Play It Again, Please: Grappling with Repeated Album Listens in the iPod Age

Right now, Beach House’s Teen Dream is my favorite album of the year. The Baltimore duo has crafted a phenomenal arrangement of baroque pop. Sadly, I’ve only listened to it three times. The National’s High Violent is another great album, but since purchasing the album, I’ve only listened to it once. One major reason was because I listened to it repeatedly when it was available for streaming weeks before the release.

I shouldn’t feel guilty for voting an album “one of the best of the year” and then watch it collect dust. After all, people have no problem dubbing a movie or book as the best they’ve seen or read this year after a single viewing or reading. But it seems that music is the only major form of pop culture that requires an unspoken demand that an album be absorbed multiple times before dubbing it “the best” of the year.

I have no problem with this standard. After all, you can listen to an album while reading, driving, or cooking, whereas a movie or book requires you plant yourself somewhere. It’s because of this quasi-law of physics that a person may brag he or she has seen their favorite movie a dozen times, but can’t begin to count how many times they’ve listen to their favorite album.

But the act of listening to an album front-to-back repeatedly seems to be a harder task to do in the age of the iPod. And it’s only getting worse as some people are now seeing the process of storing music on a portable device like an iPod as a bit archaic as opposed to storing your library online “in the clouds”. It’s also more of a challenge to listen to an album front-to-back if your music is on a phone or iPad where other applications vie for your attention.

I count myself among those who probably shouldn’t have a 120GB iPod. Whenever a new release comes out, there’s too much of a temptation to rip it to your iPod as quickly as possible so the album can be absorbed in your library. And there it stays, along with 50 or possibly 500-plus other albums. At work, surrounded by distractions, I find it best to put the iPod on shuffle. Part of the reason is to break songs out of their album settings so I can listen to them individually, while another reason is an insatiable curiosity about how the iPod shuffle can make a mix that includes Modest Mouse, Thelonious Monk, Baroness, and Lucinda Williams sound utterly logical.

Unfortunately, this results in sort of a backlog of releases. Be it a bargain $3.99 find at a record shop, or a $7.99 “week of release” sale, albums keep getting added to your library. In the past, depending on how many cassettes you could hold in your backpack or how many disc you could fit in a CD wallet, you had to make sacrifices. If you wanted to give an album a few listens, the best way to do it was to just bring that album. Nowadays, if an album doesn’t get your attention, you have another hundred or so just waiting to be accessed with the touch of a finger.

This puts incredible pressure on artists. True, most record executives have always hated to hear the word “grower”, but that especially holds true in today’s climate. Chances are, an album has one shot to floor the listener before it becomes just another 120 MB on your iPod. No wonder that the best decade to compare our current music landscape to isn’t the ’70s, ’80s or even ’90s, but the ’50s, where the main influence was on the single and not the album.

I’m trying my best to break this habit of instantly hoarding any new CD purchase directly onto my iPod. If anything, I enjoy the challenge. With so many albums instantly available, the iPod forces people who truly care about music to become more disciplined listeners as they are surrounded by temptation.

Last year, I was unemployed for about a month. Out of sheer boredom, I came up with a project. Looking through my CD collection, I wrote down each CD I know I only listened to once, front to back. I am not proud to admit the number exceeds 200. Yes, I’ve probably listened to the entire album at some time thanks to the above-mentioned iPod shuffle feature, and yes, a good number of those albums were either freebies from record companies or were purchased used. But still, it doesn’t seem right. So those CD titles went into a notebook, and inside a hat rests a corresponding small strip of paper. Sometime before work, or sometime at home with a free hour, one of those strips gets pulled from the hat. The winning album gets one full listen, front to back. If the album gets selected again, that strip goes into the garbage, signifying that I have listened to the album at least twice. The goal: to have listened to every album in that hat at least twice before year’s end. With enough discipline, I know I can do it.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs 17-minute Is Is was cake. But finding three hours for Prince’s Emancipation or six hours for the Velvet Underground’s box set is going to be brutal.