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Musings on the Pleasure of Music Albums

The birthday when I received a CD player, several albums, and a carrier for them all was one of the happiest days of my life. I was thrilled to be able to listen to music whenever and wherever I wanted. I wore the case everywhere for several days, excitedly looking at my Cheetah Girls, Amy Grant, Hilary Duff, and Beatles albums. Despite my intermittent intense appreciation for specific artists, I’ve never really considered myself much of a music buff, and as time went on, I found myself listening to more and more singles from many different artists rather than whole albums. I didn’t really care to listen to all of someone’s work if I only liked one song. Also, my sisters have a talent for making mixes (I always look forward to your new one at Christmas, Leah!) full of cool songs from interesting artists, so I never felt the need to do any deep exploring on my own. I was content to let the songs come to me.

When I found songs I liked I would only get those and not bother with any others. Until this Spring, my iTunes library only had full Adele, Lupe Fiasco, and Coldplay albums that I never really listened to all the way through. I was content to set my library on shuffle and hope for the best. Since this past April, however, my collection of albums has expanded tremendously, and I’ve found myself choosing more and more to listen to one of them rather than flipping through songs at random.

The shift began with the Hamilton soundtrack. I’d listened to a few of the songs months earlier, but Hamilton is a work that needs to be taken in all in one go. Because it’s a musical, Hamilton has a fairly strict narrative structure, which means the songs need to be heard in order to get the whole story. As I listened to it I found myself really enjoying taking the time to listen to one complete artistic endeavor, even though it did take a substantial part of the day.

When I was driving to Ohio from Vermont at the beginning of the school year I had an abundance of driving time to fill up and I appreciated the abundance of time to luxuriate in Coldplay’s and Leon Bridges new albums and re-listen to Lord Huron’s Strange Trails for maybe the tenth time. Now, of course, I’m at school and busy with classwork and extracurriculars, and it’s rare to find time to do nothing but listen to music, but when I’m writing a paper or reading a particularly long article late at night, I put on my headphones and create a wall of sound between me and the outside world. Right now, in fact, I’m listening to Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and marveling at the expansiveness and flow of “Pyramids.”

Listening to an album as a whole gives me more of an appreciation for how everything ties together. As I listen to albums, I find myself getting into the rhythm of a group or singer more and noticing how an early rhythm or theme will show up in a later song. Songs will echo and build on each other, the shared beats and riffs creating a sense of continuity and fullness. If I’m listening to a single singer as opposed to a band, over the course of an album I get a fuller picture of their voice and range. In the same vein, some albums have more of an explicit theme and are essentially concept albums, which make listening to them all at once a more fulfilling experience (though sometimes you just want to listen to one song, which is totally fine). Lord Huron’s Strange Trails is a good example of this idea—you can listen to any individual songs and enjoy them, but when one listens to the whole album, a nebulous plot emerges and certain characters re-occur.

Let me take you back to the recent past when Bon Iver’s new album, 22, A Million, was released. On September 29 I got an invitation to a listening party that would take place just after midnight when the album had been freshly released into the world. I was intrigued by the idea because I’d never really done anything like get together with people just to listen to music, and I liked the idea of communally experiencing an album for the first time among friends.

The experience was transcendental. There was something magical about gathering in a dimly lit living room and sitting silently while listening to music. One of the best parts was simply watching people’s facial expressions as we all registered the unexpected and sometimes crazy twists Bon Iver put in all the songs. This album works especially well when listened to straight through because every song flows into the next one so smoothly and some sound strange and out of context when listened to as singles. I highly recommend listening to 22, A Million either with a group of friends or on a solo walk in nature. Your efforts will be rewarded.

And really, making the time to listen to any album all the way through will reward the listener. Most of the time artists take the time to carefully consider not only which songs make the cut but the order they go in. It’s not that mixes of different songs and artists are inherently lesser, but that an album is a complete experience that’s worth taking the time to appreciate.

Image Credit: Katie Dembinski, Beta News, Amazon

Katie is a senior (well, basically, it's a long story) English major and history minor from Woodstock, Vermont.
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