Rediscovering albums

So here it is, yet another version of iTunes. Another update, another shuffling around of bells and whistles. As with the last ten versions, there's a lot to love and a lot to hate about iTunes 11. It's still suffering from a decade of feature creep – books, movies, apps – but there now seems to be plenty more focus on the music. You know, the tunes.

One feature that caught my eye is the new design of the album view. Using some high tech algorithm/sorcery, it presents the track listing on a backdrop based on the palette of the album artwork. Sometimes even the text is coloured appropriately. It's not the most exciting leap forward in human endeavour, but this small step towards giving one batch of files a different character to the next has had a rather splendid effect: it's got me listening to albums – whole albums – again.

For the last few years, my music consumption has been a lazily digital, scattershot affair. Shuffling, Geniusing, Spotifying, Last FMing, Rdioing (now there's a word worth remembering for your next Scrabble tournament) – it's been a messy stream of individual tracks. This is great, but iTunes reminded me that there's something special about a structured, deliberate collection of songs by a single artist. A good old fashioned beginning-middle-end snapshot of an artist at a particular time, requiring a bit of a time commitment. iTunes returned me to a lifetime of slow listening.

My first exposure to albumetry was a bit misleading: my parents' eight-track player, which was basically a hole in the dashboard of a Citroen CX into which a cartridge was shoved, and out of which Smokie's Living Next Door to Alice bellowed. On loop. All the way from Gravesend to Durdle Door. It's not for everyone.

But then one day I was granted access to that temple of sound, the heart of the home: the record player. Oh my. Incredible collections of songs, expertly crafted into two sides of fuzzy, crackly (and, as any muso will earnestly tell you, warm) sound. There was something so engaging about having to get up halfway through an album to walk across the room and flip the disc over. And the whole time you could cling onto, read, sniff, ponder that seductive sleeve.

(However, under no circumstances must you ever, EVER attempt to cut out the cut-out goodies in Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band sleeve though. You know, the ones that are clearly designed to be cut out.)

And then came tapes. Like records but smaller and faffier and more likely to go wrong. But they were magical because, as well as having the ability to transform into birds of prey (I'm remembering that correctly, right?), tapes offered you the opportunity to make your own albums. Compiling songs was one thing, but the whole package was in your hands. Deep down, we all know that the all time greatest music designers aren't your Peter Savilles or your Peter Blakes: they're you, aged thirteen, making an inlay for your latest mix tape out of bits of Silk Cut adverts and Letraset.

Then CDs. Like futuristic, smaller records in crappier packaging … but so much more convenient. Easier to ship, to store, to play. And they took over the world. Other formats came and went (bless the plucky Minidisc – it tried so hard, so very, very hard), but until recently, the CD has ruled. Now, the format itself is just packaging, a means of delivering digital files to your computer, where the music hides behind a shiny little JPG. Buy CD, rip CD, eBay CD. The physical artwork barely gets a look in.

With all this digitisation and miniaturisation, design for music has changed. It's now so much smaller, and requires a different approach. Tim Fowler, creative director at the legendary Rough Trade Shops, has witnessed this trend over the years:

"There has been a definite shift in the way sleeves are designed, it seems that gone are the days of complex images and heavily photoshopped cover artwork and the trend is far more subtle and stripped back. Take the XX cover which is quite frankly the simplest and bravest cover there's been for a while."
From a dozen inches to a couple of hundred pixels in such a short time. I grew up with albums, and a simple aesthetic flourish in iTunes has made them part of my life again. It's just a shame that although the all-important artwork (assuming it's even found the correct artwork) may be the source of a nicely-calculated background colour, it comes at the expense of it being right royally buggered about with.

For example, the love-it-or-hate-it artwork for Bowie's new album The Next Day, once dulled and shrunk and feathered by iTunes, is barely artwork at all. The outside edge, controversially reusing the sleeve to 1977's "Heroes", is lost to a grey smudge. Ironically, the digital minimalism of Jonathan Barnbrook's design would look fantastic and subversive in print, but as it is, it's been reduced to a nothingy grey square.

With a new-found love for the long-player, maybe I’ll go back to where it all started (ignoring the eight-track anomaly … please don't make me go back there, next to Alice, I beg of you), my vinyl destination: records. Fowler makes a point that they're still packaged as alluringly as that untouchable Sgt Pepper's:

“With the mass use of digital downloads the design of an LP sleeve and what is inside is even more important: free MP3 versions of the album, limited editions prints, extra reading material. All of this keep the industry alive.”
Digital and physical: sounds like the ideal solution to me. All I have to do now is get myself something to play the records on for when I fancy a slower experience than iTunes can offer. But it'd have to be something pretty. Something aluminium. Now if only Apple made an iTurntable …

Originally published in the March 2013 issue of MacUser.