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Listening to the Album Era

Listening to the Album Era
Source: (original image)

I was born after the 1970's, and so didn't enter adulthood until the following century. Grown and fed on classic rock, the bands of my youth always cited their influences from that period, and so it is familiar territory.

Modern music history is always a passing interest. I find that understanding the players helps me appreciate the game, and it often leads to new discoveries. What lacks from the decades before I was an active and present listener, though, is context. It all sort of blurs together as one muddy big block of history. Was this album "safe" or was it "edgy" at the time? What other songs was a kid listening to after they jammed to this?

I had this idea recently to try and dredge through popular music chronologically. Obviously I can't just queue up 40,000 albums from the past 60 years and hit play. In trying to divide it up and come up with a useful approach, I learned about: The Album Era.

The Album Era

While the start date is argued, it's generally agreed upon that the Album Era spanned from the early/mid 60s through around 2010. Starting when the idea that an album could be both an artistic whole and a commercially-viable piece was proven by a few notables - Rubber Soul by the Beatles and Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan were big milestones, but there were a number of albums in the years leading up to then that really did a few things:

  1. The album was a whole unit of original work with a cohesive style and mood, and often content. (very early examples were found in Frank Sinatra's late 50's albums - In the Wee Small Hours is a great example.)
  2. The album wasn't just a vehicle for singles, where there were really two or three proper songs and the rest was filler - standards, covers, etc.
  3. Sales reflected these things - teenagers wanted to BUY them, which spun up the whole cycle.

This timeframe sings to me in multitudes. Albums have always been my preferred mode of consumption. A block of 52 minutes of music is a great way to experience the unfamiliar - easy to swallow, but filling and memorable. Seeing the birth of this medium in popular music should provide great ... context.

The early years of the era are also stylistically interesting to me. The birth of the concept album, progressive music, psychedelia, synthesizers, metal, punk! In a few years, the top of the charts shifted from bubble gum pop to something entirely different. People started considering it Art, not just Performance.

The era ended when streaming music ruined/fixed everything. Singles run the money machine once again. But 50 years of albums! What a treasure.

The Project

Goal: Listen to notable albums in popular music from one specific year for a reasonable length of time. Long enough to have plenty of time to soak it up, short enough that I actually finish ever. Far enough between that getting ready for the next year isn't a too-frequent chore.

Spend about three months listening to each calendar year of music, starting in 1965 and ending in 1985.

This is 20 years of music, and will take me 5 years to complete. Every three months I'll sit down and compile a non-definitive list of albums from the year - commercially popular, critically popular, retroactively popular. I am not trying to make a "best of this year" list. I will pick at the edges of the popular and include what is interesting to me. I'll listen to them multiple times. I'll find new favorites. In those twenty years, there are the births of major genres that influence new music that I love today. I have no idea how big the list will be; I'll have to try it and adapt.

I do intend to journal the process, but I'm not sure what that looks like. I don't expect I'll write a review of every album. Who knows.