We live in the age of the playlist. Spotify, today’s most important tastemaker for the discerning audiophile, is known not for its catalog of beloved albums or ability to accurately recommend esoteric ones but for its algorithmic generation of satisfying, customized playlists for each user. Pop stars are citing “the playlists [they] grew up with” as inspiration, invoking a phrase that, to someone like me who grew up before the age of playlists, barely seems to make sense. Clearly, the era of the album has long since passed and we are firmly entrenched in the era of the playlist.
Arguments in favor of playlists are easy and abundant and, to be fair, no less valid for their availability. Playlists are endlessly customizable, they can track any given mood exactly as its listeners desire, they eliminate the endless filler that has crowded so many albums over the years, leaving only the choicest cuts, the best of the best. There are no unwanted lulls in playlists, only hit after hit after hit, shot after shot of auditory amphetamine.
Playlists also offer a variety that albums definitionally can’t match. A playlist is a sampler platter, a sonic social media feed of different voices stacked back to back to back. Compared to albums, playlists are a more efficient way to consume a broader range of music. In an increasingly connected, hyper-paced world, the playlist is the most logical way to expose yourself to a wide selection of music.
But there’s still something special about listening to an entire album, front to back. Time is our most valuable asset and to turn a block of it over to a lone artist, allowing them to express a singular vision, is a distinct act of trust. To listen to an album from front to back is to allow patience to be a part of your listening, to force yourself to remember that not all satisfaction must be instantaneous. If listening to a playlist is like scrolling through a social media feed, a constant barrage of fast-hitting dopamine rushes, then listening to a full album is like going on a dinner date, languorous and intimate. There’s joy to be had in both, of course, but love, I think, is more likely to bloom from one than the other.