The significance of an album track list is greater than ever in the eyes of artists and record labels, a consensus highlighted by Spotify’s alteration to the album listening experience
Image: Bethany-Jo O’Neill
“Our art tells a story and our stories should be listened to as we intended” – @Adele on Twitter, 2021.
At Adele’s request, Spotify have removed the shuffle button as the default option to listen to albums. Instead, listeners are now encouraged to experience the work in the order set out by the artist.
When curating an album, artists undergo a process of decision making that informs where each track will fall in the collective. They do not design their albums to be randomly shuffled. The importance of this process is what Spotify have emphasised with this decision.
In an age where listening to albums digitally via applications such as Spotify is so popular, it is easier than ever for users to make the listening experience their own. This, however, was not always the case.
Gaz Brookfield is an independent folk and rock musician from Bristol who has written and released eight studio albums and seven live albums. With a wealth of experience backing his perspective, Brookfield highlighted how when vinyl was the primary method of listening to music, the track listing was much more important for a technical reason.
Brookfield said: “When choosing a track order in the past, when vinyl was the main format, most albums were ordered to consider side A and side B.
“So, track one on side A would always be a banger. Same for side B.
“The quieter, slower songs, with less instrumentation would always be at the end of the side.
“But this is for very practical reasons.
“The grooves in the vinyl are closer together nearer the middle of the record/end of the side.
“This means that they are not able to retain as much musical information as the longer, more spread out grooves at the outside of the record.
“Hence why album sides tend to end with quieter songs.”
Although Brookfield tends to adopt a more abstract approach to choosing a track list, there is still an element of ordering as though for vinyl production that comes into play. Brookfield said: “When choosing the track order for an album, I tend to let the songs dictate the order.
“There’s always a certain feel to each one, and it just feels right in a certain order.
“I do still order albums with the quieter songs at the ends of the sides.
“I realise that doesn’t apply to CDs or streaming, but it does automatically create a journey of pace and feel throughout the album.
“So whether that was done intentionally, or just because of the vinyl grooves, either way, it creates the album’s feel.”
For an experienced artist, deciding an album track list is a process that becomes more natural with each album. For an artist just starting out, deciding on a track list for a debut album can be a daunting prospect.
Following the success of recent release ‘Heath’, Montreal born singer-songwriter Olivia Khoury is currently in the process of preparing her debut album for release. Being so early on in the process, Khoury is still forming her opinion on how to order a track list.
Khoury said her initial thoughts on how an album should be ordered: “depends on the album and the artist’s creative process.
“Some artists have a whole linear concept behind the album, a storyline and clear progression.
“Others just compile songs from different spaces/places for an album… so it’s hard to judge.”
Khoury’s debut album seems as though it could be a mixture of the two methods. In a recent interview with Music with Bethany-Jo O’Neill, Khoury said the album will be: “a compilation of songs from the last three years.
“It’s going to be eclectic of course because it is French and English.
“It’s an album of all kinds of textures.
“I hope the sense of voyage will transcend itself to listeners.”
The importance an album track list has in the eyes of an artist is clear to see. Even in an age where playlists are beginning to pull rank, record labels are also continuing to prioritise the strength of an album.
Liam McMillan, who is the Label Manager at Small Pond, a growing independent record label in Brighton, said: “Although streaming platforms have slightly changed the way that people consume music, [the order of an album track list] is still very much an important artistic element for musicians to consider.
“With a lot of music we work on, there’s going to be a radio campaign and a PR campaign, so there is a process of working out which singles are going to be the best thing to push from that album.
“I think that feeds into the running order a lot of the time because you don’t want too many singles together.
“It’s nice to have them spread out a little bit, which encourages people to listen to the whole record.”
Although there is a focus on which singles are best for promotion, the main goal is always a successful album. McMillan explains: “The thing that’s going to build a very engaged fan base, which is essentially what you want to be doing with any artist, is going to be through the quality of that album.
“It’s great having one track that everybody likes, but if you don’t have other material that people are really going to get into, or a really interesting collection of tracks that you’ve put together, then people are going to lose interest.
“We’re trying to build something over a long period of time that’s sustainable and that can make a career for the artists we work with.
“We don’t just want one hit wonders.
“We want a solid album that people are always going to listen to, and that we’re going to create those super fans from that are always going to come back and always be interested.”
We want a solid album that people are always going to listen to
Through encouraging listeners to engage with an album in its original form, Spotify has heard and delivered on the wishes of the music industry. Although playlists and shuffling content are growing in popularity, the album should continue to be appreciated for what it is: a piece of art.
Brookfield said: “I guess it’s good that Spotify won’t allow you to shuffle an album, because when musicians choose the track listing order they often do it very specifically.
“Not always, but often I would imagine that is the case.
“It’s nice to know people have to listen to the album in the track order that was intended.”