12 Inches Of Pleasure

Type "death of the album" into Google and you'll be avalanched in caffeinated articles rejoicing in the unchecked march of download culture at the expense of ye olde elpee. It's enough to make any self-respecting gramophile feel like a member of the Flat Earth Society. Downloading, so its shriller advocates decree, is the victory of self-curated "consumer choice" over the album's passé dictates. The future, so they'd have us believe, is on shuffle play. For a significant rump of listeners (and, tellingly, the majority of artists) however, this "victory" feels distinctly Pyrrhic and the longplaying album - especially the vinyl model - remains the dyed-in-the-wool music aficionado's format of choice, as fundamental as celluloid and a darkened theatre are to the true cineaste.

A good album is more than a collection of songs; it's an auteur statement played out in measured episodes - a rounded narrative as opposed to the MP3 library's incongruent one-liners. Album buyers are connoisseurs of the exceptional, not librarians of the infinite. The iPod squad also neglect the album's half-century- long history as the gold standard of progressive popular music, from Revolver to Funeral and beyond. Slotting a random flurry of MP3s among the painstakingly honed greats of the rock pantheon would be like laying down a Bacardi Breezer in the cellars of Château Lafite-Rothschild.

A felicitous quirk of vinyl technology it may be, but the album's forty-odd minute standard running time happens to be the optimal length for a single sitting appreciation of music, while the natural division into two sides (or more for the prolific and proggy) enforces a narrative structure, making the sequencing of albums an art in itself - one that the processional, "hits at the front," CD format has all but consigned to history. A vinyl album is a perfect play in two acts (six if you're the Clash or Stars Of The Lid). Would David Bowie's Low have been as ground-breaking without its separation into song and instrumental sides? Would Van Morrison's Astral Weeks have been as absorbing without its "In The Beginning" and "Afterwards" segregation? No.

All is not lost. Recent albums like Damon Albarn and co's The Good The Bad & The Queen, or Arcade Fire's Neon Bible are fighting a rearguard action by sequencing songs in non-linear arrangements - valiantly reserving some gems for the latter half. Neon Bible even comes in a lavish, 180-gram vinyl version, with three sides of music and an etching on the fourth - there's the whole multi-sensory appeal of the vinyl album right there (try etching your iTunes library, Junior!). And let's not even bother with the weary fluff-on-the-needle "debate." Any audiophile worth their salt prefers stylus-on-vinyl action to the emasculated crackle of the bit-crushed MP3 file or the antiseptic digital fizz of the CD.

In the year when sales of vinyl albums have actually increased substantially for the first time since the late 1980s, the most deafening sound seeping out of iPods is that of the baby being chucked out with the bathwater.

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