Friday, 12 December 2008

2008 (1): The Age Of The Overstatement?

As 2008 draws to a close and everyone starts reflecting on the past 12 months, it seems approporiate to review this year's music.

Where do we begin, then? Well, to start with, in my (humble) opinion, this has been a pretty average year. The question is, why?

Perhaps the simple answer would be with another statement which could easily have been the title of this post; "The Death Of The Album", as, for me, this is the main problem in music at present. Part two of the 2008 review will focus on my choice of the top 10 albums this year and it was while I was trying to compile my list that my thesis on the decline of the album as we know it started to take shape.

On sifting through the albums which have "graced" my Itunes this year, a recurring pattern started to develop; there are VERY few albums which are truly GREAT from start to finish. Indeed, the vast majority of those pumping on my stereo have no more than two or three songs worthy of a "great" rating.

In fact, while I found it quite a simple task to find 20 or more tracks from which I could draw up a Top 10 list (that'll be part 3!), I had to review my 2008 albums on several occasions to find enough contenders to go into my Top 10 list (if things don't change in 2009, I'll be reducing it to the Top 5 - should be easier!). I almost felt like I was scraping the barrel to get past Nº6 and it's probably true (and, at the same time, depressing) to say that those outside the Top 3 would have found it difficult to get on to lists in previous years.

So, why have there been so few great albums this year?

Initially, I thought it was just a coincidence; some years will always be better than others. However, I started to notice that albums by some of the truly great bands of the past few years such as Coldplay, Bloc Party, The Killers and Kings of Leon were extremely average by their standards. Even The Cure's much awaited '4:13 Dream' (Geffen, October 2008) sounded like nothing more than a Greatest Hits album. Each of its 13 new tracks sounded like something from a previous album with a new title. Even though those tracks were pretty good - I'm sorry, but I don't think I will EVER criticise Robert Smith et al, The Cure have played too important a part in my musical life for that - I couldn't help but be disappointed by what I'd bought.

There are only two groups which I feel can be excused - R.E.M.'s 'Accelerate' (Warner Bros, April 2008) signalled the return of the best R.E.M. music since the days of 'Automatic For The People' and definitely is one of the best albums of the year (it's certainly on my list, anyway!) and Snow Patrol's "A Hundred Million Suns" (Geffen/Fiction, October 2008) maintains levels reached with 'Final Straw' and 'Eyes Open'. (By the way, for those of you thinking "What about Keane?", their 2008 release, Perfect Symmetry (Island, October 2008) was quite simply PATHETIC. If that album had been presented by a new band it would never have been recorded.

If it wasn't just a bad year by chance, what was the reason, then? The answer: downloads.
Now, before everyone starts thinking donkeys and how it's like stealing the record from the shop (we should discuss that one at a later date), I'm talking about the whole concept of downloads and, in particular, legal ones.

I don't have official statistics on this, but I'm sure that most music downloads are NOT albums, but tracks. In times of financial difficulties, why spend 15 (pounds or euros, depending on where you live) on a new release unless you're convinced it's worth the money? Logically, it's more economical to try a couple of singles first and maybe (a BIG maybe) buy the whole album later. So you get two tracks by Coldplay, 3 by Snow Patrol, another 3 or 4 by Kings of Leon and Bloc Party (but don't get any by Keane!) and, before you know it, you have the basis of a "great" album..... by four different artists!

On top of this, all the tracks are on your mp3 player, so you can select 'shuffle songs' and forget about albums forever. Simple!

Record companies aren't stupid (although they do try their best to appear to be!). Let's sell millions of tracks at 0,99, let the romantics go out and buy the album anyway and forget about the 'crisis'. Think about it. A number of international banks would have disappeared without Government intervention, but Sony, EMI and Warner Bros. will probably announce massive profits.

Groups limiting (or being told to limit) each album to one or two pieces of genius, using average, 2nd class material to make up ther numbers and keeping better stuff for the future (or at least until the crisis starts to disappear, or whatever it does)?

Anyone who shares that opinion must be a paranoid android, right?

While you think about that, I need to find the best of the average 2008 albums for positions 7-10 on my Top 10 list. The long and winding road.....