"An album is a collection of recordings, released as a single package on gramophone record, cassette, compact disc, or via digital distribution. The word derives from the Latin word for list." - Wikipedia

An "Album" is an LP

While it may be true that an "album" can describe a CD, cassette tape, even 8-track tape, an album, as the term is used here, is an LP.

A Little History

What is referred to here as an "LP" disk began life as a cylinder in Thomas Edison's lab in 1877. The cylinder was about the size of an empty toilet paper roll (no denigration intended). As with all of Edison's inventions, his team of now-mostly-anonymous inventors tried numerous materials (beginning with tin foil) before settling on wax. A worm gear (you have to see one to understand the term) moved the "mandrel" (think spindle) holding the wax cylinder at a constant speed (actually faster than future LPs). A "stylus" (from the Latin stilus, meaning a pointed instrument for writing on wax tablets - talk about ancient technology) cut into the wax to create the groove and the playback machine had a stylus that ran in the groove. As the sound changed, the groove went up or down. A trumpet-like horn served as a crude amplifier and became associated with record players for decades. And a cool advantage: the "phonograph," as it was called (Greek for 'sound writer'), could record, as well! The user "erased" the wax cylinder by shaving a layer of wax off the cylinder. Between normal use and erasing, folks went through wax cylinders quickly, after about a hundred uses or so. The Great Depression in 1929 killed off wax cylinders, that being the least of its casualties.

Realizing the shortcomings of wax cylinders with sound on them, Emile Berliner thought to put the sound on a disc in 1888. Instead of a worm gear, the "platten" or platter that the flat disc was laid on spun at a constant speed, at least as constant a speed as possible for the time. The discs, however, small (5" in diameter) and had sound on one side only; They resembled the later 45s that held a "single" song, hence the name single; sometimes things get names that make sense - sometimes. The material used changed over the years from wax to shellac then to the vinyl we know and love so well. The record itself, however, spun at 78 RPM (revolutions per minute) so could only contain about five minutes of content. It was this limitation that produced the concept of the album; if a performer wanted to release several songs, and therefore several records, they would need to be packaged in a book-like contrivance that resembled a photo album. They can still be found at yard sales that take place at very old houses.

Columbia Records changed the speed to 33 1/3 RPM in 1948 with the introduction of "LP," or Long Play records; they could hold alot more stuff. The sound was monaural, or mono, meaning only one speaker, for another ten years, when stereo was introduced. Although stereo was used in movies as far back as Walt Disney's Fantasia in late 1940, it wasn't until the 60's that it became the preferred standard. To put it in perspective, early Beatles records were monaural. Some engineers tried to convert mono records to stereo but the results were noticably inferior. Like sending the lower frequency sounds to your left ear and the higher to the right; that gets annoying and sounds phony (hence its name, "pseudo-stereo").

The material used for the stylus, that is, the thing that scratched the record to produce sounds, was originally made of steel. While this worked, the sound quality was what you would expect: metallic. Other materials were used, but steel was the stylus of choice for consumer record players until the introduction of LPs, which required a better "needle." Sapphire and diamond could be cut to fit the smaller groove needed for longer play and the sound was better. Much better.

The process of recording was more or less the same: sound vibrations caused a stylus to cut a groove in wax or vinyl. As the sound changed, the characteristics of the groove changed. We stayed with this basic method for most of the 20th-Century, with the introduction of audio tape changing how the sound was recorded, but the production of LPs still needed a stylus cutting a groove in some form or another, at least to create the first, or "mother," disc. Vinyl LPs were then pressed from the mother. Sounds strange, doesn't it?

Issues in Productions

Of course, the "mother" got worn out after a number of pressings, and if you were the fortunate one who bought the LP pressed near the end of mother's life you got a crappy recording. But you didn't know it was the record's fault, did you? How could you? The sound was what it was and you really had no way of knowing that you got a bad copy until you heard someone play their copy that, surprise, surprise, was made at the beginning of mother's life. It was this variability that doomed the LP, in addition to the fact that playing the record (which is what you were supposed to do, right?) wore it out. Solution? By another copy. That gets old, in a large library.

What you ended up with was a thin piece of black vinyl, about 12" in diameter, with one groove in a concentric circle, encased in a cheap, paper sleeve that was itself encased in a cheap, paperboard sleeve (think cereal box). Easy to break, scratch, melt, warp, you name it. Cheap seems to cover it. And fragile.


Enter audiophiles. The idea was to use as little friction as possible while playing the LP. A whole industry sprang up around creating ways of playing LPs that got the most out of them without ruining them. A whole regimen was introduced: 1) Use softer sleeves to hold the LP (paper scratches); 2) Store them vertically (stacking them flat smashes the vinyl); 3) Touch only the edges of the LP (fingerprints could be heard); 4) Before putting the stylus to the LP, gently clean the disc (there were cleaning solutions, etc); 5) Gently drop the balanced stylus to the LP and ensure no one moved near the player, lest the stylus be jarred. Oh, and don't play the record again for 24 hours: the vinyl had to cool down. Sounds insane, but we did what we could with what we had.

Limitations of LPs

Releases by artists from the era of LPs were restricted by two overriding factors: 1) An LP could not hold more than about 45 minutes of performance and 2) There were two sides. Artists who wished to release performances longer than 45 minutes had to either trim the work to fit or release an album containing more than one LP. And if they wished to release work that would not fit on one side of the LP, or about 22 and a half minutes, they were forced to make allowances for the listener to get up, flip the LP over and continue the piece on the second side. Because the LP had to be flipped over to continue listening, side two can be considered a separate entity from side one. In fact, it is not uncommon to find the biggest release from the album opening side two.

While there exist LPs that contain more than 45 minutes of content, that was the self-imposed limit for the majority of the lifespan of LP production.

Custom Tapes

Cassette tapes are another entire story but this site will not go too deeply into that. One great benefit of audio cassette tapes is the creation of custom tapes, ie, tapes that only had the songs you wanted. My older brother would give me a list of songs and my job was to get all the albums together and record a tape to order. No problem. Or you could just copy the whole LP. They even made cassette tapes 90 minutes long, 45 minutes on each side - perfect for an LP a side. Makes you wonder why there was so much less screaming about copy-protection back then. Think of it: your buddy had the latest Tull LP and everybody made copies.

Enter the Compact Disc (for Better or Worse)

Enter the era of CDs. The first album released on CD was Billy Joel's Grammy-winning 52nd Street, released in 1982 and running just over 40 minutes long. A remastered release arrived in 1998. A number of issues arrived with the introduction of this new media, some good, some bad. For artists, the 45 minute restriction had been replaced by a more extravagant 80 minutes. Albums that had to span two LPs could now be released on one CD. And the nuisance of having to get up, turn the record over to listen to side two is gone, as there is no side two of a CD.

"Do I Have to Hear That Again?"

But with this change comes a few frustrating issues. For some reason, the idea of just simply putting the contents of an LP on a CD is too much for some and they chose to add material that was not on the LP, called "bonus tracks." Some of these can be enjoyable, but the album is generally best left as released. Especially for those of us who want only a modern version of a favorite record. Sometimes non-musical content is added, as in the case of Brain Salad Surgery, the reissue of which contains a 13 minute, 41 second track named "The Making of Brain Salad Surgery."

While this could be either good or bad, these additions bring up a new obstacle: they cannot be removed from the CD. If the CD is put in a player, the content will play whether the listener wants it to or not. They must turn off the player or switch CDs before the "bonus" content begins. Consider "The Making of Brain Salad Surgery." While someone can listen to Brain Salad Surgery more than once, they may not want to listen to "The Making of Brain Salad Surgery" every time the CD is played. The solution: burn a custom CD without the bonus content. This begs the question: why buy the CD? For the sake of economy, downloading only the tracks you want (meaning the ones on the original album) from a source such as iTunes works well and then burn a CD. Kinda reminds you of custom tapes, doesn't it?

Who's Next, Lifehouse and "Bonus Track" Excess

A great example of "bonus track" excess is The Who's Who's Next. The original LP contains 9 of the best songs they ever performed and ends with one of their signature songs, a marathon wonder called "Won't Get Fooled Again." A great song to end a great album. The 1995 reissue, however, includes seven extra tracks, including a second version of "Behind Blue Eyes." The 2003 "Deluxe" edition goes even further: now there are 2 CDs, containing three versions of "Won't Get Fooled Again," two of which are on the first CD. You may enjoy the opportunity of hearing alternate versions of great songs, but not on the same CD. There's a reason the band chose the version they did and they chose it to also end the album. Once.

Some consideration must be given for the original context of the 9 songs; they were created as a part of Townsend's Lifehouse project, which did not get to the result he intended. For reasons explained better by folks more learned on the topic, Lifehouse was abandoned and Who's Next was created in its place. But the band ran into the 45 minute limit; Who's Next runs for 43 minutes and 38 seconds. If we consider the songs left off, because of time contraints, we missed hearing "Pure and Easy" and "Join Together," which Townsend has said were crucial to the story of Lifehouse. Townsend did eventually create the project, as best he could, as the Lifehouse Chronicles, released in 2000, containing 24 tracks over 2 CDs.

Even if we use the rationale that the reissue would contain songs originally written for Lifehouse we run into contradictions. While "Pure and Easy" is rightfully included, "Join Together" is not included in either reissue. We instead get "Baby Don't You Do It" written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and "Naked Eye," neither of which were ever part of Lifehouse but were recorded during the sessions for Who's Next.

So the result is a mix of tracks bunched together, added at the end of a great album, with no apparent overriding context other than that they were recorded at the same time as the rest of the tracks. That does not seem to be a good enough reason to include them. If the aim was to recreate Lifehouse, then recreate Lifehouse; don't toss songs together for no apparent reason other than to fill an 80 minute CD. Or follow the example of other artists and release unreleased songs on a CD called, something like "Unreleased Songs."

Townsend was so prolific that The Who could very well have recorded and released more albums than they did. Why so many songs went unreleased and unrecorded is not known.

Who's Next is on numerous lists, including Guitar World's Greatest Classic Rock Albums list, Time magazine's 100 best albums of all time, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and is 28 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. These judgments, presumably, are attributed to the original collection of nine tracks, not based on the reissues with the extra tracks.

Content on LP=Content on CD

Some CD releases honor the original LP release, to our benefit. For example, Hotel California ends with "The Last Resort" on LP and CD. But "Wasted Time" ends side one and "Wasted Time (Reprise)" begins side two; this arrangement sounds odd on CD.

Abundant examples exist of fidelity to the original release, most notably in Bob Dylan's discography. All of his original releases contain the same content on CD as they did on LP. While Dylan was known for recording far more than he released, these tracks do not show up on the reissues; rather they are on bootlegs released later. In fact, Columbia has officially released all of the bootleg tracks on numerous CDs, belying the idea of bootlegs, defined by Wikipedia as "an audio or video recording of a performance that was not officially released by the artist or under other legal authority." They may be more rightly called outtakes or unreleased songs.

Not Enough Content

In some cases, there was insufficient content for the LP at the time. "Lucky Man" was included on the debut album Emerson, Lake & Palmer because the record company wanted the album to be full; the addition brought the running time to just over 41 minutes. Reports are that Emerson and Palmer didn't think it matched their style; it didn't. "Lucky Man" went on to be one of the band's most famous and most popular pieces.

Two Album Sides: Two Music Styles

In some cases, an album side is considered a discrete example of the artist's work, such as the four distinct styles represented on the four sides of Stephen Still's Manassas. Each of the four sides of the album contain very different music, but sides one and two are on one CD. Try this: listen to disc one of Manassas and notice the radical switch in music as what was side one leads into what was side two. Certainly Stephen Still did not intend this. Proof is contained in the naming of the sides of the LPs: The Raven (a very bluesy, funky toe-tapping collection), The Wilderness (very country rock), Consider (very similar to his work with Crosby and Nash) and Rock & Roll is Here to Stay (rock and roll, as the title portends). This is not a small thing; to circumvent this, you could rip the CDs and create custom CDs that contain only one side of an LP each. Again, why buy the CD? Manassas is a truly remarkable accomplishment and was built around the restriction of LPs; in fact, it works best because of the "limitation" of LPs.

Bob Dylan's revolutionary Bringing It All Back Home is famous for the rock-side, folk-side mix that represented his changing of style. Flipping the LP over put the listener back in time to Dylan's pre-electric era but was still a move away from his previous lyrical content towards a more introspective voice. How to render this on CD? There seems no easy answer, other than to release 2 CDs, which would not be an easy sell to consumers. Best to let the change speak for itself.

The Nefarious Record Changer

Most multiple LP releases followed the pattern of sides one and four on one LP and sides two and three on another, thereby working with a record changer to play the sides in order. But that's only if you used a record changer. Even then, you were aware of the transition from side one to two because of the sound of the changer, well, changing. This was audible even through headphones.

"Continued on Side Two..."

An example of this is Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery, with "Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Pt. 1" at the end of side one and "Karn Evil 9: 1st Impression, Pt. 2" beginning the second side. On both the album and the CD side one ends with a fadeout, ended on the LP by the toner arm lifting and on the CD by a much shorter fadeout and fadin. This produces the famous line "Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends..." that became the title of their live album following the tour supporting the release of Brain Salad Surgery. Here again is a solution to the disconnect of content ending on one side and continuing on the second; Greg Lake's lyrics make this work to great benefit.

Loudness and Remastering

LPs have a limitation that CDs do not: CDs can be much louder. Because of restrictions inherit in the physical design of the LPs themselves, mastering engineers (who prepared the recording for pressing to LPs) had a limit of volume they could not exceed. This limit is removed with CDs, to be replaced by a higher, thus louder, limit. When the time came to produce CDs from content released on LPs, this higher volume limit was not utilized at first, so releases early in the history of CDs are noticebly quieter than CDs produced later (beginning in the 1990s).

Also, first generation CDs tended to be produced from less than best quality masters, and instead of having better sound than the LP it replaced, it may have worse sound. Audiophiles were initially reluctant to switch from LPs to CDs because of this.

This led to a surge in "remastered" albums. As part of this process, sound engineers and artists could go back to the original source material (if it still existed) and create new masters at the higher level, thus producing louder CDs. From the consumer's perspective, this meant replacing their "old" CDs (which had replaced their LPs) with the new louder, remastered CDs. The difference in sound level is quite apparent and somewhat jarring. Try putting an older CD in your changer, followed by a newer one and notice how quickly you leap to the volume knob.

One result of this phenomon is the re-examination of the source material. In addition to remastering the content, the creation of a new master may require re-mixing the album altogether. Artists could "tweak" the performance and thereby improve the listener's experience.

Another result was bonus tracks. Record executives, foreseeing a "soft" amrket for remasters of LP releases, would insist that content be added to entice listeners to discard their "old" CDs for "newer, better" CDs. Or at least CDs with more content, such as documentaries or interviews. This excess of content moved to DVDs and to BluRay discs when they arrived. But the viewer could decide to ignore the additional content, while CDs listeners cannot.

"Enhanced" CDs

Album Art

One of the most missed aspects of LPs is the container they came in. Originally little more than protection for the LP, a place to put the name of the record and a picture of the band, LP covers, about a foot in diameter, created a large enough canvas for art that is still discussed today. Examples include Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Brain Salad Surgery, The Dark Side of the Moon, Abbey Road, etc. Abbey Road, in fact, was at the epicenter of the "Paul-is-dead" story (I typed "hoax" but changed it). Some album covers had to be changed after controversy erupted, such as the original cover to the album Blind Faith, by the supergroup of the same name, which showed a topless 11-year old girl. The US distributors required a more neutral image, but the original image appears on the CD reissues.

An example of album art gone extreme is Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones, which shows the crotch of a jeans-clad man and included a working zipper (that revealed cotton briefs when unzipped). Naturally, this album stood out. I mean literally: it was thicker than any other album of the time. In fact, retailers complained that the zipper was damaging the record; it was then released unzipped to the middle of the record (where the spindal hole is).