How Records Become Great: A Flight in the Aeroplane Over the Sea

author: jazznstuff1001 date: 06/13/2013 category: junkyard
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How Records Become Great: A Flight in the Aeroplane Over the Sea
"Two-headed boy / With pulleys and weights / Creating a radio played just for two / In the parlor with a moon across her face." -Neutral Milk Hotel, 1998 With a few numinous words and sparse acoustic guitar, Jeff Mangum set the scene on his magnum opus, 1998's "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea." The song, "Two-Headed Boy, Pt. 1," is a view through the eyes of Peter, the boy living with Anne Frank during the time she wrote her diary. The entire album is a requiem for the past, Mangum's eternal reverie to save Frank from Axis powers during World War II. Loud and layered in lush horn sections at times, while also conservatively just voice over guitar in other spots, "Aeroplane" achieved a new apex in pop music, receiving five stars from critics Rolling Stone Magazine and a perfect ten from Pitchfork Media. This proposes the question: how did today's music get there? After the big band era ended, smaller groups of three to five members appeared playing simpler music with simpler instrumentation. From the inception of rock and roll in the 1950s to the grunge explosion of the 1990s, music moved with society. As information technology spread and the Internet became a household item, critics were able to rate artists and deliver the news on their work to fans. The inauguration of the compact disc led to more space being readily available for an artist to record music. Both of these, in turn, pressured the artists to stop releasing a few singles surrounded by filler, as was the older tradition, and in turn, start putting out full albums. Over the course of a few decades, the phrase went from being, "Hey, did you hear the new Black Sabbath song" to "Hey, have you heard Belle & Sebastian's new record?" The trend in today's music is categorized by a gradual transition from artists emphasizing singles to artists emphasizing full-length albums. Known as either the LP (long play) or the 33, these vinyl records were introduced in 1948 by Columbia Records and became the standard format for music releases. This coincides with what was essentially the simplification of pop music: the big band scene gradually turned into the pop scene in the 1950s, with the advent of R&B artists like Little Richard as well as the start of rock and roll with Buddy Holly and Bill Haley. Most notably, 1951 saw the introduction the start of the Top 40, which has been the dominant guideline for radio music since its start. Contrary to previous vinyls, LPs had enough space for twenty-two minutes of music per side, totaling in forty-four minutes, not much shorter than the length of a CD released by a contemporary band today. Despite the amount of space for music these records held, musicians still preferred to release and sell singles over them, specifically for the Top 40 of music. For example, Chuck Berry released his first hit "Maybelline" in 1955, but it did not appear on a full-length LP for an entire four years for a greatest hits compilation his record company released. The struggle of the LP at the time of its release was its practicality in comparison to the 45, a record format introduced a year after the LP by RCA Victor. These singles typically contained one song for commercial radio airplay and occasionally another track, referred to as a B-side, which would give consumers additional content once they purchased the single record. The 45's "golden era" was brought about in the early 1960s by The Beatles. After rock and roll took its hold on pop music, with the mainstream populace clamoring to purchase Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly's latest chart-topper on 45, the Beatles came about and took the entire planet by surprise. Four young men singing over four chords in harmony for four brief minutes captivated radio stations across continents. For artists to even compete with The Beatles for a number 1 on the Top 40, they would need to sell an excess of 750,000 45 records. The song "She Loves You" by The Beatles managed to sell 1.3 million singles in the band's native UK in 1963 alone. Simply put, the group's music was simple, yet accessible. Most of all, it was filled with hooks so infectious that the band is still venerated in today's society. As time marched on, however, the medium for which music was distributed started to change. As the 1970s introduced the cassette tape, the medium for playing music became almost uncertain. Studios and households used a mixture of LPs, 45s, or cassettes pending on what they could afford. The prominence of the 45 started to fade out, as cassettes held the same amount of playtime as a LP record. The early 1960s sold millions of 45 records for individual songs, but the end of the decade only led to a few hundred thousand per hit. The recording industry essentially regulated LPs and cassettes as its standard to distribute music. This is where a new practice started in the recording industry: album filler. The industry just finished nearly twenty years of artists producing singles for mass consumption, and was not used to recording over forty minutes of music for a single release. "Filler" singles were songs the artists simply did not consider for radio airtime. Less effort was put into them because the emphasis was on singles for the radio. The filler was merely recorded to fill out the time on the record, hence the name. It would be another two decades until the advent of the Internet that bands would start to focus on releasing a quality album and not just a quality song. Black Sabbath's song "Paranoid" serves as an odd exception to many standard industry practices. A song that, bassist Geezer Butler has famously described as filler and written in several minutes to fill out the last remaining three minutes on a record, became one of the band's hugest hits. Butler has gone out to say that during the recording process singer Ozzy Osbourne was reading the lyrics off a sheet of paper as he finished the vocal track in studio. Despite its nature as filler, the song was released as a single for radio airplay and became a huge hit, but it still provides an example of a band that fans and critics alike refer to as "legendary" writing filler to space out singles on an album. The original plan was to name the album "War Pigs" after the track of the same name, another tune that Sabbath is well-known for writing and performing in the 1970s, along with "Iron Man" and "Fairies Wear Boots." This push can be attributed in large part to music critics, who make their living passing judgment on current music releases using their knowledge and experience with the industry. Starting in 1967, Rolling Stone Magazine has grown to international spotlight for their reviews and interviews with current musicians. Names like David Fricke and Hunter S. Thompson have become analogous with the music scene, rating a piece of music on a scale of one to five stars to pass judgment on its eminence, which can be divided into categories of musicianship, songwriting, and importance to the musical zeitgeist. These critics start to crack down on album filler using their rating system: albums that were received as "better" overall received a higher rating, whereas the albums that tended to space two or three tentative hits out with filler would receive lower scores, such as AC/DC's debut album, "High Voltage," which has been reviewed multiple times been separate critics for Rolling Stone and has maintained an average score of two out of five stars, which Rolling Stone refers to as "poor" in their album guide. Criticism on music quickly grew into an art form as publications became more widespread. The same people bringing fans current news on their favorite artists began conducting interviews and predicting patterns for the future of those artists. Rolling Stone gained notoriety for doing "best of" lists, cataloging the albums they had received with the highest scores in a list format at the end of every year, placing artists like Bruce Springsteen, U2, and TV On The Radio on a pedestal above the other releases of their respective years. To date, some of Rolling Stone's best-selling issues are strictly list-oriented, such as The Top 500 Albums of All Time, The Top 100 Guitarists of All Time, and The Top 100 Singers of All Time. A modicum of artists, like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, responded to the widespread of music criticism by releasing full-length albums with attention given to every track, releasing a "full record." The idea of a concept album also came into light shortly after Rolling Stone started critiquing artists. A concept album plays like one extended song to tell a story, using smaller groups and instrumentation akin to them. Pink Floyd's 1982 release "The Wall" is one of the most famous of these works, Rolling Stone gave it a full five stars for the artist's attention to the album's story and the band's prolific songwriting. Rolling Stone accurately predicted this album would influence generations to come, and as seen in today's music, artists still cite Floyd as a key influence on their works. The 1980s introduced both the Walkman and the CD, and according to Pitchfork Media editor-in-chief Mark Richardson, this ushered in a new layer of intimacy in listening to music. He recalls taking an extended walk to Modest Mouse's "The Lonesome Crowded West" in his book, "Zaireeka," and feeling a bond with the recording, in a setting that was void of anything bar himself and ears filled with song. "I remember that walk every time I play the record," remarks, over a decade after the actual experience took place. Richardson attributes the shift from singles to albums in part due to the change of technology, saying "Such an experience would have been impossible even 20 years earlier." As people were able to bond with music on a closer level, such as on a long walk of just ears and music, artists like Modest Mouse started to adjust their works to match the levels of intimacy that were easier to achieve with the new technology. By now, even more artists were responding to critics and embracing the current technology the industry had to offer. The transition was in place and album filler began to vanish. By the 1990s, the framework for today's music scene had fallen into place. Between Nirvana's "Nevermind," Yo La Tengo's "I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One," and later Radiohead's "OK Computer," enough had arguably been contributed to the canon of contemporary pop for generations to come. Classic albums aside, the 1990s provided a much faster system of criticism using the Internet. As the Internet started appearing in homes as frequently as a television or a microwave, fans of music were reading reviews without a magazine subscription or a trip to a newsstand before a new record was released. Fans could choose to purchase the new Nirvana album over the new Pearl Jam album in 1994 based on the number of critics that loved "In Utero" as opposed to the number of critics that could not stand "Vitalogy." At this point in contemporary music's timeline, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork went online, and in addition to Allmusic and Sputnik's presence in the music journalism scene, publications were giving out more scores than ever before faster than ever before, not needing a new issue to publish what they were unable to fit in their publication's allotted space. This, in turn, essentially created today's music scene: artists compete to appease themselves, their fans, and the ferocious critique of journalism. The scene, both physically and figuratively, is picturesque in its old record store glamour. Both the young and old filter in to search for the CD of vinyl of their favorite artist. The splendor of today's record stores is their ability to catalog decades of music, history of an art available for a tangible purchase to be carried home in a brown paper bag. Today's artists are pushing harder than ever before. Thanks to how quickly information can spread, artists have to worry about critics publishing negative reviews, fans posting negative reviews anywhere on the Internet, and artists also have to consider the past of the Top 40, essentially the canon they shoot to place into and the group of bands they stack up against in the eyes of fans, critics, and oftentimes the artists themselves. Filler is no longer an option to record when literally anyone, regardless of their status as a journalist or music historian, can spread the sins of the band's newest album and the expectations it failed to deliver all over the blogosphere. As a response to how harsh critics can be, artists today, regardless of their genre, are putting forth everything they can muster. The decade of 2000 brought forth a punk rock opera with Green Day's "American Idiot," a new rap lexicon with Kanye West's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," a new standard for the indie scene with Arcade Fire's "Funeral," and arguably the best dance album yet to be recorded, The Knife's "Silent Shout." The aforementioned artists all share in that they pushed the limitations of their genre, paid extreme attention to songwriting and focused on delivering the highest quality of music they could. Critics from Pitchfork to Allmusic to Rolling Stone have raved over and over about all of these works, and a decade filled with masterpieces like these has fully cemented the transition from singles to albums. There is a common adage among many of today's people: "they just don't make music like they used to." This could not be further from the truth. According to Mark Richardson, today's bands are embracing sounds from all over the globe, using the Internet to access as much recorded music as people can upload. Artists like Alex Clare and Skrillex are embracing innovations in recording software and improvements on digital keyboards to create dubstep, which has proved to be a mainstream hit in music. Rock and rollers fun. have succeeded in winning Grammy of the Year for their hit "We Are Young" in 2012, easily the first song by a rock band in a decade to win the coveted award. This decade has proved amusingly unpredictable with its trends, and the spread of information and advances in recording technology is the only explainable cause. Today's artists still make art. Critics make sure of it.
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