Back in 1979, rock critic Greil Marcus asked a bunch of his colleagues to answer the ultimate music fan's question: What one album would they want to have if they were stranded on a desert island? Just over 25 years later, I offered the same challenge to a new generation of music aficionados. Nineteen music writers, bloggers and scholars were up for the task -- indeed, they leaped at the opportunity to pick a favorite and gush about it at length. Weirdly, though, I kept hearing from doubtful outsiders that the project didn't make sense because the album was dead, that it was all about downloads and iPod playlists, that people didn't listen to music "that way" anymore. Those doubters are wrong.
Yes, album sales for the first half of 2007 were down 15% compared with the same period last year, and the record industry has entered what seems like a perpetual state of panic. And yes, most music that's being downloaded legally is bought a la carte, song by song. But that doesn't mean albums, or even CDs, are doomed.
Certain genres -- pop, hip-hop, dance music -- have always been, and will always be, about the perfect song. Albums are more contemplative, presuming and demanding both commitment and patience on the listener's part. But for those of us who love the idea of being permitted into an artist's world for an hour or so, that's how it should be -- and these are good times.
Ambitious, personal music, frequently in lavish packaging, whether by arty metal acts such as Sunn O))) or rap mega-stars such as Kanye West, is reaching the fans it's meant for. Last week's new-album showdown, pitting West's "Graduation" against 50 Cent's "Curtis," is a prime example of how albums can still make a mass-market splash. (West, with 957,000 sold in one week, beat 50 Cent's 691,000, according to Nielsen figures, and 50's now muttering about possible retirement.)
Beyond such stunts, though, the album lives because of what it delivers. There's more music available than ever before, and no matter what panicked record executives say, people are still grabbing it eight and 10 songs at a time, exactly as the artists intended.
For a few years now, it's been possible to download leaked copies of new albums days or weeks before the official release date. That's worrisome to pop performers and the label execs backing them, who, like the producers of big summer movies, live or die by opening-week receipts. For more indie-minded artists, though, this sort of samizdat circulation of their work has become a valuable, even crucial, marketing tool because real fans treat a download like a test drive or a listening booth in an old record store. MP3s posted on blogs and message boards may get the word out, but as long as the music is good, serious fans will still head to their favorite record stores, in person or online, and lay out cash for something they can take home, hold in their hands and examine as they listen.
Furthermore, many albums posted and downloaded aren't new. They're old and frequently out of print, abandoned by labels that didn't see a profit in keeping them commercially available. So they're shared, fan to fan, among small virtual communities obsessed with '60s avant-garde jazz, obscure '70s hard rock or regional hip-hop from the '80s. Ever heard an MP3 crackle like vintage vinyl? Or one in which the sound wobbles like a cassette on the brink of unspooling? I have: It's the sound of the album preserved.
The album remains vital because musicians make it so. Shuffling -- the juxtaposition of songs at a computer's whim -- offers its own pleasures; hearing Ornette Coleman, then AC/DC, then Big Daddy Kane can really liven up a morning commute. But artistic intent deserves respect. If it's safe to assume your favorite band sequenced their latest batch of songs the way they did for a reason, then common courtesy demands that you listen "in order." The anonymous music fans uploading at websites mostly exemplify this respect; when downloading from a blog, you almost always get a zip file containing a whole CD, not an individual track. Some sites even offer scanned cover art and PDF files of liner notes.
Finally, the album as physical object isn't going anywhere. Media types frequently fixate on "early adopters," their own unacknowledged class biases allowing the actions of the ultra-hip few to overshadow the slower progress of the poorer, less tech-savvy majority. Even in the U.S., not everyone has an Internet connection fast enough to permit downloading of albums. I still see more Discmans than iPods in my New Jersey neighborhood; vinyl retains hipster cachet; and outside the U.S., especially in Africa and the Middle East, a whole lot of music continues to be sold on cassette. Ultimately, albums will exist as long as artists, and fans, want them to.
Philip Freeman is editor in chief of Metal Edge magazine and the editor of "Marooned: The Next Generation of Desert Island Discs."