This article was originally a thesis paper I wrote while studying music. It is a discussion of a few points raised by Griffiths (see references at bottom) in his book on the subject of Radiohead‘s 1997 album, OK Computer, from the book series 33⅓. Griffiths talks at great length about something he calls “The CD Album”. This article looks at the idea of The Album as a concept and how “The CD Album” relates to a rise in a slothful and more fickle consumer.
In his book on the subject of alternative/progressive rock band Radiohead’s highly acclaimed 1997 album, OK Computer, Griffiths describes his idea of “The CD Album” at great length — in fact spending almost half the book doing so. His idea, while wholly relevant in placing OK Computer in a historical/social context, actually overlooks key points in the development of, and even reasons for, the existence of the Sony/Philips audio compact disc. Griffiths writes (Radiohead’s OK Computer – 33⅓ Series, page 8):
The CD album expanded the available duration from 40 to 50 minutes maximum to about 74 minutes.
Griffiths lists on following pages a number of Tori Amos CDs and their lengths, the average being between 55 and 60 minutes. The glaring issue of contradiction here is one that Griffiths makes no attempt to evaluate in his exploration of “The CD Album” and The Album as a concept, despite discussing it for almost half the book.
The fact that our modern idea, as consumers, of a typical album is around 14 tracks clocking a total 55 to 60 minutes carries a lot of implications as to the nature of the modern consumer. The CD format, indeed, allows for over 74 minutes of continuous music, yet an album of such length, or longer, is considered lengthy — some might even say excessive. There is also a common misconception that the CD made albums longer. It did not. In reality, the CD, thanks to its slothful advantages (like not having to flip the disc and instant track skipping), has actually made consumers more fickle and hence made albums — and songs — shorter.
Excluding mainstream chart/pop albums from the consideration, it is very notable that in the days of vinyl a regular album was 45 to 50 minutes (22 to 25 minutes per side). “The CD Album” is typically 55 minutes. As such, it would seem the CD has potentially achieved an extra 5 minutes, which is probably one song. Such an increase is not even worth measuring or acknowledging. It is worth acknowledging, however, that (again, excluding mainstream pop) in the days of vinyl LPs, there was nothing unusual about an album of 80 to 90 minutes’ length, ie a double LP. In my research, I have found that approximately one quarter of rock releases (including the entire broad scope of all popular rock music and alternative genres through to reggae, jazz, etc) are double LPs. Looking at “The CD Album”, it is virtually unheard of to have true double-CD albums. My use of the term ‘true’ here is intended to exclude compilation albums, best-of CDs and live shows as well as bonus CDs. Very few true double-CD albums seem to exist. The only ones I am aware of are:
- The Smashing Pumpkins: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
- Dream Theater: Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence
- Iced Earth: The Glorious Burden (which actually runs for a total of less than 80 minutes)
- Foo Fighters: In Your Honor (also less than 85 minutes total)
Clearly, genuine double-CD albums are almost nonexistent. Indeed, The Smashing Pumpkins’ classic Mellon Collie album is looked at by many alternative-rock aficionados and artists as the one true extended-length album. But the double vinyl album was never really considered extended in length. In the vinyl days, an album was an album. If one album occupied a little extra time to listen to than other albums you were getting a little more value for money (assuming the quality was good enough to consistently hold your attention). To the modern consumer, it would seem that a longer album is simply more of a chore to listen to. The same can be said of longer songs. A lot of mainstream consumers dislike songs longer than around 4 minutes 20 seconds, partly because the extra material apparently makes the song harder to commit to memory. Loquacious lyrics, such as those written by the great poet-songwriters (Dylan and the like) are also disliked by the modern consumer because of their awkwardness in committing the lyrics to memory.
The advent of iTunes and similar web-based music purchasing further proves that the modern music listener is an increasingly fickle one. Consumers wish, and are encouraged, to skip — even pick and choose — individual songs/tracks with ease. iTunes (and other internet music purchasing) gives consumers the ability to purchase only certain tracks from an album. This is undoubtedly a sign that the modern consumer’s exposure to and appreciation of music has reached a new low.
Songs have become the new fashion accessory; specific tracks individually wrapped for personal mass storage on a portable medium (the iPod). It would seem combinations of certain songs are thought to declare connotations of the consumers’ personalities, like slogan t-shirts or cars. It is songs, not albums — single songs, each a tiny four minute escape, packaged for mass sale in a way that I personally find reminiscent of this excerpt from Chuck Palahniuk’s classic novel, Fight Club (a book that was actually a testament to the times of Radiohead’s OK Computer as well as being a lengthy, but very valid, anti-capitalist rant):
The charm of travelling is everywhere I go, tiny life. I go to the hotel, tiny soap, tiny shampoos, single-serving butter, tiny mouthwash and a single-use toothbrush. Fold into the standard airplane seat. You’re a giant. The problem is your shoulders are too big. Your Alice in Wonderland legs are all of a sudden miles so long they touch the feet of the person in front. Dinner arrives, a miniature do-it-yourself Chicken Cordon Bleu hobby kit, a sort of put-it-together project to keep you busy.
(Palahniuk, 1997, p. 28)
The CD is a landmark for the beginning of the consumer’s fickle and truly idle relationship with music and the album. It would seem that the album has been dropped in favour of the film. DVD and the advent of the so-called “home cinema” seems to have taken the album’s place in the home. Literally, the 85 to 95 minute American film with its single-curve plot as well as TV show DVD box-sets have taken over the modern home’s time-killing. Along with the decline of the thinking person’s film and thinking person’s progressive rock, it is obvious that these are signs of the times and the times are bleak for imagination. Also, it should be stated that this may only be true of the western world, particularly the US, the UK and most of Europe. Personally, I am more and more fascinated with Japanese and Korean films of the recent 10 to 15 years, where imagination seems far from absent and plots are multi-layered in a way that American films and most European films have not been for some time.
The phenomenon, if you like, that Griffiths calls “The CD Album” could be looked at, as I have shown, as nothing more than “The Modern Album”. The factors that specify this modern album concept are mainly length-oriented as well as number of tracks, and there is a definite call that tracks need to be detachable from one-another. This is possibly more true of downloading than CD, but CD gives the ability to skip tracks, even pre-program a track order, something that a continuous concept album or progressive rock album (such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon or Porcupine Tree’s The Sky Moves Sideways) is totally incompatible with. So “The CD Album”, or modern album, is shorter than the limits of the container format, has short tracks and has silent gaps between the tracks.
The limits of CD are not actually met by “The CD Album” (as Griffiths calls it), which questions the validity of Griffiths’ terminology. Griffiths overlooks the fact that the advent of MP3/downloads (with theoretically unlimited length) has not affected the modern album (or “The CD Album”) any way whatsoever. He also overlooks SACD and DVD-A formats, both of which are capable not only of higher-fidelity audio than CD but a much higher capacity. Yet, modern releases recorded and designed for DVD-A release are still much like “The CD Album”. So, while the compact disc will one day in the future be discarded in favour of DVD-A and/or downloads as a container format, the specifications that Griffiths describes as “The CD Album” will remain, possibly more-so, and are actually irrelevant to the compact disc format and its specifications and limits.
Mainstream chart pop albums have always been 40 minutes and I have no doubts will continue to be in the future. Albums that are not so mainstream and/or within the broad scope of rock, jazz, reggae, etc were once either 45 to 50 minutes or 80 to 90 minutes, yet have progressively changed into the single choice of 55 to 60 minutes.
Naturally, there are exceptions to these rules-of-thumb: albums that actually do fill a CD and seem limited by the CD as a format. For example, Iron Maiden’s Brave New World (2000) totals a little shy of 70 minutes and has 10 lengthy songs that explore space in a way impossible on a vinyl. Another example is Dream Theater’s Train of Thought (2003), which totals fractionally under 70 minutes with only 7 tracks. In vinyl days these albums would have been double LP albums, which as I mentioned were not a rare occurrence. That is, of course, assuming the side-split of the LP did not cause complications. Generally, this kind of album was avoided in vinyl days because of the impracticalities.
It is good to remember, though, that a double vinyl would have typically been over 80 minutes. So, the maximum length of a CD does actually fall short of encompassing a double LP album by about 5 minutes. CD releases of double LP albums tend to be released as two CDs (such as Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979), among others), despite the fact that some would just about fit on CD. It can only be assumed that this is to preserve the appreciation of the pause involved in changing the disc over, despite that the side-change of the LP has been eliminated.
Because Radiohead’s OK Computer falls considerably short of filling the CD, I am not entirely sure I agree with Griffiths’ claim that OK Computer is an example of “The CD Album” phenomenon (p. 31). It is merely at a point on the downward slope of the album as a concept, which ends with what I call the modern album, described by Griffiths as “The CD Album” (as I have explained). This is why I intend to propose a new book in the 33⅓ series that is more of a CD album, which I will get to later in this article.
The truth is The Album as a concept has been on a downward hill towards its demise for some decades. The Album may not have been killed by CD, but CD’s irresistible convenience unquestionably paid its contribution. Perhaps equally to blame is the popularity from the mid-1980s through the 1990′s to record songs onto cassette from the radio, such as from BBC Radio One’s UK Top 40 (AKA The Chart Show). This has probably drummed-in to many people the mixture of individual tracks unrelated to an album, given rise to the preference for compilations and “best-ofs”. One of my own personal musical heroes, Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree) said in an interview with Eric Brace for American TV station MHz Networks for their music biography programme, MHz Presents, in 2003:
CD, I think, has destroyed part of the power of the album [as a concept] because 75 minutes [duration means] people almost feel obliged now to cram a CD with bonus tracks. … and of course the other thing with CD is it encourages kids to just “flip” — so easy to flip, flip to the hit single, so the whole idea of continuity and sequencing is again compromised by that.
This new-found love consumers have for the individually wrapped 4 minute song seems to be both a negative thing with regards to artistic creativity and also a positive thing. For example, an artist could write a bunch of songs about totally unrelated topics without having to be tied to a topic for a whole project; the freedom to write about absolutely anything, whenever. Having said that, it seems to me that lyrical content and meaning of a song have, in today’s mainstream music, been slain altogether, with songs containing lyrical jibes and generic phrases/slogans about either ludicrously miscellaneous subjects or sex more than genuine streams of words about definite subjects.
While all of this is true for a large segment of the modern music market as of, say, 2003 (and not just limited to the mainstream, I might add), there is another smaller world of artists who still make proper albums, often embracing traditions of the vinyl LP. Again in the MHz Presents interview, Steven Wilson discusses his preference for the vinyl model:
Ever since I was a kid, the music I always really appreciated and really loved was always in the underground. I grew up in the eighties, which was a particularly bad decade for mainstream music… The one thing that really made a big impact on me when I was growing up was the idea that the album could be a musical journey [or] a kind of musical entity in itself and that it wasn’t about throwing ten pop songs on a record, it was about creating a shape and a dynamic to the record so you really felt like you wanted to listen to it all the way through, as a piece, you know? And I loved that idea… We’ve got a clause in our contract with Lava — they have to do vinyl. … There’s something about 40 minutes as an album, or two 20 minute tracks, [which] just seem to be the perfect length to concentrate on one particular [entity].
The Smashing Pumpkins are a band that wholly lived inside the CD format — a look through their discography will attest so. If the CD format is supposed to be of a longer duration than vinyl, presumably the exploration of space is an interesting feature in an album intended for CD. Again, I am tempted to disagree with Griffiths’ opinion that Radiohead’s OK Computer is really suited to the description “CD Album” because it does not really explore space, nor does come close to filling a CD. Not to mention that there was a well-executed vinyl release of OK Computer, which Griffiths himself admits in his book.
At 62+ minutes, The Smashing Pumpkins’ second album, Siamese Dream (1993) is much closer to filling a CD than OK Computer. What Siamese Dream does so well is explore space in a way that seems like it makes a change to be permitted to by the release format. This notion of exploration of space is something that was also exhausted by the new age scene from the late 1980′s through the 1990′s, such as the works of Vangelis (1492 Conquest of Paradise and the 1994 US extended reissue of the Bladerunner soundtrack to name two most prominent examples) or Jan Hammer. Siamese Dream explores space in a similarly submerging way. This is best understood when listening to Silverfuck, noting the long ambient passage in the middle. There is something about this passage in the way it submerges the listener that makes such an intense highlight of the line, Bang bang, you’re dead. Hole in your head. Lyrically, it is a reference to a schoolyard chant turned sinister by the passage of dark ambience that precedes it.
The album’s use of contrasting soft with loud and light with dark seems designed to disorient the listener and to continually warp the interpretations of lyrics as well as shock the listener by having them expect something to happen in the music, which then does not. This continuous use of contrast manifests itself in space as crowded space and sparser space. A song like Quiet is mostly crowded space. It is also the heaviest, loudest track on the album — hence the juxtaposed title, which is again a contrast. My personal appreciation of this continuous contrasting is the way it directly connects to continuity and the idea of shape. An album as a “musical entity in itself”, as Steven Wilson calls it, completely relies on a gelling of the tracks and a continuity. Note, however, that there is an extreme interpretation of the words “gelling of the tracks” — those albums where every song actually sounds the same, lacking any imagination in the production and sounding like a copy-paste job of effect chains and re-using the same or similar chord progressions from one song to the next. Siamese Dream demonstrates the correct interpretation of “gelling of the tracks” proudly with an excellent sense of continuity and shape.
Siamese Dream will continue to be a definitive benchmark for an album built around a unity and continuity throughout the alternative music scene. For me, it is the true definition of Griffiths’ term, “The CD Album”, which is to say an album that embraces and pushes the CD as a container format. According to Q Magazine, in 2006 its readers voted Siamese Dream the 54th greatest album ever. Personally, I would place it higher, but thankfully there are so many other great albums from before the demise of the “proper” album. Perhaps one day those “proper” albums will again be fashionable, but it does not appear likely any time soon.
GRIFFITHS, D. (2004). Radiohead’s OK Computer. 33 1/3 series. New York, Continuum.
PALAHNIUK, C. (1997). Fight Club. London, Vintage.
RADIOHEAD. (1997). OK Computer. Music CD. Hollywood, Calif, Capitol Records.
SMASHING PUMPKINS, THE. (1993). Siamese Dream. Music CD. Beverly Hills, Calif, Virgin.