Has the “Classic” Album become Extinct?


Let me settle into my rocking chair here on this porch for a minute; I’m by no means an old man, but I’m firmly rooted in the quickly aging Generation X clan. I have been around long enough to see 8 tracks, cassettes, vinyl, compact discs all grow long in the tooth and slowly fade into the bargain bins of your favourite corner store. I remember the thrill of choosing 12 albums for a penny, only to be gouged mercilessly for the next 5 or 6 that you were supposed to buy to fulfill your contract (hands up for those of us who completed at least one contract, but I bet more of us dodged at least one Columbia House creditor at some point in our lives). I have also been around to see the jukebox evolve from a coin munching behemoth, to a pocket sized credit card consumer all thanks to the illustrious company Apple. While we have all adapted fairly quickly to this evolution of mediums in the interest of convenience, what has been sacrificed?

Throughout Junior and Senior high schools, I carried with me a small black and neon briefcase of sorts loaded with about 2 dozen cassettes. The selection varied depending on my mood, and I enjoyed the convenience of being able to pick and choose what I listened to, but when I popped an album in, that’s all there was.  My skip button consisted of a button labelled with two tiny triangles which faced either left or right, and there was no guarantee that you would land even remotely close to the start of the proceeding song, it was all a learned skill in how much tape would pass to reach that next track. That doesn’t even take into account the flipping of the tape (if you were dealing with older technology); in some cases the heads were able to play the alternate side without having to flip the tape over. This (very much like the less convenient vinyl LP) forced you to listen to the album in the order as intended by the artist, there was no shuffle, or repeat, simply play, stop, pause or rewind/fast forward.

Fractures began to form in our focus with the advent of the compact disc. The CD saw the debut of the shuffle/random functions and certain devices would even allow you to program your own playlists. These features gave you this ability to break free from having to experience an album as a whole and you could now change songs on the fly.

With cassettes more so than vinyl records, you could wear a tape (or cassette player) out from excessive play. I know that my Thriller cassette had been well loved, as it no longer bore a golden track list and at the end of its life it was just a black mystery cassette. I also wore out cassette copies of both Pearl Jam’s Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind, an experience I can’t say I ever replicated with a compact disc or an MP3.

To further my point, my first component stereo had a 30 disc changer and I spent many hours creating elaborate mix tapes and programming the track lists into the CD player. This would allow me to hit record and walk away while the mix was created, it was far easier than waiting patiently in front of a radio with my finger poised on the record button ready to pounce when my target song was played. However the amount of time it takes to create the same playlist now with mp3s is a mere fraction. People are no longer interested in investing their time to dig into an album beyond the singles, there isn’t the same sense of wonder when you discover those deep cuts which clearly eclipse the singles that radio has embraced.

Due to the wealth of singles there are to explore, people just aren’t digging into an album and that’s a shame. Just like the way radio pounds a track into our collective ears, the repetition of an entire album can have the same end result, you pass those singles by in favour of the meat of an album (ie: the deep cuts). Just to stick with my two tried and true albums (Nevermind and Ten), Nirvana was far more than “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “All Apologies” and Pearl Jam is far more than “Jeremy” and “Alive”. Without delving past the key singles, I would have never discovered “Polly” or “On a Plain” or “Porch” or “Black”. While those are just two in a long line of entire albums which I adore, I’m in the minority of those who will invest in an album as an entire experience versus listening to a handful of singles (and I will do this at times if there are no albums which strike my fancy).

It’s my sense that those classic albums from Zeppelin, The Doors, Ramones and Hendrix may simply be a thing of the past, and while the Seattle boom of the 90s may be regarded with similar esteem, we may be at a point now where there aren’t many albums which will follow in those footsteps. For every Get Behind Me Satan, there is a Daughtry or Extreme Behaviour, so from my point of view the future isn’t nearly as bright as it seemed in the 90s.

This fact was clearly highlighted at this year’s Grammy awards when Annie Lennox came out alongside Hozier and proceeded to steal the show with her duet of “Take Me To Church” and her cover of the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ classic “I Put A Spell On You”. It was a performance which begged the question, who in 30 years will emerge from the current crop of chanteuses to amaze audiences with their performance? I know I’m hard pressed to name two female artists who possess the same ferocity and longevity and will continue to resonate with audiences. Lady Gaga might be one of those performers, but like Sia is busy languishing in Gaga’s shadow, people may argue that Gaga did the same to Madonna.

Much like the lack of longevity which the current crop of artists exhibits, the recent catalogue of albums seem to also lack that same staying power. Which is why I wonder, is the Classic Album an outdated concept? What will we then consider to be the entry point to rock, country or hip-hop genres if the classic album has gone extinct?


About the author


A proud and over-caffeinated husband, father, runner and writer. I've written for the local weekly The Coast for over a decade and have since taken to creating and writing for HAFILAX for even longer. I hope you enjoy the musings of a guy who has loved music for the better part of 4 decades, and has an album of concert tickets to show for it.