music

Albums vs. Playlists: the Great Debate

September 6, 2019

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash

Lucy Myers

It’s a debate as old as time. Well, as old as the technological developments that allow for different modes of recording and publishing sounds in a variety of different formats… at least.

~ Albums vs. Playlists ~

The way that we engage with music is constantly evolving along with the times – especially since the rise of streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music.

Both albums and playlists have their own definitive positives. But, at the end of the day – or once the Spotify app has been opened – which one wins the hearts of avid music listeners around the globe?

The ‘titan of ordered songs’, the Album is largely seen as the key landmark of the music industry. An artist is usually celebrated by the release of their album, it offers a little flag in their career that they completed a task so massive, that they created and released an entire body of work that’s then consumed as a singular entity.

An album is a grand statement of who that artist is in that period of time, and any other albums they release are markers of their progression onwards in the music industry.

Think of Lorde. Pure Heroine’s (2013) razor sharp wit was focused on teenage boredom, of young people trying to be adults. Melodrama (2017), on the other hand, is a more mature entity about the end of a relationship, about reamergance and rebirth. Both albums are brilliant in their own right, and both mark different stages in not just her growth, but in the change in culture as a whole.

You are immersed in albums, you swim within their coherency from start to finish, swept on a journey that you don’t have any control over (well, apart from the ability to pause or change albums).

Albums are often conceptual; think of Car Seat Headrest’s Twin Fantasy (2018) which follows the end of a very specific relationship in a very particular context; it is endlessly self-referential and thematically tied together. Or, even Paul Williams’ Surf Music (2018) which traces the end of one relationship with the start of another and is tied together thematically by references to Nelson, New Zealand (William’s hometown) and the NBA.

Listening to these albums in whole is different to listening to them in parts. Yes, all the songs are good, but hearing: “I could be your number one / I could be your Anthony Bennett / I ain’t a one and done” in ‘Number One’ shift to: “Girl I was your number one / I was your Anthony Bennett / two years and I was done” in ‘Euroleague’ carries you on the narrative journey that Williams offers you.

The ‘rising star of the digital age’, the Playlist, according to a survey of my friends, is superior in its ability to let the listener choose and curate what they want to listen to. Playlists shift the authorial control from the musician to the listener. The listener has full control over what songs they leave in, and what they leave out. So, when you make a playlist, you’re exerting your power as a consumer over the artistic world; deciding to include one song and exclude another at your own whim.

Playlists allow you to find the best songs from an album and extract their precious tunes from the rubble of the rest; to leave these ‘filler’ songs in a pit to be forgotten quickly.

They also allow you to choose songs according to general themes and moods – whether it be a ‘study’ playlist or an ‘exercise’ playlist or to simply ‘chill out’. You can tailor the listening experience to your exact needs: one person may have a study playlist that exists entirely of Robyn songs entitled ‘Robyn songs that make me study via perpetual motion’ (that person is me); somebody else may have a playlist of soft acoustic music that is called ‘study’ with a musical note emoji.

Playlists allow for the consumption of music to be passive, as they facilitate or heighten any experience by virtue of their sounds – sounds which are specifically chosen to achieve just that. 

They can be curated for somebody or be curated for anything: making a playlist for your crush that has both ‘Come Into The Water’ by Mitski and ‘One Life Stand’ by Hot Chip allows for you to create your own personal musical articulation of your deepest feelings. You can make two different artists, writing songs from two different contexts, crash together in a third context designed entirely by you. How nice.

Ultimately, the popularity of playlists seems to be about choice. If you so wish, you can listen to Sufjan Stevens and then listen to Princess Nokia. That is something you can do effortlessly. 

However, it seems that the ‘style’ of albums is shifting in order to respond to this. The frequent inclusion of ‘interludes’ or ‘reprises’ in albums tie different isolated and seperate parts of an album into something cohesive and whole.

Faye Webster’s ‘Jonny (Reprise)’ from her album Atlanta Millionaires Club (2019) is a great example of this, since it is referential to the earlier song ‘Jonny’, it partially relies on the context of the first song but also in its own right expands on it and can even exist by itself.

Or, moreover, the prevalence of mixtapes, like Flume’s Hi This is Flume (2019) or Solange’s When I Get Home (2019), hinge around short snippets of sound that – only when played together – become something larger and more cohesive. To play ‘Beltway’ or ‘Upgrade’ alone – outside of their larger context – the album seems a bit odd. The musical vision cannot be broken down into something smaller; something manageable and bite-sized.

Additionally, the revival of vinyl seems to be emphasising all the ways that music can be tangible and physical in a way that an app on your phone simply can’t. It’s fascinating how a large black (or sometimes coloured) disk which has exactly the right grooves that allow for a small needle attached to a stereo to elicit something beautiful from it.

There is something rather nice about having a physical copy of an album that you love, that occupies space on your shelf or in your car. That it takes up physical space in the world, that there is a physical copy of Mitski’s Puberty 2 (2016) on my shelf and carries weight in the world.

But – to swing back around – vinyls aren’t exactly practical. You cannot bring your record player on the tram. Well, you probably could – but societal conventions and expectations about occupation of space and noise levels in public would probably hinder the experience somewhat.

Albums, playlists, mixtapes, vinyls, cassettes…it all ultimately comes down to your personal opinion, and the experience that you wish for from music. Music’s beauty comes largely from its ability to be molded to personal experience; it offers sound to life. You do you (and stream Paul Williams’ Surf Music on Spotify now).