They came up with the concept of an “Album”.

An Album is not a collection of “Tracks”.  An Album contains an opening song, a series of passable tunes you get into later, a mini-climax by the end of “Side One”, something that pulls you into “Side Two”, takes you to a secret sublime place, then finishes with such an incredible conclusion that you want to hear the whole Album all over again.  It’s a perpetual motion sound machine.

In other words, be it vinyl or cassette, good Albums are something you “get into”.  Meaning it becomes a leitmotif, the “soundtrack” of this stage in your life, a time capsule for the future.  For example, I “got into” ASIA’s first album right out of high school, and no matter how many years it’s been, one listen and I’m eighteen and it’s summer.

Sure, the single Track might do that, but an Album sustains that feeling for close to an hour.  Because any song is not only enjoyable in itself, but also there’s the anticipation of the next song.  Which means the songs are not interchangeable (records or tapes had no “shuffle” button, after all!) — they were deliberately put in that order by the artist.

The point is, you can’t just cut the Album into Tracks, because tunes without context weakens them.  The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and close to the middle of Side Two you get transported to a zone that you could not have gotten to otherwise.  The Album might have a concept; it might not.  But it is unified by a mood that there are no shortcuts to.

Now, if you don’t think this old coot is out of his mind, and you’re willing to give The Album phenomenon a try, here’s your starter kit.  Arranged not by musical taste (I make no claims to be comprehensive), but rather by how easy these Albums are to “get into”:


BEGINNER:  BEATLES “Sgt. Pepper” (arguably the first real Album) and “Abbey Road”.  SADE “Stronger Than Pride”.  PET SHOP BOYS “Behaviour”.  PINK FLOYD:  “Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here”.  U2 “Joshua Tree” and “Unforgettable Fire”.  ASIA eponymous first album.  SEAL “Seal”.

INTERMEDIATE:  GENESIS “Trick of the Tail” and “Wind and Wuthering” (recommend back to back).  Korean group ROLLER COASTER “Absolute”.  GEORGE MICHAEL “Faith”.  MOBY “18”.  PORTISHEAD “Dummy”.  MOODY BLUES “Days of Future Passed”.  FLEETWOOD MAC “Rumours”.  DEPECHE MODE “Ultra”.  TALKING HEADS “More Songs about Buildings and Food”.

ADVANCED:  BLUR “13”.  THE WHO “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia”.  THE FIXX “Phantoms”.  DAVID BOWIE “1. Outside”.  DJIVAN GASPARYAN AND MICHAEL BROOK “Black Rock”.  ABDELLI “New Moon”.  PINK FLOYD “The Wall”.  And my favorite Album of all time:  GENESIS “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway”.


Final word:  If you chase these Albums down, beware the gimmicky reissues with “bonus tracks”.  They generally throw off the whole Album, so separate them into your playlist of CD-single remixes (for when you want to “get into” Tracks instead).  Also, take your time “getting into” these Albums.  I recommend one per week.

Tally ho.  Happy hunting in your local used-CD store.  Tell them your crotchety but avuncular Uncle Debito sent you.



16 comments on “Sapporo Source DEBITO column Sept 09 on “albums” vs “tracks” culture

  • I do agree with you, Debito! I’m in my twenties and arguably not “old” but I still prefer the album experience to the single track experience. There are some single tracks you can listen to over and over and find new aspects to each time, but these days they are quite a rare thing. The whole album is an experience slowly being sapped away from the listening public as digital media expands. Of course, if you wanted an album to be listened in the order it was intended to be, a leaf could be taken from Prince, who made his album Lovesexy a single track that encompassed all the songs rather than separate them by track numbers.

    Other albums worth a listen for the album experience, if you’re interested:

    Hurricane – Grace Jones
    The Gold Experience – Prince
    Heisei Fuuzoku – Shiina Ringo and Saito Neko/ 椎名林檎X斎藤ネコ 平成風俗
    Aerial – Kate Bush

    Seba Rashii

    — Thanks. I’ve got Aerial, and I agree that that is an incredible album. Should have included it. The others I haven’t heard yet, thanks for recommendation.

  • With the huge popularity of online video sites like youtube, etc., I wonder if we’ll be saying a similar thing about “movies” versus “clips” in another ten years. Thanks for the article!

  • I mostly listen to Trance varieties (hardstyle/hard dance/etc.) so I’m a little confused as to how a 45 minute album is all that different from a 30 minute to 3 hour DJ mix. I don’t really get MTV and rap music either, never have, and I’m 20. A ‘Tracks’ based music culture seems to have a significant advantage in that those of us who do not enjoy rap music, or anything available on TV or the radio (at least here in Australia), can actually find good to listen to without having to import CDs from a niche music retailer in Europe.

  • Lexicon of Love – ABC
    Dare – Human League
    High n Dry – Def Leppard
    RIO- Ronny Dio
    Ace of Spades – Motorhead
    Darkness on the Edge of Town – Bruce

    and on and on….too many to mention. I cant play tracks by themselves, i must listen to the whole album!

  • Maybe there aren’t many people who listen to albums anymore, but there are certainly still artists creating music meant to be appreciated in album form. Indie rock and indie pop have many obsessive artists, and hip-hop too has some album oriented artists, Lupe Fiasco comes to mind.

  • A Man In Japan says:

    I totally agree with you Debito! I’m 27 and have always hated called music “tracks” An album is a musical experience and you don’t get the same experience when you just buy and download a single “track” from itunes. Led Zeppelin just wouldn’t be Led Zeppelin if they just put their music any other way than on an album. I don’t like listening to a band with shuffle on either. For me, it must be played from start to finish, the way it was presented on the album. Try listening to Journeys Escape album with shuffle on. It’s just not the same….

  • errr, did I partly inspire this post with that MP3 of “Johnny Foreigner” I sent you, Debito? Actually, Bowie’s “1.Outside” was a major influence on the album the MP3 was taken from, dr jan guru’s album Planet Japan as tracks like “Psychotic Tokyo” recall Bowie’s “I m Deranged” or “No Control”. Ditto Johnny F and Johnny Mnemonic, although thats previous Bowie album…

  • I enjoyed reading that Debito, but what’s this Rumours malarky? Fleetwood Mac died the moment Peter Green left in 1970!

    Anyway, I agree that albums beat tracks hands down. And good music can’t be listened to on shuffle. The last time I did that I had some Hendrix followed up an audio version of one of the Elmer, The Patchwork Elephant books…

  • In the days of the albums, you had to buy the whole wad. In effect, the good songs subsidized the bad. There were very few albums put out where you bought a basket of hits.

    Fleetwood Mac Rumours. Maybe the Elton John albums. Whatever Steely Dan put out (Aja for example)–if you liked the Dan then you usually got at least eight great tunes. Chicago, Foreigner, Meatloaf. Michael Jackson’s Thriller of course.

    The album is ancient history. It joins the equally sad loss of album art (which the CD’s did in). It’s hard to appreciate a CD cover which is a fraction of the size of an album one.

    About the only cool CD cover I saw in Japan was Go!Go!7188’s “Ukifune”.

  • Between the fact that you are unfamiliar with fairly common genres of music, and the fact that the most recent of your recommended releases is close to a decade old. It would seem you just don’t follow new music closely enough to come across great new albums, that most certainly still dp get created. It’s also ironic that two of the genres you “missed”, trance and techno, along with hip-hop, the genre you deemed “not even music”, lead the way in almost every aspect of modern vinyl culture.
    From Radiohead to Grizzly Bear, Cut Copy to The Arcade Fire, great albums exist, are appreciated and pondered over. Perhaps the method of absorbing and enjoying these albums has changed, but to say that great modern albums don’t exist, displays an ignorance and prejudice that you champion against so well in other aspects of your life.

    As far as your age goes…
    “You don’t stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing.”

    — “Ignorance and prejudice”? Sorry for not tickling your sense of humor.

    Whellup, you are welcome to submit some albums you think qualify…

  • The Arcade Fire – Funeral
    Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours
    Animal Collective – Post Merriweather Pavillion
    The RAA – Hometowns
    Mos Def – The Ecstatic
    Bibio – Ambivalence Avenue
    Kompakt – Total 3

    Here are a few, from just the last few years.
    Was I mistaken with the assertion you “ignored Techno and Trance” and “prejudged all Rap as non-music”? That’s what it seemed like you were saying..

  • ” ‘rap music’ (to me, an oxymoron)”

    Here’s what you need, Debito-san:

    Eric B and Rakim: “Paid in Full” and “Follow the Leader”

    Public Enemy: “It Takes a Nation of Millions…” (I also enjoy PE’s oft-maligned “Apocalypse ’91” album. I don’t know why everyone else hates it)

    Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five: any

    For newer rap, I’d reccomend:

    Jurassic 5: “Power in Numbers”

    Dead Prez: “Let’s Get Free” (but stay the hell away from their stink-bomb of a second album “Revolutionary but Gangsta” for your own good)

    Dragon Ash is pretty good J-rap.

    Somewhere around 1993 rap started to get terrible. The urgency and political awareness that was once a rap trademark was replaced by all this “gunz-bluntz-hoez” crap. That eventually turned into the “Ghetto Fabulous bling bling” crap that’s been saturating the airaves from some time now. For good rap or hip-hip (one and the same to me) you’ve got to go back to the 80’s.

  • Isn’t ignorance and prejudice a pretty accurate description of how style, art and music work anyhow?

    Besides which, both the article and the comments that followed have contained a refreshingly non-existent amount of criticism and disdain for genre’s of music that are usually considered to be ‘not music’. There’s none of the usual “it’s just the same thing repeated over and over” (which, incidentally, applies to all music) and no complaints of how there are satanic messages backmasked into it (such complainers should try listening to Industrial sometime, there are deliberately shocking messages that can be accessed without playing it backward and reinterpreting what you hear).

    I just noticed the “Next month: Zombie Movies”. I am (cautiously) looking forward to reading it.

  • “The Album might have a concept; it might not. But it is unified by a mood that there are no shortcuts to.”

    But an album without a concept is no different from an “album” you create yourself by combining different tracks as you see fit (maybe even with a concept), which is what most people do (I guess nobody really listens to only one track alone) … or is it?

    One of my favorite composers Yuki Kajiura at the beginning didn’t release any albums, but mostly instrumental background music of TV series. Since I prefer her vocal tracks and all my favorite songs are scattered on her various soundtracks, I usually listened only to them and I still feel that the music quite managed to pull me in, and still does. If you want to try any of her now existing albums, I recommend “Fiction” and “FictionJunction – Everlasting Songs”.

    I think Nightwish qualifies as my only album experience with “tracks” that actually belong together and an epic final (or intro). I highly recommend all their albums but especially Wishmaster, Once, Oceanborn and Dark Passion Play (later albums have a real orchester, which creates an even better atmosphere).

    anyway, nice article, I’ll maybe try some of these oldies XD


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