Does Album Sequencing Matter In The MP3 Era?

Originally posted April 29, 2008

Matt the maintenance man came by yesterday with a screen he’d had replaced for one of our windows. (Our kitten, Oscar, had been sitting at the window and began playing with a small rip in the screen. When the Texas Gal and I looked up, he’d enlarged the rip to a cat-sized hole and had his head and shoulders out of the window, twenty feet above the ground!) As generally happens when Matt comes by, we end up talking music.

He said he’d been listening to radio coverage of the fortieth anniversary of the founding of one of the Twin Cities’ record stores, the Electric Fetus, which has a branch here in St. Cloud. “And someone at the radio station made the point,” Matt told me, “that people these days only listen to songs one at a time, for the most part. They don’t listen to albums as albums anymore.”

I plead guilty, generally. I usually have the RealPlayer set on random and jump from song to song, style to style, era to era. When I get new music, I sometimes play it all the way through – first track through last – but not often. I usually jump around a bit in the CD – something that would have been awkward to do with vinyl – or else just let the tracks pop up when they will at random. I imagine a lot of other people do the same. And that brings me to a question: Do artists take as much care these days with the sequencing of songs on a CD as many performers seemed to do with vinyl say, thirty years ago and more?

I’m sure some – maybe many – do. From what I’ve read over the years, Bruce Springsteen does. Maybe most of them do. I’m not sure. But the care and attention a performer invests in sequencing can be frustrated by the ease with which a listener can jump around in an individual CD and can also intersperse the songs on an individual CD in the rest of a music collection. A performer might wonder if there’s a point to caring and decide not to worry about the sequence. I don’t know.

I’d already been pondering the question when Matt brought up the comment he’d heard. A little while back, I’d gotten hold of 3+3, a 1973 album by the Isley Brothers, recorded at a time when the original trio of Isleys brought three musician into the group to alter and expand their sound. I ripped the album and put into the player without listening to much of it. And the other evening, a funky bass and clavinet (I think) came frogging out of the speakers, pulling my attention away from whatever it was I was doing. The drums came in, and then – after twenty-five seconds – came the almost dirge-like vocal: “Sunshine move away today, don’t feel much like dancing.”

It was, of course, a cover of “Sunshine,” the song that Jonathan Edwards wrote and recorded in 1971 and took to No. 4. But Edwards’ version of the song was a peppy, almost light-hearted, take that has a running time of just more than two minutes, with only acoustic guitars and a little bit of percussion to carry the song along. I was never all that fond of the record, although it was pleasant enough – and brief enough – that hearing it on the radio was no great trial. But I’ve always thought that the record was a little too upbeat for the message the words were carrying, making Edwards seem a little disconnected from the meaning of his own work.

The dirge-like quality of the Isleys’ version, though, seemed much more in tune with the heart of the song, and I wondered how it fit in with the rest of the 3+3 album. And as I looked at the sequence of the album, I began to think. From what I can tell, “Sunshine” – listed as “Sunshine “(Go Away Today)” by the Isleys – is the second song on Side Two of the original configuration. The side begins with “What It Comes Down To,” a propulsive, danceable track with a catchy chorus and a decent love lyric. The contrast between the end of that track and the foreboding intro to “Sunshine” makes for a fascinating contrast.

And when “Sunshine” ends with a slashing guitar atop the clavinet, there’s another contrast when the next track starts, as the Isleys slide into a mellow and soulful version of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze.”

In the days when my new music came entirely on vinyl, I always listened to an album in sequence when I played it for the first time. And after my experience with the Isleys and my conversation with Matt this week, I’m thinking I might need to go back to that practice. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to end my habit of offering recordings here that are pulled from albums, but I think I’m going to be a little more aware of the original context of those recordings, when I can be.

And I still wonder whether the sequence of songs on albums today is as important as it was when music came solely on vinyl. While you’re pondering that, here’s the Isley Brothers.

Isley Brothers – “Sunshine (Go Away Today)” [1973]

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