High Variance


I’m old. I grew up wandering around record stores trying to decide whether to buy albums based on one or two songs I might have heard on the radio, cover art, and what I knew about the band. These were big decisions when I didn’t have much money and cd’s were $15-17 each.

Today’s online music world couldn’t be more different. Kids these days think about albums like they’re rotary dial phones–they download gobs of music for free (e.g., BitTorrent) or they just listen to whatever they want through Pandora or Spotify. And when they do actually shell out cash, it’s 99 cents per song.

But I live in the past and still agonize over album purchases. Prices have gone down and my income has gone up a little, but I like owning my music legally and I still like listening to the set of songs an artist chose to package together as an album. Over time though, I’ve developed a few rules to guide me in the decision process.

  1. Learn from previous purchases if the band produces albums with a few good tracks and filler. Madonna and Metallica both produce tremendous quality throughout while Katy Perry is more up and down. The younger the artist, the more careful you have to be (Yes I’m looking at you Justin Bieber!)

  2. “Best of” albums can be a treasure trove (e.g., Electric Light Orchestra or Heart) if original album quality is spotty.

  3. Beware of bargains–it’s those dreaded filler albums that are most often on sale.

  4. If you can restrain yourself from the impulse purchase, listen to the album a couple times through on Spotify first. A minute and a half sample often isn’t enough.

  5. iTunes has deluxe versions of many albums that contain remixes and the occasional music video. With YouTube, the video’s not much of a draw, but I never regret the remixes which are often better than the original versions.

  6. Just because it’s a concept album doesn’t you shouldn’t cherry pick the best tracks. Judas Priest’s Nostradamus just isn’t that good even though the second track (“Prophecy”) rocks.

  7. As bends enter the twilight of their careers, albums get worse and worse even though they can still produce individually good songs. Metallica and Depeche Mode are great examples. This is the bright side of a great band breaking up mid-career like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, or The Smiths.

Bottom line: The album may be dying, but it’s not dead yet. At least not in my little fantasy world.