Outlined or off the cuff: Why both kinds of albums hold equal merit

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The albums we all constantly have on repeat differ on countless characteristics beyond just genre. Ranging from concept albums to soundtrack albums, these collections of music are each slaves to the process by which they were each recorded. The album may sound forced or may be an easygoing, organic effort. There are albums made with a top-quality production team with an elaborate release and those just randomly recorded in a band member’s garage at odd times and later distributed to the masses during gigs.

The characteristics of the recording process are quite special, as they determine if a record is to become a sweeping orchestra that flows seamlessly from one track to the next or a dissonant but creative smorgasbord of sounds that some just might find pleasing to the ear. The tone all depends on what sort of atmosphere or level of refinement listeners are in the mood for.

But whether you prefer the feel of albums put together from random snippets of prerecorded songs or albums recorded during a set period of time and with intent, it’s clear that both are necessary to fully enrich the music industry. 

Most albums are made with clear intent, as in the artist steps foot into a recording studio determined to piece together cohesive works of music. These albums generally have a set theme or musical style and are recorded in a short and consecutive amount of time. Albums that have a laid out plan from the start — primarily to record an album with a specific sound direction — are cleanly organized and move from track to track with recognizable similarities and structures.

Pink Floyd’s 1973 release, The Dark Side of the Moon, is a perfect example of a well-conceptualized album that had a certain goal in mind. Members of the band felt that they needed to put out a record that had a clear and vivid message, settling on one alluding to lunacy. Thus, the songs recorded and mixed for the album had that message in mind, and that is part of the reason why the album plays all the way through without any breaks between songs. 

But on the other hand, sometimes members of a band will simply churn out and record songs as if in a fever dream, regardless of how discordant or strange the songs may sound. Material is also often recorded and shelved, only to be reused later such as on Mbv by My Bloody Valentine. 

Songs for the album began being recorded prior to the band’s breakup in 1997, consisting of more than 60 hours of music able to fill two full albums. Only in 2006 did frontman Kevin Shields begin going through the previous recordings, adding new instrumentals and rerecording what he saw fit. The album doesn’t sound particularly thrown together, but listeners can tell that it wasn’t all recorded at the same time and with the same mindset.

A more extreme example is Beck’s debut album Golden Feelings, an abstract composition of anti-folk experimentations. The songs feature strangely pitched vocals and screams, backward instrumentals and an overall tone of utter, beautiful chaos. The whole album just has an offbeat vibe, but the unusual cut-and-pastes Beck has done from various recordings comes together in an interesting and innovative manner. While not as smoothly flowing as other albums, Golden Feelings brings a level of unmatched dedication and artistry to the batting plate.

While one sort of album isn’t more effective than the other, both planned and unplanned albums each provide drastically different productions of music. As much as producers mix and tighten up garage jam sessions into a full-length album, it often won’t have the clean-cut corners of a carefully thought-out album that was basically fully created before it was even recorded. And there’s always the fear of too many filler songs as well, which is a concern for both kinds of albums.

But whether records follow intent or function as spontaneous collections of music, the music industry thrives with both. The artfully ordered layout of planned albums brings a sense of grounding and awareness as to where an album may go in terms of sound, whereas the thrown-together nature of impromptu albums evokes mystery, beautiful chaos and sometimes a natural progression that cannot be achieved any other way. The significant similarity between the two albums, and arguably why both are essential forms of musical consumption, is that each album intends to project the artists’ messages and visions to their fans while fostering an appreciation for the music.

Pooja Bale covers music. Contact her at [email protected].