This story is published in this year’s summer issue of The Mark.
Cover image designed by Karil Trail
Written by Kari Trail
Purple Rain, To Pimp a Butterfly, Lemonade, Blonde, Ctrl: What do all these names have in common? If you guessed iconic, genre-bending albums from the twentieth century and beyond, then you’d be correct. What, then, makes them so memorable—is it their impressive vocals, attention to detail, sound-mixing, impeccable pacing, or political relevance? Ultimately, it’s a combination of multiple elements, a pattern that has time-and-time again proven the importance of the album as a device for social commentary and thematic exploration.
And yet, despite the timeless quality of our favorite albums, a cultural shift seems to be brewing underway alongside the rise in music streaming: playlists. A new study shows that 40% of modern music listeners opt for playlists over albums. While playlists may grant an individual more freedom over their listening experience, albums often take the form of a treasure hunt. It’s a classic game of risk or reward—you risk the chance of boredom in the hopes of finding that one hidden gem, buried within the mix. Playlists are safe; albums are an adventure.
Besides, playlists–by their very nature–are meant to be forgettable. We add songs, listen to them a whole week straight, and gradually lose interest as our taste expands. Personally, I only end up using old playlists a few years later in retrospect, looking back on (and often laughing at) the songs I listened to during a certain period in time. Some playlists don’t even receive that honor (RIP to my “Summer 2018” playlist that consisted 99% of Rex Orange County songs, you will not be missed).
Albums, on the other hand, are timeless. They create a cohesive listening experience for the audience, sonically crafting a world for the listener to enter and absorb. The time an artist puts into the organization and theme of their album will always outdo the half-hearted spontaneity of playlist-making.
It would be, however, an incomplete ode to albums without mentioning the brilliant magic of album sequencing. A blend of intricate fade-ins, balanced pacing, and thematic mixing, sequencing establishes a cohesion between the individual songs, allowing the album to feel like a collective body of work. As one music guide puts it, “Sequencing defines the relationship between each song. Without good sequencing, your album is just another playlist.” To that point, the best albums convey a sense of narrative, oftentimes establishing an introduction, climax, and conclusion along the way. Good albums include songs that revolve around a specific theme; great albums utilize sequencing to add the cherry on top.
Frank Ocean’s studio debut Channel Orange sprinkles sound effects like static, channel surfing, and muffled chatter in between songs, effectively stringing together a diverse tracklist with an overarching cinematic motif. He even went to the extent to add jazzy commercial breaks and jingles throughout the album, reflecting on the fast-paced culture of love and passion in modern society. Taking a similar approach, Solange’s critically acclaimed A Seat at the Table uses seamless fade-ins and fade-outs between tracks, languidly drifting through the songs without disruption. This fluidity is specific to the album experience—it’s incredible to enter a world that expands throughout the course of multiple tracks and, ideally, makes a point by the time you leave.
Moreover, albums have historically been devices for changing social dialogues or the conventions of the music industry. Take, for example, The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), one of the first successful “concept albums” where a single theme unifies the recording as a whole. In this case, the Beatles imagined themselves as a fictitious band, performing a series of eccentric live performances. Or consider Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971), an album that meshed counterculture themes with lyrical falsetto. The Guardian even expressed that Gaye’s eleventh studio album “ushered in an era of socially aware soul” with a “disillusioned nobility [that] caught the public mood.” As much as an album might wrestle with themes specific to an artist’s experiences, they can often reflect the times, acting as a testament to the norms, politics, or expectations prevalent within a society’s given era. In this way, a good album can play time-machine, transporting the listener into whatever time period they choose. If escapism is the intention of music–as it is to many of us–then albums effectively serve that purpose. Feeling wistfully nostalgic? Try Feel Like Makin’ Love by Roberta Flack. Want to enter an Afro Futuristic sonic landscape? The Black Panther soundtrack will do the trick.
That’s not to say playlists can’t be touching or meaningful—I, an avid album enthusiast, often find myself reaching for my seventeen hour-long playlist of down-to-earth indie and funky neo-soul tunes. But when it comes to artistic intention, thematic exploration, and social commentary, albums are always worth your time.
Written by Jane White
Whether you’re jamming with friends or taking your headphones on a run, a playlist can easily cater to your unique tastes. There are so many different artists, styles, and songs, yet combining them into a playlist is what highlights the complexities of the individual.
My two current favorite artists are Phoebe Bridgers (CEO of sadness) and Doja Cat (rapping queen). Though they are on opposite sides of the musical spectrum, I need a combination of their songs to keep me at my best. Listening to an entire Phoebe Bridgers album induces sobbing and listening to a complete Doja Cat album makes me feel like I’ve shotgunned a hundred energy drinks. A playlist is necessary to balance the vibes out.
While listening to an album can be a breathtaking experience, its intended cohesion often causes the songs to blend into each other, making it difficult to appreciate their individual greatness.
Listening to others’ playlists gives me the chance to test the musical waters and explore which songs and genres I prefer. These playlists contain a mesh of whatever musical classification you choose and give you direct access to an artist’s most likeable songs, rather than forcing you to weed out the songs you dislike in an album. When in search of new music, I typically use Spotify playlists like Lorem or Indie Pop. Each of these has gifted me with playlist-worthy songs from artists I typically don’t listen to, like Clubhouse (carefree, bubblegum pop) and Olivia Rodrigo (angsty teenage girl ballads).
My favorite aspect of a playlist is how the ones you make become uniquely yours. Since the start of middle school, I’ve separated the music of my liking into monthly playlists, each labelled by month and year. Every once in a while, I am able to recapture the memories of my childhood by listening to the songs I associate with those particular time periods, which are conveniently categorized. For example, any time I listen to “Watch” by Billie Eilish, which holds a place in my June 2018 playlist, I am teleported back to my trip to Hawaii, where I accidentally sat on a turtle.
Spotify and Apple Music allow you to share your playlists with friends, which is not only super convenient for shared musical experiences, but also gives you insight into your friends’ musical tastes. I’ve stalkingly found the playlists of the people I’m interested in and even picked up some new favorite songs from my friends’ accounts, like “Big Toe” and “Dope on a Rope” both beach goth hits by the Growlers. Playing these songs on my playlist while we are together helps us to celebrate our common taste but also makes me proud of the perfection that is my personal playlist.
Playlists also capture the mood of a room much more accurately than an album would. My friends and I have wildly different tastes, but we are still able to enjoy the music we listen to together because it often comes from a playlist where we’ve designated songs we all like. On our two a.m. Taco Bell field trips, we scream our favorite throwbacks together at the top of our lungs, like “God’s Plan” by Drake, famous Canadian.
While albums are polished, personalizing your musical tastes blesses you with the power of choice. Making a fire playlist is the closest you’ll ever feel to being a god.