“The Vinyl Countdown: The Album from LP to iPod and Back Again” by Travis Elborough

by Dave Thompson

In the quarter-century since a technology-boggled media informed us that the LP record was dead, and in the near-decade since its successor, the CD, was targeted by the MP3, we have more or less come to terms with the knowledge that, no matter what format our music collection is in today, it’ll be something else in a few years’ time. Any examination of why the music industry is in a slump might do well to think about that — is there any other consumer product that expects us to be grateful when the next wave of whatevers arrive, so we can spend our money on than our 43rd copy of Tubular Bells?

It wasn’t always like this. Between 1948 and the mid-1980s — that is, a period of almost 40 years, the LP reigned supreme. Unchanging and seemingly unchangeable, it was firmly entrenched when rock ’n’ roll arrived, and it would remain so throughout the new genre’s years of most telling importance, musically and technologically. Hard to believe, perhaps, that the electro bands of the ’80s relied upon precisely the same medium as the rock ’n’ roller clunkers of the ’50s, but they did and here’s why: Because it worked. It doesn’t matter where you stand vis-à-vis audio fidelity, sound quality and so on, the LP survived because it did its job. Nothing that has followed it comes close. Before you even think of arguing, think on this. When was the last time you wiped out half your vinyl collection with one ill-timed click of a mouse button?

These are among the issues mused upon by “The Vinyl Countdown,” a weighty tome dedicated to recounting the history of the album in all its forms, from cassette to download, from 8-Track to box set — in other words, the message, not the medium. If an artist recorded a bunch of songs and called it done, then it’s an album. What we then do with it is our concern, and that’s where “The Vinyl Countdown” racks up both its strongest points and its weakest moments.

On the face of things, the book is little more than a less-than-chronological sweep through the history of popular music from the late 1940s on, checking off artists and discussing their pretentions, outlining genres and analyzing their faults. But beneath the Elborough’s light-hearted text and behind the intense love (and knowledge) of music with which he makes his points, the more serious points still hit home. All the petty little details that he dwells upon with such fascination really were once crucial snippets of information. It mattered that Queen could boast “no synthesizers,” and that Martin Denny stole his trademark from a frog. It was important for Emerson, Lake & Palmer to buck the mid-’70s oil crisis by releasing a triple live LP, and the fact that we’ve largely forgotten that is justification for this book to be written. Read it and remember when music mattered to everyone, and that the album was the main reason why.

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