Artists and record producers invest a great deal of creativity, thought and work into the creation of their albums. The order of songs or instrumentals on an album is an important element of the flow and progression of the musical and narrative themes the artist is communicating. In many ways, an album tells a story through musical themes and their development, as well as in the lyrics. Progressive Rock artists took this literally with the ‘concept album’, in doing so they created some of the greatest examples of the album as coherent pieces of art.
Albums like Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, which tells a harrowing tale of a rock star’s descent into madness and self-isolation, Patrick Moraz’s ‘The Story of I’, a fantasy tale of two people who fall in love whilst facing ever-increasing challenges in a mythical hotel offering the ultimate in adventure and pleasure, Donna Summer’s ‘Once Upon A Time’ tells the story of a lonely young woman’s quest for love. Vangelis’s ‘Rosetta’ and ‘Juno To Jupiter’ are musical representations of NASA space probes to a comet and to Jupiter. Jeff Wayne’s ‘Musical Version of the War of the Worlds’, and Camel’s sublime ‘The Snow Goose’ are musical interpretations of works of literature. These are all examples of albums which tell stories.
Even when the stories told by albums are less explicit, pop, rock, jazz and other genres still have structures to the ordering of tracks within albums that build moods and feelings, reach climaxes and dynamic peaks, vary the feelings conveyed and take the listeners on musical journeys.
Structuring and sequencing the tracks are thus fundamental elements of an album as a cohesive and eloquent work of art. Where, then, lies the justification for a mechanism which intentionally disassembles the coherence of an album and presents its tracks out of the artist’s intended order?
I’ve always disagreed with the ‘shuffle’ or ‘random play’ function of music players, iPods and streaming services. They are perhaps intended to offer some form of variety and spontaneity to the listener; to me, they are pointless devices that disrupt the musical and narrative flow of an album.
Why is it that a music album is regarded as fair game for this disrespectful rearrangement? Would a book publisher randomly reorder the chapters of novels so the plots would be lost? Would Netflix or the BBC make audiences watch the episodes of TV series in nonsensical order where the end comes before the beginning and intervening episodes are sprinkled around in meaningless disorder? No. So why would the randomisation of a musical work be in any way acceptable?
This week, one of the world’s most popular singers has mounted a successful opposition to the randomisation of ‘shuffling’ her albums.
Adele has spoken out against the use of ‘shuffling’ and has influenced the streamer Spotify to hide the ‘shuffle’ button from its album pages. “We don’t create albums with so much care and thought into our track listing for no reason,” Adele said. “Our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended.”
In the commercial world, artists are under pressure to begin their albums with their strongest hit songs, to encourage listeners to continue to stream beyond the 30 seconds that triggers a royalty payment for the artist, publisher and record company. This is often at odds with the artists’ wishes for the order of tracks, just as is the implementation of the ‘shuffle’ feature to randomise an artists work and scramble its emotional and lyrical meaning.
By asking that her music be heard in the order in which she wishes her songs to be presented, Adele is heroically standing up for countless musical artists as a champion of the album as a means of expression of the artist, and of the very notion of the album itself as a form of art.
Reference: Adele (2021) Adele https://www.adele.com/