"Are complete albums obsolete?"
Prior to the introduction of compact discs in 1982, consumers of prerecorded music pretty much had to listen to the entire side of an album or cassette. And in the case of the clunky 8-track cartridge, perhaps the entire thing—if the machinery cooperated. You’d plop an album onto the turntable, sit back and let the whole side play because you were too....lazy, let's say....to get up to move the needle onto a different track. Remember those songs that made little initial impression but through repeated listening, grew to be among your favorites? I fear that process is being lost.
Upon the advent of digital audio, we could pick and choose what to play/what to skip on a CD. Being able to avoid listening to songs that didn't immediately grab our attention seemed like a luxury. But is it, really? How many potentially indelible songs are we missing by avoiding the “sleeper” cuts?
Now with download services, it’s too easy (and economical) to cherry pick the tracks you know you like. Even rebels like Pink Floyd and Radiohead, who initially insisted their releases be sold intact, have relented. Admittedly, some CDs/Lps are merely a collection of songs while others are programed to flow and, perhaps, tell a story. Are complete albums obsolete, including those meant to be listened to as a whole?
Oddly enough, picking one song online is actually retro. From the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s, singles, issued as 45s, were "the thing" for most pop/rock artists. A hit could spur sales of their album. Unfortunately many LPs of that era were quickly thrown together to cash in the popularity of one radio-friendly song. The Beatles helped usher in the album as an entity unto itself. Sgt. Pepper was their first to not have any singles pulled from it. If you wanted any of the cuts you had to pony up for the whole thing. It was a concept piece after all. If a song hadn’t had a chance to work its way into your gray matter, it’s easy to imagine folks skipping George Harrison’s Indian-inspired “Within You Without You,” or even “When I’m 64.”
As FM album radio flourished in the ’70s, DJs were instrumental in focusing interest in a song, regardless of whether it was released as a single. Probably the most famous album cut that was purposely never commercially issued on a 45 is Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven.” Led Zep was already an album-selling artist anyway, so it was irrelevant that it wasn't issued as a 45. (Once the song took off, a promotional-only single was sent to stations to further encourage its play.)
As 45s wilted, thanks (or no thanks) to the ’70s & ’80s album-driven market, record companies tried to keep the concept of a single alive; first with with "cassingles" and then 3” CDs, neither of which made much of an impact. Now we’ve come full circle where the single song download has all but killed CDs. Who listens to a full-length release when you can simply pick the obvious faves? Unfortunately—and admittedly this is from someone who relished the experience—the days of anticipating a new album, purchasing it (CD or vinyl), and playing it over and over (best with like-minded friends and munchies) while reading the liner notes are quickly fading.
What unlikely album cuts have snuck up on you? One of my all time favorite LPs, Procol Harum’s A Salty Dog, is nearly an entire album of sleeper tracks! A couple of recent ones that come to mind: Steve Wynn’s “Manhattan Fault Line” and J.D. Souther’s “Journey Down The Nile,” which I discovered while listening to their entire CDs—more than once.