Monday, January 17, 2011

Music Today, and Why the Third Album Theory May No Longer Be Relevant

The music landscape today is a labyrinth compared to the pre-MP3 era. It used to be that we were fed a steady diet of music according to genre by the radio; if you heard a song you liked, you waited until the radio announced the name of the song and the recording artist, and you would head off to either the record store or the department store to try and find either the single or the album. I know I'm dating myself with those terms, but that was the way it was. Now, you either browse through iTunes, check out artist profiles on mySpace or Facebook, or swap playlists with friends. This fragmentation has yielded two results: audiences for an individual group or artist are smaller, and at the same time the pop music industry has become more homogenous and beat-oriented than ever. There are only a handful of acts who can still command stadium crowds, and those acts aren't getting any younger. Some artists can ride the coattails of these acts and widen their fanbase, but a lot of people are mourning the loss of the "album artist." While I think such mourning may be premature, it is a hard reality that the recorded music industry is a shadow of its former self.

For the record, I came of music-buying age when vinyl was still king, but the cassette tape was rising through the ranks, and the 8-track was dying a slow and painful death. I preferred cassettes for their portability and recordability, although my first music that I actually had a hand in choosing was vinyl. One Christmas, my brother and I both received albums: he got Queen's Greatest Hits, and I got Time by ELO. I loved that album, and it became a gateway to discovering other music by ELO, which I later discovered stood for Electric Light Orchestra. I began rabidly devouring whatever I could get my hands on by this band, but rapidly discovered that a lot of ELO's back catalogue was not locally available. I would have to hunt around, particularly on vacation in hopes of securing an elusive older album. Most of such hunts would be fruitless, but part of the fun was discovering other bands along the way. Now, I can simply look them up on iTunes or any other online content provider and discover most, if not all of their back catalogue available for download. While this is a boon, it is also a two-edged sword: there is no thrill of the hunt anymore.

There is also no gradual uncovering of a band's evolution, which leads to the second half of this week's title: the Third Album Theory. This is an unwritten rule in the music industry, which goes something like this: a band or recording artist's musical direction is usually cemented by the content of the act's third album. To take ELO as an example, their third album was (appropriately enough) On the Third Day, a title which denoted a third album, as well as making reference to the "let there be light" passage in Genesis, which occurred on the third day of Creation, of course. This album laid out the general musical direction for subsequent ELO albums, being a more pop-oriented and less experimemtal direction than ELO and ELO II (not to be confused with ELO Part II, which is a completely different story). Eventually, the band would experiment more with electronics, almost completely abandoning strings, but the pop focus would remain. Since I "discovered" ELO late in its life cycle, I wouldn't realise the evolution that had taken place until much later in life, but I did discover other artists and bands that fit into the Third Album mould:
Queen- Sheer Heart Attack--a drastic departure from the epic song suites and prog-rock of their first two albums.
U2-War--an album I still consider their best, and a clear indication that the band was heading into more political, yet more pop and less punk-oriented sounds.
Ultravox-Systems of Romance and Quartet--this one's a bit of a cheat, as I picked the third album by both iterations of this band, but the theory really does apply. A cohesiveness exists in Systems of Romance that would go on to inform the next iteration of the band, and Quartet cements the musical direction of the so-called "classic" lineup of Ultravox (plus it's produced and engineered by Beatles studio mentors George Martin and Geoff Emerick respectively)
INXS-The Swing--Again, still the band's best, and a foreshadowing of the funk the band would mine for the rest of its career. The list goes on...

Of course, there are just as many bands that don't follow the Third Album Theory, especially those who came to prominence in the 60s, because output was king, and it wasn't unusual for a 60s band to release two or more albums in a year. A prime example is the Beatles. By Third Album Theory rules (and I only count the UK releases as actual albums; I know this may be seen as snobbery by some, but the UK albums are the only ones with any cohesiveness to song selection), the Beatles future musical direction would have been determined by A Hard Day's Night, a fine album to be sure, but not really indicative of what was to come. My pick for The Beatles' defining album would be Rubber Soul, which was really the first album by The Beatles that wasn't merely a loosely connected selection of songs, and dabbled in some of the musical experimentation to come.

Of course, the main thrust here is: Does the Third Album Theory even apply in the modern age of music? I would say it does on a much more limited basis than it did in the 70s, 80s or 90s. There are still bands out there that fit nicely into the Third Album criteria, but these are bands that are still actually making albums. With the single focus of today's pop music, these types of bands are becoming fewer and fewer. For your consideration I present the following:
Muse-Absolution--a song suite that alludes to both the hard rock and classical leanings of future albums. Go ahead, listen to "Butterflies and Hurricanes" and tell me you don't hear the roots of Exogenesis Symphony from The Resistance. I dare ya.
Linkin Park-Minutes to Midnight--the band does a complete 180 from their previous output and dials down the hip-hop elements of their sound without completely eliminating them. Again, their best song from A Thousand Suns, Waiting for the End, would not exist without the change in direction that occurred on Minutes to Midnight.

In conclusion, the musical landscape is a very different place from when I was in my formative years. I cannot say whether it is better or worse, because more choices are available, but the instant access limits the opportunity to really discover and stick with an artist. That being said, if it weren't for the internet and downloadable music, I doubt I would have found one of my favourite albums of 2010, Mondo Cane by Mike Patton. If you're curious, Google it; you won't regret it, even if you don't like it.

The time has come to say adios. Next topic is yet to be decided.......

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