x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Celebrating the full-length album

As Radiohead prepare to play King of Limbs in its entirety on the BBC, Dan Hancox looks at 10 other albums you should listen to in one go.

We live in an age of playlists. The MP3 era has, we are often told, killed the studio album stone dead. People un-check or simply delete their favourite MP3s by each band, from each album, throw them together on to playlists, stick them on shuffle, swap them with their friends, cherry-pick and curate their own soundtracks like never before.

In many ways it's an inspiring idea: that the ordinary listener has wrested control of the playlist from the kind of self-important musician who thinks his unlistenable 14-minute-long experimental "jazz odyssey" is every bit as worthwhile as the catchy single that precedes it.

Something has been lost in the process, however. For every overblown album that consisted of five cracking tracks and seven workmanlike "fillers", there are classic albums being forensically dissected into MP3s - an act that loses everything in the process.

The playlist era has barely affected pop artists: if anything it's benefited them, since the poppiest of chart acts - from The Supremes to Destiny's Child - have always been "singles bands", who thrived on the one-track mega-hit, removed from its context. Intriguingly, the same is true of punk rock: bands such as The Clash, for all that fans may love their eponymous debut, or the brilliant-but-bloated London Calling, never quite managed to encapsulate over 40-70 minutes just what made them great.

Increasingly, however, proactive moves are afoot to resurrect the idea of listening to albums in their entirety: from beginning to end, in that order - with no skipping, no shuffling, no adding of random other songs to the playlist. Legendary Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich is behind a new TV show called Live from the Basement, in which bands perform albums in their entirety, starting in July when Radiohead themselves perform the whole of their King of Limbs live. Godrich said he hoped that "in the future some of these performances might be seen as the truest representation of the state of their artists' work, captured in a way that lets their talents speak without the interference of presenters, or audiences".

Never ones to shy away from presenting their work in innovative ways - King of Limbs was also released "as a newspaper", and In Rainbows saw fans paying for it on a voluntary basis - Radiohead have keyed into a quite new, sudden revival of affection for the album format. The likes of The Lemonheads, The Stooges and Belle & Sebastian have all taken part in the "Don't Look Back" concert series, in the UK, Europe and America, which sees legendary bands perform classic albums in their entirety - often acts who had split up or retired, frequently performing songs that they had never played before because they had been too challenging, complicated or downright weird in a live context.

This follows on from the recent emergence of "album clubs" in the UK, where strangers gather in silence to pay full, undivided attention (no talking or using your phone is allowed) to an album. Colleen Murphy, who runs one such club in London, told the BBC she was kicking back against "download culture", and the instantaneous, devalued way people consume MP3s: as one never-ending play- list of random background noise. "Everyone, stop multitasking. Sit down, open your ears and do some heavy listening," runs the album club's motto.

It would be an exaggeration to say that you can't appreciate music in playlist form, but it's true that in some cases, the album format is a great loss worth reclaiming: when the vision of an individual or group, working from a particular creative perspective or moment in time, creates a holistic work of art - a set of songs that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Don't hit shuffle - enjoy these albums whole

Burial - Untrue (2007)

The best dubstep album ever made - to date, anyway. The anonymous Londoner Burial topped many "album of the decade" lists in a decade that was supposed to kill off the format. Untrue is that rare beast in dance music: a full-length album that sounds brilliant outside the club; and really, it's because it was made for the small hours of the morning. The chopped-up female vocals, moody beats and rain-like atmospherics created a truly unique sound often imitated, never matched.

DJ Shadow - Endtroducing (1996)

It has been said that DJ Shadow, aka Californian vinyl collector Josh Davis (60,000 records and counting), uses a sampler like Jimi Hendrix used a guitar. He helped convince rock-loving sceptics that a technique already used extensively in hip-hop could be an art-form: on his debut, he created an hour of captivating instrumental beats made entirely from samples. To build something so cohesive, and consistent, from such bizarrely diverse source material as War of the Worlds and Tears for Fears, is an extraordinary achievement.

Bob Dylan - Blood On The Tracks (1975)

Already Dylan's 15th studio album, this was seen as an overdue return to form after Dylan's 1960s peak. From this distance, it is one rooted in its era musically, with its swirling keys, jangling acoustic guitars and Dylan's plaintive singer-songwriter wail; but it is also a timeless narrative, of broken hearts and bruised egos, the universal traumas of trying to make love work. From the tender beauty of Simple Twist of Fate to the venomous, hilarious seven-minute Idiot Wind, this is Dylan at his best.

The-Dream - Love Vs Money (2009)

This underrated modern classic from the writer and producer of Beyoncé's Single Ladies and Rihanna's Umbrella (Terius Nash to his mum) proves not only that R&B production can be as jaw-droppingly unearthly as it was in Timbaland's early 2000s heyday, but that the concept album is not dead as an idea. As one full-throated ballad bleeds over into the next (a technique horribly disrupted by the shuffle button), Nash tells us epic tales of love, loss and rampant consumerism.

Nirvana - In Utero (1993)

It's not that Nevermind wasn't brilliant, or that it suffered from "filler" tracks; more that Kurt Cobain's final musical testimony before committing suicide was such a complete, coherent vision - sonically, lyrically, atmospherically, even in the sleeve artwork - that it deserves preserving against the playlist chopping block even more than its famous predecessor does. From the opening buzz-saw chords and acid sarcasm of Serve the Servants through to the heart-rending pathos of All Apologies, this is as close to perfection as Cobain would ever get.

The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds (1966)

Pop is not supposed to work in album format at all - the LP was only ever a vehicle for great singles, padded out with a couple of slow songs, maybe something experimental, and a lot of filler. Pet Sounds is a glorious, legendary exception to that rule, the perfect two-to-three-minute bursts of irrepressible melody on the likes of Sloop John B and Wouldn't It Be Nice augmented by the slower, darker territory of Caroline, No and I Just Wasn't Made for These Times.

Tricky - Maxinquaye (1995)

After making his mark on fellow Bristolian trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack's Protection, Tricky embarked on the first record of his long, rambling, often fascinating solo career, and it remains his strongest work. Accompanied by the haunting singing of vocalist and then girlfriend Martina Topley-Bird, like all the best complete albums, this is a journey, from the restless urgency in the dazzling reworking of Public Enemy's Black Steel to the mesmerising, sultry sonics and slow-treading beats that came to define trip-hop.

Joy Division - Unknown Pleasures (1979)

If "singles bands" struggle to make their discrete four-minute songs work as a collective entity on albums, Joy Division are the opposite: their two studio albums, this and Closer, come as complete packages that just cannot be divvied up. She's Lost Control may be the best-known song of the 10 on the Manchester four-piece's debut, but it just sounds wrong out of the devastatingly bleak, industrial post-punk context of the album: whether on the radio, or (heaven forfend) in a club.

Marvin Gaye - What's Going On (1971)

The soul legend's 11th studio album is not only one of the Motown greats, and a landmark record in black music, it is also virtually a "song cycle" in the classical sense, in that its nine songs tell a complete story (of a Vietnam veteran returning to a bleak, unjust America) which loops back on itself, ending with a reprise of the opening theme. It's also the finest example of the political power of soul music.