The Long Tail

The Album Era: Circular Speculations on a Period Concept

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

The Album Era as defined by the dominance of the format in the music industry gradually ends with the introduction of the compact disc, sales of which began to exceed vinyl in the eighties. But the LP didn’t disappear; rather, it was remediated and revitalized by Rap. As Jeff Chang confirms in his canonical history, in the seventies in the Bronx “the man with the records…replaced the man with the colors” as the embodiment of cool.[1] And the men with the records were the pioneering DJ’s who built their careers on the recorded ruins of rock. In the stagflationary seventies in New York City records were cheap and easy to find. As Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola detail in their essential study, Creative License, used record stores like Manhattan’s Downtown Records had “records in the bins, racks, stacks, shelves, counters, walls, ceiling, and in boxes and crates.” And many of these records were what would soon be called classic rock. As Grandmaster Flash recalls, Afrika Bambaataa got “the crowd moving to the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, the Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad, Led Zeppelin, and even the Monkees.”[2]

Rap sonically foregrounded the materiality of vinyl through scratching, the technique DJs developed to create a percussive beat by rapidly moving the record back and forth on the turntable with the needle in the groove. This remediation of vinyl as an instrument in and of itself and a crucial component of the rhythm section quickly became a signature sound of the hip-hop era, ensuring that the LP would persist as a charismatic object, now accruing new connotations as a signifier of skill and sonic sophistication. 

Rap repurposed classic vinyl, plundering the immediate musical past to shape an emergent musical future. And if, on the one hand, DJ’ing and sampling involved breaking up the analog continuity of classic albums into looping fragments and scratching beats, Rap also maintained the model of the carefully sequenced LP as the marker of musical maturity. Chuck D remembers that when Public Enemy “made It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back we were shooting to make What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye and when we made Fear of a Black Planet I was shooting for Sgt. Pepper’s.[3] Then as now musical coming-of-age is heralded by the creation of a conceptually packaged long-playing album that must be listened to in sequence and in its entirely in order to be fully appreciated and understood.

Rap and its intergeneric variants also brought the analog-based kunstleralbum into the digital age, grounding the form more deeply in the personal and professional lives of the artists. Whatever the actual material format, albums such as Kanye West’s Graduation, Eminem’s Slim Shady LP, or The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and innumerable others, frequently across multiple series of releases, invoke vinyl repeatedly with every percussive scratch and insist on being listened to in sequence in their entirety as autobiographical statements of artistic and political development; and though they now frequently float free from any particular material incarnation, they are (almost) always called “albums” and usually approximate the length parameters of 33 1/3 rpm 12” vinyl . The kunstleralbum as a chronicle of growing up (usually in and out of some form of ghetto into musical celebrity and maturity) is central to the rise of Rap more generally, reflecting the genre’s material and conceptual roots in the Album Era.

These developments are amply and admirably reflected in the newly revised Rolling Stone list, which clearly illustrates a second bump or vortex coinciding with the Golden Age of Rap. Furthermore, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On has displaced Sgt. Pepper at number one, while Blue has gone from #30 to #3, Songs in the Key of Life has gone from #57 to #4, and Lauren Hill’s Miseducation ranks at #9. It Takes a Nation of Millions has moved from 48 to 15, and Kanye West, who didn’t appear on the earlier list, comes in at 17 with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. 

The new list, like the old, still has its center of gravity circa 1971, the year that David Hepworth calls “the annus mirabilis of the rock album.”[i] In addition to Tapestry, 1971 saw the release of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Carly Simon’s Anticipation, Curtis Mayfield’s Roots, David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, Don McLean’s American Pie, the Doors’ LA Woman, Janis Joplin’s Pearl, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, John Lennon’s Imagine, Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV, Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, Linda Ronstadt’s eponymous debut, Paul McCartney’s Ram, Pink Floyd’s Meddle, Roberta Flack’s Quiet Fire, the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, and the Who’s Who’s Next. This was the year the rock album came of age as a serious art form and an agent of cultural change.

In truth, we each have our own Album Era. Every record collection embodies an idiosyncratic intersection between personal taste and popular culture, between the auratic properties of the unique object you own and the generic properties of the mass-produced commodity you (or someone else) originally purchased. This affectively charged intersection generates the charisma of the album as a material embodiment of the past. And it is a past made of plastic, one which we can access at will through the point of a needle, as if dipping a finger into history. And, as history itself gets digitized into zillions of disaggregated, discontinuous and decontextualized bits of information, vinyl maintains a structure of analog continuity and indexical contiguity that strengthens our affective investment in the age of its popularity and attests to the format’s continuing appeal. Compared to digital formats it is cumbersome and inconvenient, requiring expensive equipment, extensive storage space and meticulous curatorial care; but this is precisely what gives it weight, both literally and metaphorically. Our albums are anchors in a receding historical vortex. Without them we risk spinning out into a digital ocean with no reference points to assist in navigation.  

Note:  These speculations are an expanded and revised version of my contribution to Caren Irr’s edited anthology, A Literary History of Plastic, forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press.

[1] Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York: Picador, 2005) 82.

[2] Kembrew McLeod and Peter DiCola, Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling (Durham: Duke UP, 2011) 55.

[3] Quoted in McLeod and DiCola, 23.

[i] David Hepworth, Never a Dull Moment: 1971—The Year That Rock Exploded (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2016), 287.

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