Of Time and the Record

Tapestry is an icon of the Album Era, that relatively brief but eventful period between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s when long-playing records dominated the industry, deeply informing our relationship to popular music. Insofar as it indexes Carole King’s graduation from pop singles to rock albums, Tapestry chronicles the inception of the album as a mature work of musical art in which songs are sequenced and covers are designed to tell a story, frequently about growing up. And rock music itself grew up during this era, exhibiting a new cultural maturity and seriousness.

Over the next six days I will share some thoughts and theories I’ve been developing over the last few years about this period concept, which I believe informs everyone’s relationship to popular music, whether or not they were alive during the time to which the concept refers.Loren Glass, author of Carole King’s Tapestry

In the early aughts I took all my CDs out of their jewel boxes, downloaded their contents onto an external hard drive, and slipped them into a series of binders, in which they continue to sit idle. The entire enterprise ended up being a wash, since the byzantine complexities of intellectual property law in the digital age prevented me from playing much of the music on iTunes. For the next few years I subscribed to start-up streaming services, relying on their opaque algorithms to help me make selections from their seemingly infinite field of musical choices. But I began to sense an absence in my listening life. Not only did I miss the material object, the compact disc which I now see as an ersatz echo of the long-playing albums I grew up with, but also, and more distressingly, my entire listening repertoire had been disrupted. I began to have trouble deciding when to listen to music and for how long; I no longer knew what to listen to nor how music fit into the larger media ecology of my cultural interests. 

In other words, I became aware of the historical significance of the album through its absence, through a belated realization that the era of its cultural dominance was over. But when did it end? And when did it begin? How should one go about periodizing an era based on the prominence of a particular plastic format for storing and listening to music? The long-playing vinyl record album simultaneously marks a period in time and an experience of time. It habituates us to certain forms of temporally delimited multi-sensory experience that in turn determine our retrospective relationship to the period in which the material it stores was produced. A theory of the Album Era cannot just demarcate a period in history but must engage the very nature of history itself as a way of organizing our experience of time.  

Its cultural and economic dominance of the music industry was relatively brief. As Dominick Bartmanksi and Ian Woodward affirm, “Vinyl rose spectacularly in the mid-1950s only to quite abruptly exit the mainstream in the mid-1980s.” And, in further refining this periodization they add, “The productive reciprocal feedbacks between new music now widely accessible on records and the collective social effervescence of the 1960s gradually made vinyl a kind of ‘charismatic’ cultural object that spliced new aesthetic sensibilities with a nearly revolutionary political awakening.”[1] The Album Era coincides with one of the great cultural and political watersheds in modern world history, compelling us to think of it in terms of larger issues of social change, historical transformation, and collective memory. I propose that we visualize it in the form of a long-playing record, a sort of spiraling vortex of history whose center hole sits circa 1970 and whose grooves circle outward into the past and the future.

This image illustrates the general “when” of the Album Era, but how do we answer the specific “what”? Which albums should we discuss and why? While such choices will inevitably (and symptomatically) be subjective, there is nonetheless a mainstream critical consensus establishing a canon from which we can choose. Since popular and critical acclaim are the logical criteria here, it seems reasonable to use the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time as the archive with which to work. The following visualizations are based on the 2005 version of the list. At the conclusion of these posts I will comment on the significance of the 2020 revision.

Visualized by album release date, the era begins in the mid-fifties, peaks between 1965 and 1974, and then tapers off into the eighties and nineties. Not only does the era find its vortex in the late sixties and early seventies, but also the albums in the earlier period anticipate this vortex while those that follow hearken back to it. A good number of the albums on the list issued after 1975 are actually collections of classic jazz, blues, R&B, and folk artists whose music informed the styles of the albums produced during the peak period, which sparked renewed interest in them, further confirming the “vortex” structure that I am proposing here.

The artists with the most albums on the Rolling Stone list—the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones—grew up listening to and imitating these foundational figures, and their listed albums are concentrated around the peak period between 1965 and 1974. The Beatles, whose albums occupy four of the top ten positions, are a special case. They essentially established the album as the preferred format for popular music, revolutionizing the industry. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band stands as an inflection point in the history of recorded music. The Beatles insisted that this album, unlike all their prior ones, be issued identically around the world, ensuring that its historical significance be experienced as a simultaneous global event. It was also the first album to include printed lyrics in the liner notes, inaugurating the experience of reading (and struggling to interpret) lyrics while listening to the songs. It wasn’t the first “concept” album but it established the concept of the concept album as a kind of aspirational aesthetic horizon for popular musicians, and became the benchmark to which all future concept albums, from Dark Side of the Moon to It Takes a Nation of Millions, would inevitably be compared.

The Beatles came of age as the era unfolded, modeling the development of a mature aesthetic sensibility in tune with the times. They entered the era as “boys” and left it as “men,” in the process remodeling what it meant to “grow up.” The LPs they produced during this time can be understood in part as multimodal kunstleralbums, mapping their passages to artistic adulthood onto the larger social transformations happening around them. As Rob Sheffield eloquently affirms, “The Beatles records were a map of adulthood…a guide to growing up year by year, becoming an adult who feels and thinks and suffers.”

[1] Dominick Bartmanski and Ian Woodward, Vinyl:  The Analogue Record in the Digital Age (New York:  Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) 8, 13.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top