Are albums and playlist culture mutually exclusive?

Listening to my “Songs of 2011” Spotify playlist (yes, a boring title, but incredibly accurate and descriptive), I appreciate the range. It includes summer dance hits such as Phantogram’s “Don’t Move,” Class Actress’ “The Weekend” and M83’s “Midnight City” along with melancholy tracks such as EMA’s “California” and Cold Specks’ “Holland.” It also features high-energy garage rockers Sleeper Agent, indie bands Foster the People and The Airborne Toxic Event, the soulful Alabama Shakes, hip hop tracks from Kanye West and The Roots, jamband Umphrey’s McGee, Irish folk singer/songwriter Lisa Hannigan, superstar Beyonce, Awolanation and many more artists. The list may not include country or polka, but it definitely spans various genres, and some might call it “all over the place.”

Back in April, several critics gave a similar assessment to Nicki Minaj’s Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded due to its singles-oriented nature. The Atlantic questioned if Minaj killed the album with her “shotgun-style approach,” which produced 19-tracks each destined for hit status but not necessarily working together as part of a cohesive project.

“As a few critics have pointed out, it may be among the first major pop albums to fully embrace playlist culture—by barely even trying to present itself as an album,” Spencer Kornhaber wrote in The Atlantic.

Signs point to the death of the album, with the access over ownership model taking over and individual tracks accounting for 92.5 percent of all digital downloads in 2011 according to Neilsen Soundscan, but not everyone follows the path of Minaj.

In an interview with The Walkmen, L Magazine’s Mike Conklin noted that the band’s latest album, due out May 29, seems “almost old-fashioned, refreshingly so, in its peaks and valleys, the way it builds and releases repeatedly throughout.”

Frontman Hamilton Leithauser responded that the guys in the band create cohesive, full albums and even 10 years into their career will fight over song order—an important aspect of creating any album. He said in the final steps of Heaven, they had the “biggest battle for song order” they ever had. “Everybody felt really strongly,” Leithauser said. “It got really heated many, many times.”

He went on to explain that despite the fact they spent months arguing over song order, in this culture it’s not as important.

“I mean, it used to be that everybody would be like, ‘No, no, no, you have to put the single first.’ They don’t give a shit anymore. It’s a little disheartening because you realize they don’t care, because people are just gonna click through on their iPod or whatever,” Leithauser said.

While The Walkmen appreciate the art of the album, they also seem to embrace the playlist paradigm.

Since the record and management companies no longer care about where the single falls on the album or give strict input on order, Leithauser and his bandmates maintain complete control.

The band also participates in the playlist-driven culture by recognizing they can release singles before the entire product.

Music Think Tank published an article earlier this year making “a business case for releasing singles.” The article states, “This method doesn’t mean that an artist can’t create a full album of songs, or even a concept album. It only changes the order and format in which it is released. This results in the album not being fully experienced until all the songs are released and collected by a fan.  The baseline question that needs to be confronted when evaluating this method is ‘Is it absolutely necessary that the first time a fan hears my album is in its entirety?’ If the answer is no, then a song based strategy can work artistically.”

Before a full version of Heaven ever streamed, the band released at least three singles. But, just because a band releases singles and just because we create playlists, doesn’t mean that albums are antiquated.

“I love the idea that people would buy the vinyl and listen to it in order, because that’s what we made and that’s our idea,” Leithasuer said.

And often the playlist we create resemble an album. Just like The Walkmen, I took the reigns and carefully constructed my playlist. I meticulously picked out the tracks I wanted. Then, I arranged them in a particularly order to maximize my listening experience. So, long live the album. And the playlist.

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