Albums are an important art form lost in a digital realm demanding instant gratification. Most music listeners don’t want to think about music as anything more than a soundtrack for life. It’s background noise to improve mundane activities and dance to at parties. Now combinations of music and dance is a different art form in itself. But an album can be an equally great, sometimes overlooked expression of art. Albums can tell stories. They can draw out feelings from deep inside the listener, feelings that you may not even realize you could feel at that moment.
Albums were a big talking point in Country Perspective’s first podcast episode. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to give it a listen. Josh did a great job with the first installment of our new weekly feature, and the podcast will only improve. In the first episode of The Country Perspective Show, and in the subsequent comments, points were raised about how albums in country music today are nothing more than a collection of single-worthy, radio driven songs. No care is given to the idea of an album being meaningful. All that matters is that there are 10-13 songs of various themes and genres, ready for whatever road country radio turns down next.
Take Eric Church’s The Outsiders. This jarring album had Eric Church ready for just about anything: rock (“The Outsiders,” “That’s Damn Rock & Roll”), pop-country (“Give Me Back My Hometown,” “Talladega”), and R&B influence (“Like a Wrecking Ball”). Listening to it as an album, The Outsiders is a jarring, sporadic listen with no cohesive theme or style to latch onto. However, the variety of musical stylings and genres has sustained Eric Church with a few successful radio singles and long-term album sales. Luke Bryan’s Crash My Party and Brantley Gilbert’s Just As I Am are two other albums that have sustained long-term success through building the albums with hit single after hit single.
With a big enough name, labels can build albums with songs ready to keep radio relevancy alive through long stadium and arena tours. The trade-off, though, is the concept of crafting an album that flows from start to finish: an album with cohesive themes and productions, a conceptual story, and even a creative cover to compliment the musical offerings.
Good cover art on an album can subtly add to or allude to the music heard. Take Gretchen Peters’ Blackbirds for example. The cover isn’t complicated, but the simplicity is detailed and tells quite a bit. Gretchen is raising her arms up, draped in the cloth from her black dress. As a result, she looks like she’s raising black wings. The surrounding brush and shrubbery are brown and dying, with the grim, gray sky above. The image implies darkness, death, emptiness. The cover art (correctly) suggests that the album will be dark, grim, and uneasy.
William Clark Green’s Ringling Road cover is an illustration of the title track. While it’s not a direct reflection of the entire album, in listening to “Ringling Road,” you can see the characters and situations described. On Wanted! The Outlaws you have Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser depicted on an old Wanted! flyer you’d find in an old western town. The album adds to the “outlaw” depiction of the four artists. Outlaw meaning going against the grain of Chet Akins’ Nashville Sound and creative control, in favor for self-control of the music.
The point is, there was thought and effort put into these cover photos in order to add to the album as a whole. Nowadays, with albums simply being a random assortment of made-for-radio singles, you see Luke Bryan and Thomas Rhett simply posing as JC Penny Catalog models. Most of mainstream country’s album covers add nothing to the, well, nothingness you’ll find in the album. The album cover is essentially a means to an end nowadays.
When it comes down to it, what makes an album a true album is cohesiveness and flow from start to finish. When previewing and gearing up for the release of Uncaged, Zac Brown Band multi-instrumentalist Clay Cook told Taste of Country, “This is the first record that we’ve made from start to finish in one thought…The previous albums have been a collection of songs … this is an album.” If you listen to the album in its entirety, you can hear and feel the flow from one song to the next. It’s smooth, it’s focused, and even the inclusions of rock, reggae and R&B feel grounded in the Zac Brown Band country sound. The Foundation and You Get What You Give, while great, are the type of song collection albums you see today more-so than albums that flow.
Will Hoge’s Small Town Dreams has several songs that deal directly with the dreams of small town people: big city dreams vs. settling down with a family (“Little Bitty Dreams”), trying to make ends meet and sustain a family life (“Desperate Times”), and everyday life in small town U.S.A. (“Middle of America”). Back to Peters’ Blackbirds, the dark themes of death and life’s struggles are found in every song. The tone and the lyrics set the mood as depicted in the cover. Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is as true an album name as you can get. The songs, rooted in traditional country outlaw sound, are mixed with modern effects and sounds to create something new for the country ear. The metamodern sounds and lyrics challenge the modern: modern country sounds, modern views. It’s a theme, it’s a description of an album, and it’s cohesive and consistent when listening to the album.
These themes and feelings are lost when you rope together various songs of various styles and genres with nothing holding them together. That’s why Jekyll + Hyde is such a mess, especially compared to Uncaged. The Zac Brown Band, again, dip their toes in various genres, but it’s too extreme and jarring to flow as an album should. Jekyll + Hyde showed no grounded cohesion for the tracks to be grouped together through an album lens. This cohesion is what makes good albums great, and it’s the type of feature you’ll find in pretty much every album we’ve graded an 8 or higher here on Country Perspective.
Concept Albums take albums a step further, and tell one story over the course of the songs. This practice is rarer in country music compared to other genres like rock or indie. But one of country’s most famous albums is a concept album. Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger is an album where an outlaw finds himself running from the law after murdering his wife and the man she had an affair with. Using songs and brief reprises of various sections of those same songs, Nelson tells the story beautifully. A move unheard of in country music in 1975, but Nelson’s risk paid off and launched his country music career, making him the legend he is today.
We may soon be treated to another concept album in country music with Brandy Clark’s next released. She’s hinted that it’ll “have a bit of a concept.” Concept albums can be great because it’s truly a unique way to tell a story. Arguably the most famous concept album in music, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, is a detailed rock opera that was even adapted into a live action movie. Concept albums are more difficult to pull off because it takes thought and effort to craft a single flowing story from track one until the album ends.
All in all, with the demand for singles and instant satisfaction, mainstream country has lost its grip on the power an album can have. There are plenty of artists outside the mainstream realm that appreciate and understand the importance of the album as a whole. These are just a few example of my favorite and recent albums that I believe hit these points well. There are many more artists and albums that care about delivering the art of music in a way that’s deeper than a three-minute anthem with a 6 month shelf life. That’s how the Nashville producers see music today. Thankfully there are true musical artists who care enough to build their careers around albums for their fans who will buy those albums. Albums are where the magic of music truly lies.
Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases
- Tomorrow Jason Isbell’s Something More Then Free and Alan Jackson’s Angels and Alcohol will be released.
- Ashley Monroe’s The Blade will be released next week on the 24th. The album is streaming on NPR First Listen until it’s release.
- Will Hoge has debuted a new song called “Still a Southern Man.” This is a song Hoge wrote in response the Confederate Flag debate that followed the church shooting in Charleston, SC. This isn’t the first time Will Hoge has been political with his music, releasing two EPs (2004’s The America EP and 2012’s Modern American Protest Music), as well as some album cuts of politically active songs.
- The Band Perry has announced they’ll be releasing a new single on August 14th. No word on the title yet, but the band has been in the studio, so I can imagine an announcement for a new album will follow.
- Thomas Rhett will have his new album, Tangled Up, drop on September 25. Apparently fans got to vote on which model pose Rhett used for his arbitrary album cover.
- Fort Worth, Texas singer-songwriter, Matthew McNeal, released his debut album at the end of last month. Josh will have a review of that album soon.
- Kip Moore will have is long-awaited sophomore album released on August 21st.
- Maddie and Tae’s debut album will hit the shelves on August 28th.
- The Eli Young Band have joined forces with Andy Grammer for a “country remix” of Grammer’s “Honey, I’m Good.” Spoiler alert: it’s not even close to a country song. Admittedly, I haven’t heard Andy Grammer sing before. However, with the use of vocal effects here, I’d have no idea Mike Eli was singing the second verse if no one had mentioned it.
Today in Country Music History
This is my addition to “The Hodgepodge” features. As I was thinking of an effective regular feature to pitch to Josh, before being handed the reigns of “The Hodgepodge,” I kept coming back to building it around a “this day in country music history.” So, now that I’m writing this column, I figured I’ll just tack this onto the rest of the sections here.
- In 1990, Garth Brooks hits number 1 with “The Dance.” “The Dance” became Brooks’ signature song, and was the first of 5 straight number 1 singles for Garth in the early 1990s.
- In 2012, Kitty Wells passes away from complications with a stroke. Wells was featured on last week’s Hodgepodge with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Kitty Wells was the first female country music artist to have number 1 single.
Throwback Thursday Song
“17” – Cross Canadian Ragweed. This Saturday, I’ll be going to see Cody Canada & The Departed at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, OK. In honor of the concert, my throwback song is one of the best songs Cody Canada has written, in my opinion. This is from the CCR era of Canada’s musical career. As hometown/small town country songs go, it doesn’t get much better than “17.”
*Also, if any of you readers are going to the show Saturday, feel free to reach out. I’d be happy to say hi.
Non-Country Suggestion of the Week
Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. With today’s discussion of albums, it seems fitting to include one of my favorite non-country albums from this year. Father John Misty (an alter ego of Josh Tillman) wrote this concept album about himself, with many of the songs inspired from his wife and their relationship. This indie album has excellent songwriting!
Tweet of the Week
Kris said “watching sturgill and his band was like watching the Beatles for the first time. pic.twitter.com/bv4K7a7xpA
— Ben Haggard (@BenHaggardMusic) July 10, 2015
That’s a hell of a compliment to give any musician! But for it to come from Kris Kristofferson?! That adds much more meaning.
An iTunes Review That Will Make You Smile and Cheer!
The review was left under Canaan Smith’s Bronco. As you’ll recall, that album faced heavy criticism from Josh. I personally love the Katy Perry comparison!