The Album vs. the Playlist
We all have beloved albums and playlists that may mean a lot to us, but which is objectively better? Playlists are organized based on whichever order their creator decided upon, whereas many albums tell a story. The order is as crucial to the story being told as the songs themselves. An album that expresses a theme or idea, many times a story, is known as a concept album.
A perfect example is Pink Floyd’s album “Dark Side of the Moon”. Considered by many to be one of the best concept albums ever created, the album has themes discussing mental illness and fulfillment in one’s life. The album runs about 43 minutes, and each song transitions to the next without a break. This flow is why this album, and concept albums as a whole, must be listened to as whole works in order. Any song off the album would be good on it’s own, but to really experience this album you have to listen to it in it’s entirety.
The order of a concept album is what lets it tell a story effectively, however a similar argument could be made in favor of the playlist. Albums content is limited by what story the artist wanted to tell, as well as being limited by what work they have already produced or which artists are able to be featured. Artists who are dead, retired, or simply don’t wish to collaborate cannot be included on an album, but can in the case of a playlist.
An example of this would be Logic’s space themed concept album “The Incredible True Story”. The album makes use of non-linear storytelling and a satirical subject matter. Although this album tells a story, it’s non-linear plot allows for changes. The relatively unconfined narrative and the innovative concept premise leave a lot of room where additional songs could be applicable. Like David Bowie’s “Moonage Daydream” or Elton John’s “Rocketman”. Any space themed song could have added to the album's space vibe. I am not saying that “The Incredible True Story” isn't great, I am saying that playlists supersede albums in their ability to include more varied content. Although album’s can have features or samples of other artists, it just isn’t the same. Albums with artists featured have those additional artists as an accessory to album rather than a necessity to the album.
Another argument for the superiority of the album is the personal lives of the artists themselves. The songs on an album typically are written in the same period of time. So the album's overall tone can be due to what the artist is experiencing in their lives. The best example of this I can think of is Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”. The album has sold over 40 million copies worldwide, which makes it one of the best selling albums of all time.
The album’s general theme is relationship troubles. Of the band's five members, four were romantically involved with each other. Vocalist Christine McVie and bass guitarist John McVie were married and then divorced after a 6 month non stop tour. Guitarist and Vocalist Lindsey Buckingham and vocalist Stevie Nicks were involved in an on-and-off relationship which led to many arguments. The rifts that developed between band members led to them not interacting together outside of band business. The bands drama during the writing and recording of “Rumors” is what gives it such a genuine, personal feel. It is one album that I consider truly perfect and does something that could not be achieved by a playlist.
The final thing a playlist achieves better than an album is letting the listener decide what the theme will be. In addition to that a playlist lets you pick songs that may speak to you personally and decide how it will make you feel. For example, you may have been in a relationship, and may have an album that you two always listened to together. Maybe that relationship ends, and although you like the songs on that album, the memories associated with it may sting a little. So you make a playlist. You take out the songs that have too many emotional associations and you’re left with a collection that you can still enjoy without getting nostalgic and texting your ex at 3 am. This is just an example, but I think many of us can relate.
At the end of the day I consider album's to be superior. I think work should be consumed as one whole rather than as the accrual of several individual works. At the end of the day it is all music and is great however you decide to listen. Order, story, or artistic intention doesn’t really matter. The music’s value lies in what meaning it has to you personally.