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What a concept — albums an aging art form

In era of single-song downloads, artists find it hard to get whole story out
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Tom Petty is not a highfalutin, concept-album kind of guy. He’s a singles machine: For three decades now, the flaxen-haired rocker has been crafting no-nonsense rock ‘n’ roll songs that are consistently ideal for the radio — tuneful and crunchy, with just enough dark insinuation to keep ‘em guessing.

He is, in fact, a kind of human jukebox, turning out one song after another that stands on its own as three minutes of pop dependability. Which makes Petty a logical long-term winner in the digital-download revolution, where “American Girl” and “I Won’t Back Down” are surely common denominators on iPods belonging to a diverse cross-section of users.  

Yet he’s a skeptic. In a recent issue of Rolling Stone, the singer essentially counts himself a Luddite.

In theory, he tells the magazine, “iTunes is a great idea. It reminds me of the old days when you bought a single for 99 cents, and if you liked that, you bought the album.”

In practice, however, he thinks the service and others like it are killing albums. Working on his own new record, which comes out this week, “I was up until the middle of the night sequencing this thing,” he says. “And I am starting to think, ‘Who cares? ‘Cause they’re just a bunch of button pushers.’ But I am not giving up my art. I make complete pieces of work, I like to think.”

Are albums headed for extinction?It’s an ongoing lament in the age of the computerized music collection: Is the wholly conceived long-player headed for extinction? When music is consumed a la carte, one track at a time, is some measure of artistry being lost?

Are we ruining our diets, piling up the calories with ear candy when we once had square meals on round platters?   

Undoubtedly, there’s a long history of album-length song cycles that have transcended the concession stand of pop to command recognition in the realm of “art.” The vast ambition of Stevie Wonder’s double-album opus “Songs in the Key of Life,” to name one example, remains astonishing today.

But does that mean that “I Wish” or “Sir Duke” are taken out of context when they’re played on the radio? 

Green Day’s “American Idiot,” written as a pop-punk appropriation of the hoary “rock opera” concept, is the most prominent recent example of an album-length “piece of work,” as Petty puts it, designed to be consumed whole. Yet several songs from the record, including all nine minutes of “Jesus of Suburbia,” got loads of airplay on their own.

'Artiness' quotient
The concept album is a obvious yardstick for the “artiness” quotient of an album’s worth of songs. David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” is a masterpiece of the genre.

And bands will continue to dream up characters and plot lines whose exploits hold up over the course of a dozen songs or more — whatever the distribution method. It might be the Arcade Fire or it might be Nas: There’s no shortage of musicians who are creative enough to tell stories that require whole albums to unfold.

There doesn’t have to be a “concept,” either. We’ll always have musicians whose talent demands that fans follow them wherever they go, at whatever length. The individual tracks from Thom Yorke’s new solo album are available on iTunes, a commercial move thus far shunned by his full-time band, Radiohead. But without an evident hit single, he’ll do most of his business selling the record in its entirety, whether hard copy or download.

It could be argued that iTunes and similar destinations have actually helped tighten up the quality of the music industry’s output. The 75-minute CD, featuring one or two radio hits and then stuffed with a painful amount of filler, seems to be phasing out. If you’ve got one irrepressible hook or lyric to share, it’s no longer necessary to pad it with 10 mediocre ones to round out an album.

And the artists who are more prolific, or whose work invites total immersion, will continue to make collections of carefully sequenced songs. They may not always come on little plastic discs, and they may not always be called “albums” — the term, which originated with the album-like books that once held 78-rpm records, was already archaic back when the LP debuted.

But in this age of downloadable ring tones, we’ll still make time for long-form musical works by our favorite artists.

And that’s quite a concept.

James Sullivan is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com. His new book, "Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon," comes out in August.