Saturday, January 2, 2010

Michael Jackson and the Album Format

What is an album? Is it a single work of art, or is it a collection of ten to fifteen works of art? Michael Jackson's idiom has always been pop music, a genre that glorifies the single and gives little attention to the album. The worst pop albums are inevitably those with one great radio-ready track (probably the title track) with nine disposable pieces of filler that no one would listen to more than once (a single with nine b-sides, you may think of it). Truth be told, the worst rock albums are those ones too, but rock (or “FM radio music”, if you'd prefer) tends to be seen as a genre where albums are unified 'statements': where singles are merely tasters for the album and where the true fan will hear the single and buy the album.

All of this is discussion from the past, of course: pop fans and rock fans don't really have different buying habits anymore: since the 1990s in North America anyway the album has been the prime medium for purchasing music: very few Americans outside of collectors bought singles, even the poppiest of pop fans. And today, of course, the albums itself is dead, as music has gone online and reverted back to an emphasis on single tracks. I wonder how Michael Jackson would have adapted to this new era, since, curously, he's very much an 'album artist', with each of his Epic era albums being significant 'statements' and signposts for 'eras' in his creative history. Releasing well over half of an album's tracks as singles was all but unheard of before Michael Jackson, and certainly his filler-free albums brought the medium a respectability within pure 'pop' circles that it hadn't really had before (by comparison, the early Jackson 5 albums were released as frequently as Jackson 5 singles were, but were filled with all kinds of filler that were probably designed never to be heard more than a few times each by purchasers – what mattered to Berry Gordy and Motown was the 7”).

However, though I think you can make a case for the Quincy Jones-produced Thriller and Bad as unified pieces of work (and even at that, it's a stretch), Michael Jackson's 1990s albums are very much collections of songs. Okay, collections of hit songs, but still: not 'albums' as unified pieces of work. Does it make a difference? Well, to an extent, every Michael Jackson album plays like a greatest hits album (thought is given to sequencing, mind you, and each of his albums feature deft though imperfect track sequencing). Apparently, his nineties albums were cobbled together from dozens (in some cases hundreds of songs recorded over a period of several years: in different studios, with different producers, with different musicians and collaborators. If this is really the case, then obviously it would be difficult for these albums to hang together with any sense of purpose at all. Which is why, largely speaking, they don't.

Yet they remain great albums. Not just great collections of tracks but great albums. Listening to Dangerous or CD two of HIStory offers an experience that merely listening to the individual tracks doesn't. It's a bit of a mystery how Michael Jackson managed that, but there you have it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Powered by WebRing.
homelistjoin | previousnextrandom

powered by alt-webring