We’re only six weeks into 2011 and it’s already shaping up to be the finest vintage year for album releases in half a decade, probably longer.
Time after time in the past month, bands and artists I love have produced the goods, headed towards their peak form or returned with true passion and creativity after a gap.
In fact, I have heard almost enough albums in January alone to equal my 10 favourites from the whole of last year.
For me the clear masterpiece so far is PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, which repositions her as a world-class outward-looking war artist.
On this record Harvey’s work is comparable to Picasso’s Guernica or the best of Wilfred Owen rather than other pop musicians.
And then came Radiohead, mysteriously depositing their new LP The King Of Limbs at short notice with almost no fanfare, first supposedly on a Saturday – itself unheard of – but then brought forward to a Friday with press and radio industry types only getting hold of copies at the same moment as us punters.
How rewarding such equalisation was.
No CD immediately either – instead a luxurious art-filled double vinyl package via mail order for 30 quid or a simple and much cheaper digital download dropped instantly into your computer.
They’ve been ahead of the curve in working method as well as music for years and on Friday they once again nurtured genuine excitement with an intense dripfeed of new tracks, videos and critical responses across social and traditional media.
I’m an unabashed fan, so there’s no point reviewing the album in any objective sense, but obviously I’m listening to it over and over for the next few weeks amidst a wealth of other brilliant music from Mogwai, Decemberists, Tom Williams And The Boat, Ben Marwood, Emily Barker And The Red Clay Halo, Adele and many others.
Here’s the thing – the entire record business, including me, has looked at the rise of downloads, compilation playlists and streaming and responded by confidently, if somewhat regretfully, predicting the end of the album format altogether.
It’s not like the album is even very old.
It is younger than rock’n’roll and there are many people alive now who were born before the first proper long-player records.
The concept of an LP as a separate stand-alone work of art – above and beyond a collection of recent singles – only took shape in the mid to late 1960s, so logic would suggest there’s no reason for the album to have staying power once technology doesn’t favour it.
But what if we’re wrong?
A simple truth stands in the way of this format’s demise and that is that people still want to listen to their pop songs collected together in bunches just short of an hour.
They want the hits to be interspersed with downbeat introspection or more sonically ambitious experimental tracks.
They want the rollercoaster ride.
Added to that, “real” music artists still to the greatest extent think in albums, rather than individual tracks.
The simple word journey has been horribly discredited recently by dumbed-down reality culture, but that is what we desire from a great album and it can almost never be done in the three minutes of a single track.
Perhaps this is not always the case – and maybe artists can be swayed by constant business-suited bellowing that they need to think about the revenue and “reach” of individual tracks instead – but underneath there is still a phenomenally powerful love for what used to be the long-player record.
Meanwhile, hopefully the evil whispers of the pure business head get less and less relevant as we’re increasingly able to connect directly with our audience.
More and more people bankrolling rock’n’roll are doing it for the love, with a hope of breaking even rather than an unhearing expectation of maximised profits.
High-risk venture capital may have had a flirt but now they’re backing off fast with burned fingers.
Meanwhile Radiohead’s mail-order service is completely self-contained via their own bespoke web store, so they are not beholden to anyone for that first rush of sales.
Of course they’re in an extremely privileged position from which to launch this kind of brave malarkey.
However it is not really so innovative or unique – many smaller artists have long established methods to subsist this way and it is clearly the model most worth following.
And with a smaller, less homogenised audience required to survive and continue, it becomes even easier to follow your heart as a music maker and give people what they obviously still want, which is a great album.
I hope I’m right anyway.
I’d got pretty miserable assuming albums were no more.