In case you haven’t heard, the album is dead. Not the CD, that poor thing died ages ago. But the album as a format. Apparently listening to a sequence of songs in the order designated by the artist doesn’t happen anymore. In fact, digital downloads have made purchasing more than one song from a single album passé, like standing up at a dinner table when a woman leaves. Or so “They” say. I won’t pretend that many listeners haven’t abandoned the album as a format thanks to digital retail. Yet, I’d hardly say that’s the consensus based on the music fans I know and the audiences I see at shows, both in arenas and in dingy clubs. The album is alive and well.
So why am I celebrating the album when we’re here for a list of 2009′s best songs? Well, because this was a year that saw some great songwriting. The songs on this list stand alone based solely on their instant aural pleasure and on a technical level. (I’m looking at you, “Stillness Is the Move”.) But put in the context of an album, these songs take on a new life. Do they continue a literal story, as with The Decemberists’ work, or do they show another aspect of the artist’s talent, as with Animal Collective? Or are they just another song in a series of awesome tunes, like Passion Pit’s entries? Pulled out of context, these songs are all kinds of awesome, but it’s a different awesome than the one found on record. And people aren’t only concerned with the singles pushed to them through TV, radio, or even iPod ads.
Think about it this way: When you saw the video for “Summertime Clothes”, was it the first time you heard the song? Or had you heard it when it was released six months earlier or leaked last year and the music community collectively got in the fetal position because their mortal bodies couldn’t handle the power of Panda Bear? I’m guessing the song wasn’t new to you and you watched the clip on Youtube, not TRL.
While we end this decade and begin the next, we can probably look forward to the concept of singles as a primary marketing tool to die and for quality songs to be given their due. When Grizzly Bear can land a top 10 album on the Billboard charts, it’s fair to say that people are finding the music they want without the ancient PR push of the 1990s. The need for a hit single won’t be as high as it once was and you’ll have artists like Andrew Bird releasing a song such as “Anonanimal” as a single because he can, not because he has to, and ultimately he’ll score the most successful record of his career. This year, he did both of those things… and all without a Timbaland collaboration.
We’re nine years past Kid A, which more than one critic has deemed the last true Album with a capital A. (Pun not intended, though fully welcome.) That album had no conventional singles, but when I saw the band play last year, people sure as hell knew the opening beeps of “Idioteque”. And just as many knew the opening notes of “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”. Forget the album; the next decade will be all about how we view the song and its place in an artist’s repertoire. At least until Radiohead or Animal Collective decide to redefine how we define a “song” and take us into a musical world that would confuse even John Cage. But we’ll cross that avant-garde bridge when we get to it.
-Anthony Balderrama, CoS Senior Staff Writer
Note: We’ve included streams for each of our 50 choices. But, there’s a catch — you’ll have to register at Lala. Don’t fret, it only takes 20 seconds. Then, the rest is on us.