The Timeless Appeal of Vinyl Records

April 13th was Record Store day across the world, an annual event created to keep the legacy of records and record stores alive. The local Ann Arbor District library set up a Record Store Day event, including a market of new and used vinyl records from various record shops in Ann Arbor, along with a DJ and other entertainment. I was lucky enough to be able to go, and it was a great experience: I didn’t expect there to be many people, and I was worried it would be an awkward and uncomfortable environment, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was a large turn out. Even more surprising was how diverse the group was, most notably in age. It was interesting to see so many young people talking to the older people about records, and it got me thinking a lot about the role of vinyl records today. They’ve reached an age where they’re obsolete in a practical sense, but have become a symbol of nostalgia and good taste: many people will boast about the unique and superior sound of vinyl records; if they’re being sincere or just trying to sound cool, it can be impossible to tell. Regardless, vinyl records have maintained their spot in popular culture and it doesn’t seem like they’ll be leaving anytime soon.

 

Personally, it’s easy for me to see why vinyl records have stayed relevant compared to other music formats, such as 8-tracks, cassettes, and CDs. I’ve always appreciated the artistic format of vinyl records: their size alone demands attention and respect, not to mention they can be great examples of quality art and design. They take the concept of album art to an entirely new level by making the entire product a unique piece of art, from the front cover to the back cover and everything in-between. Some of my favorite examples are actually newer albums that are being sold in vinyl record format; I find it especially fascinating that modern musicians are releasing new music on vinyl. Maybe they see the unique artistic potential as well and they want to sell a work of art that will never age. Either way, I hope it’s a trend that doesn’t die out.

 

(Header Image: Google Images)

Albums featured:

  1. Zaba Limited Edition by Glass Animals
  2. Monument Valley Soundtrack by Stafford Bawler, OBFUSC and GRIGORI

Album Art Aesthetics

Great album art is incredibly powerful, but I feel as if it’s often overlooked by consumer and producer alike. People take it for granted, thinking of the physical representation as just a means to deliver the real product, the music. However, I would argue that the music is only half of the product, and that the music itself is almost entirely defined by its presentation. I’ve always been fascinated by the wide variety of art styles on album covers, but my passion was recently reignited when I saw the album cover for the new Flume mixtape Hi This Is Flume. It grabbed my attention and didn’t let go; the vivid colors, the straight lines and framing of the picture, and most importantly the beautiful painting on the hood of the car. Even though I knew who Flume was and didn’t mind their music, I never really cared for it much. However, I listened to the entire album right when I saw it, that’s how intrigued I was by the cover. My point: it’s all about first impressions, just like meeting a new person. Sure the music is important, but nobody will listen to it if you can’t get their attention first.

Hi This Is Flume – Flume

Beyond being eye-catching, I think an album cover has the power to enhance the music and add an entirely new element to the project. It sets a certain mood and interpretation for the album; you listen to it differently than if it didn’t have an album cover. For example, when I listened to the Flume album I expected it to be interesting and experimental, just like the album cover. As a result, I interpreted it through that lens and ended up loving it. I honestly don’t think I would have cared for it much if I wasn’t already expecting it to be different and experimental. I’m not saying the music isn’t good, I’m saying that the aesthetic of the cover opens up your mind to the music before you listen, and then continues to contribute to the overall feeling of the album. A lot of great albums use this to their advantage (such as the ones in the header image), and it makes a noticeable difference. It really ties the project together as a whole, and turns the album from a collection of songs into a musical journey. When I think back on an album that I loved, the first thing I remember is its aesthetic; the feeling and tone of the album that makes it entirely unique. It’s the album art that always determines this, because it’s the album art that gave the first impression.

Looking towards the future and the increase in purely digital music raises a lot of concerns with me. There’s something to be said for being able to hold the music as a product, and experience it in more ways that just auditory. If you’ve ever listened to a vinyl record or a cassette tape, or even just looked at one and admired its ingenuity, then you know what I’m getting at. Not only does digital music lack these things, I’m also worried that album covers for purely digital projects will more often be overlooked. It’s no longer a work of art that you can hang on your wall or collect; if you’re lucky it’s a thumbnail size image with good resolution. Obviously physical forms of music will always be around, and I’m sure there will still be artists such as Flume who continue to realize the importance of presentation, but I also think that we should all take a minute to appreciate the unique artistic medium of album covers and realize their importance in the art of music.

The Way I See It: Thoughts on Albums Part 2

In a much earlier blog post, I talked about how I feel about the title “The Best Album of All Time.” In some ways, this is an arbitrary title to give a creative piece of work, especially considering how many millions upon millions upon millions of albums that have been made. But it also frames the question in a really unique way. Because beyond asking what your favorite song is, or even what your favorite album is, it’s just slightly more. It may not necessarily be your favorite, but it’s what you consider the best. It’s personal, it reveals your standards, and it reveals who you are, in some weird kind of way.

So this week, I want to talk about what I consider to be The Best Album So Far, since, as we all know, new and exciting music is being created everyday. In some ways, it’s my favorite album, and in others, I just consider it to be a musical masterpiece. And yet, I know that it’s flawed, it’s not perfect, and it’s not a widely shared opinion. But it’s mine, and I want to talk about it, and this is my blog, so ha I win.

Phoenix’s 2013 concept-album-but-also-not-really Bankrupt! probably flew under most radars that year. It’s the year Vampire Weekend released Modern Vampires of New York and Arctic Monkeys released AM, and although a quick search on albumoftheyear.org (I didn’t even know this existed until today) finds a compilation of generally favorable, even highly praised reviews of it, even the slightly more than general indie band might find it hard to remember Bankrupt! because…well…Phoenix was old news. Although Phoenix at this point has been around for years and years and released multiple albums, their claim to fame was Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (another equally brilliant album), along with 1901 that I knew from the car commercial but I’m sure indie fans knew from other things. So then Bankrupt! was, in essence, that dreaded sophomore album.

And to be honest, the first time I heard the lead single “Entertainment,” I was not impressed. As a single, “Entertainment” is catchy, upbeat, fun, synth-heavy indie-pop. It’s likable, it’s pleasing, and made for the general indie population to consume and enjoy. But it’s not in any way brilliant, and it does not speak for the album as a whole.

So what is Bankrupt!? I call it a concept album despite the fact that the only concept seems to be non-concept. And yet, that’s what, to me, makes it so brilliant. When listening to the album all the way through, Bankrupt! changes styles at least 5 times, if not more. It never becomes content with the pop-infused sound of “Entertainment,” coincidentally the first song on the album. It can’t stay there, because that’s not the ending, but the beginning. The album constantly reinvents itself in a way that the listener cannot anticipate nor be completely satisfied with itself. And yet, in direct contradiction to that, none of the tracks feel jarring, or out of place, even when the songs get darker, slower, or vaguer. The album navigates the changes so smoothly that the listener barely even notices these changes.

I have listened to Bankrupt!, as a complete album, well over 100 times. Sometimes, I do listen to individual songs, and I had a phase where I did that. But then I started realizing that when I started with an individual song, even if it’s a few songs into the album, I kept wanting to listen to the rest of the album, rather than switching to some other artist or even another song by Phoenix.

And it’s clear that Phoenix intended the album to be listened to as a whole, as each song flows into the next, often playing the melody for the next song before the previous ends. Which is why it’s easy to see why “Entertainment” failed as a single in some ways – it was never meant to be a single. It was meant to be the introduction to Bankrupt!, with the rest of the album to speak for it.

I also personally love this album because the lyrics are just real enough to matter, and just absurd enough to be indie, always keeping you guessing. I also love the musicality, the way the music sometimes overpowers the vocals, like you’re hearing it live every time. I love everything about this album.

And for some weird, bizarre reason, I find it to be the best album of all time. I come back to it, again and again, and I’m always surprised by it. And that, to me, is enough to qualify it.

So then…I’ll ask again. What’s your best album of all time?

The Way I See It: Thoughts on Albums Part 1

It seems fair, to me, that the same week as the Grammy’s I should be talking about music. Even though I haven’t quite yet gotten to watch the Grammy’s (it’s on my DVR I promise I’ll watch it soon), I’ve seen words flying around my news feed throughout the past week, artists like Kendrick Lamar and Taylor Swift at odds with each other.

Bu that’s not what I want to talk about this week. We all know that the Grammy’s aren’t necessarily the be-all-end-all, and oftentimes don’t represent the music community as a whole. So instead, I want to talk about something a little bit more personal.

If you run in any type of circle that cares a lot about music, especially alternative/indie/rock music, there’s a conversation that is bound to happen. What is the best album of all time?

That’s quite a heavy burden for someone to bear, to pick the best album of all time. This is more than just a hi, nice to meet you, what’s your favorite song? kind of question. This becomes especially difficult, too, since people who claim to like “good music” often bow down to the rock classics, to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Nirvana, U2, etc. And a lot of times these albums are picked as the best of the best of the best.

But it’s always seemed to me that this question is a thinly veiled disguise aimed at probing if you are “worthy enough” to be considered a true music fan. To navigate this exchange, you have to simultaneously pick something old, perhaps pretentious, highly acclaimed but perhaps not widely known by a general music fan, someone who listens to the radio (because who does that…besides most of the US population).

That’s not how I see this question, though. No, this may not be a first date, could-I-actually-like-you, I’m curious tell me kind of question, but I think asking about someone’s favorite album can be a lot more telling. Something they can listen to over and over again. Something that fits every mood, every whether. Their go-to for when their music runs dry. Not necessarily an album that they listen to constantly, but, even after a year, two, or three of not hearing one song on that album, they can go back to it.

To me, that kind of answer speaks volumes more about who a person is rather than asking them to nominate only one album as the greatest of all time. I think this week’s Grammy’s showed us that there can be vastly different opinions on how to choose an album of the year, much less of all time.

So that’s my version of that question. Simply modified, perhaps not easily answered (can you pick just one?). But I wonder: what’s your favorite album of all time?