Do the Shuffle

iPod ShuffleHaving been, for nearly a week now, on the cusp of buying myself an iPod shuffle, I was reminded by my girlfriend that the principal mode of listening to music through this new device is antithetical to my own listening nature. That is, by habit, I still listen to songs in the mode of albums, and that I rarely will put iTunes in shuffle mode across my entire music library. When she said this, my reaction was first, “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” But then I thought about it for a moment, and I realized that she’s right. When I’m sitting here at my desk in our apartment, I’ll launch iTunes and play whatever albums I’ve recently acquired over and over — and over and over.

Old Listening Habits Are Hard to Break

This surprised me, because I had been flattering myself with the thought that I’d gone totally digital, that the old music industry constructs — the album format, physical discs, liner notes — were things I no longer had any use for. Before I lost it, having an iPod was the ultimate testament to that new mode of music consumption.

But it turns out that I’m more old fashioned than I had thought. I realized that I really do prefer buying music in albums, and having the physical disc stored away on a shelf while I listen to the MP3s on my computer. There’s something about the album format that still entices me, some kind of implicit suggestion that the artist has fleshed out a private little world with a life span of roughly forty-five minutes, and that, with repeated listens, some of that world’s secrets can be revealed to me.

You Can Never Go Back

Even with brand new albums from brand new artists, there’s an element of nostalgia at work here. The act of acquainting myself with and learning a new album accounts for some of the most intimate relationships I ever developed with music — or any art, for that matter. It’s a process that I used to throw myself into avidly as a teenager, when I had the luxury of lots and lots of undirected time. It’s a clichж to say, but the albums with which I went through that process became good friends. When someone puts on, say, “Psychocandy,” it’s like a trusted confidante just found my number in the phone book and rang me up.

That’s the kind of intimacy that is perhaps the album format’s greatest reward. It’s something that I think I miss quite a bit, and it’s likely the reason for my subconscious reversion to albums. Given the way that I structure my time and obligations today, it’s extremely difficult to achieve that kind of understanding of a new album, but I’m not a complete nostalgiast — I know it’s possible to find that kind of rapport with the music being made today. That’s why I keep playing this crap over and over and over. But, between answering emails, talking on my mobile phone and designing, this heavy rotation is a poor substitute for the hours that I used to spend in my room, headphones wrapped around my head, with my grimy little fingers paging through the liner notes of some recent release from the so-called indie underground.



  1. I too cherish the architectonics of the album. Even the passing of the A/B side distinction of records and tapes. Sometimes I’d be in the mood for the B side. Sometimes the A. Perhaps the difference was purely synthetic, but such structures served some kind of mental/emotional organizational purpose, in the very way so aptly portrayed in the movie High Fidelity.

    I do worry that the proliferation of online music services will kill off the album as a format, moving musicians to craft hit singles rather than crank for a year or two or ten on 40-minute tapestries. I don’t worry in a judgmental sense (as one may worry about violence on TV) but the single-based culture does emphasize the short attention span which so characterizes postmodernity. So do blogs, come to think of it.

    I’m a big fan of random though. I often come across music I forgot existed. Also I’ve lately been a big fan of some of the SomaFM streams. I often come across music I didn’t know existed.

  2. Agreed, but then again, the genius of the iPod Shuffle is that you can indeed listen to albums or put it on shuffle mode. I feel like the only real difference in listening ability between the Shuffle and other iPods is that with other iPods, you can kind of go between the two modes. For instance, you can listen to a couple of songs from an album and then easily skip to a couple of different songs from another album.

    With the Shuffle, it seems like it’s complete order or complete disorder… which is just fine with me.

  3. I’ve been thinking that the Shuffle sounds exactly right for someone who’s nostalgic about the album form (as I am). One of the problems with my ridiculously capacious iPod Photo is that every minute of the 18 days’ worth of music I own fits onto it, and sometimes I forget what I need to listen to. The iPod Shuffle can carry a few albums’ worth – say, the last five or ten I purchased – and force me to listen to them over and over, before moving them to the larger Pod for general when-the-mood-strikes listening. Of course, I’d have to carry BOTH around with me…

  4. I’ve slowly been rating all the songs in my library and I’ve settled on four stars as a good rating (only the best songs get five stars, I don’t have too many of those). I’ve created a smartlist which includes all my four star songs (in the 100s). I listen to this on random all the time and I’m always surprised how much I enjoy listening to this particular playlist. I could imagine being pretty happy with the shuffle if I used it to play a select group of favorites.

  5. I try to be diligent about rating songs in my library, but except for periods of unusual persistence, I usually slack on that. I can see how that would make for a good shuffle experience — it makes me want to get back to rating my library. But in this post I didn’t meant to imply that I wouldn’t enjoy the iPod shuffle. I definitely would.

  6. I just ordered mine. Sometimes I agree with the “experience of an album” sentiment but I’ve found recently that a shuffled mix from a single or group of related genres can make for an excellent listen. Can’t wait to play with the new Auto-fill feature!

  7. I totally agree with the notion of an album being like a friend. As fun as random play can be, I listen to complete albums more than anything. I sometimes feel like albums have become a lost art with the voracious drive to write the next hit single currently at work in popular music.

    Still, with a price point close to that of a USB flash drive I could see myself getting an iPod Shuffle as a USB drive alone that is smartly design by Apple. Plus that lanyard is just great for some reason.

  8. 19,6 days of music on my iPod photo and I mostly play from a 62 songs playlist. I though shuffle would be awful but I’ve been shuffling the last couple of days and it is great.

    I do miss the album format, just bought a couple and couldn’t get myself to store them on my shelves, I just keep them on my desk. I have to see the iPod shuffle in person, I probably end up buying one just for bike rides.

  9. I recently misplaced the power cable to my hard drive mp3 player and so on my walk to work in the morning I went back to listening to CDs on a CD walkman! I haven’t bought so many new CDs in a long time.

    When I got to work yesterday my friend was telling me about his portable turntable that he brings to the record store so he can listen to the records before he buys them. I need to go record shopping today…

  10. I just recently sold my 3rd gen iPod. It was well worth it and was used for it’s intended purposes but I really didn’t see all that much more of a difference over my MiniDisc(!) player/recorder. Which is smaller, runs on rechargable AA’s, lasts a lot longer and is great for taping shows/lectures/presentations, etc.

    While the appeal of having a good chunk of my music collection on my iPod was great, I rarely used the shuffle (I’d come across songs I didn’t like and would skip them but also come across songs I hadn’t heard in a while – the rating technique mentioned above would come in handy here) and like many above, love to hear albums.

    Tim mentioned that albums are a lost art – this is so very true. I feel that most mainstream music is a compilation of singles rather than a coherent whole. There are fewer and fewer albums which can be played back to back without skipping, etc. Which is why I think downloading mp3’s is a big hit – you get just that one song, but not the other crap.

    As for music players – it comes down to one’s own intended purpose: do you use it for road trips (as I did with the iPod w/ iTrip), going to the gym/cycling/active (iPod shuffle very useful here) or travelling via plane/train (regular iPod useful again).

    Both my roommate and her boyfriend both immediately bought iPod shuffles despite the fact that they both own 40GB iPods – why? Because as hardcore runners, they only need music that lasts as long and no one wants to futz around with finding a playlist etc when all you want to do is hit the road and hit play.

  11. Although I can certainly understand and relate to the nature of the art of an album (the “Psychocandy” reference holds for me, too), albums are as much a construct of technology as a digital single. In fact, think about singles and their length. They were limited by the number of grooves that could fit on a platter. The whole music industry BEGAN with singles. Higher density platters became a way for the music industry to make more money. Some artists embraced the format; others filled ’em with choss.

  12. The iPod caters to those with large music collections who want the control and portability of 10,000 songs in their pocket. Think audiophiles, hipsters, and early adopters.

    The iPod mini is for those who like that same control, but don’t have 40GB of music or anticipate needing that much storage anytime soon. The average music library is about 2GB or something like that, so this product is perfect for the average consumer. And hipsters.

    The Shuffle is for the casual music listener who just wants to take some songs along with them and doesn’t particularly care what order the artist intended to listen to them in. And hipsters. That’s it.

    To summarize:
    iPod: “I want to discuss the theme of the promise of American youth in the 1960’s as portrayed in Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’.”

    iPod shuffle: “Hey. ‘Good Vibrations.’ Awesome.”

  13. I love the idea of the shuffle, it is totally dead-on to what I need in a player. I never use the display on my ipod (it stays in it’s little neoprene case) and I always listen to it on shuffle. That and 95% of my listening is to and from work, so I don’t need to carry my entire music collection around with me for 1 hour a day of listening. 240 songs is more than a weeks worth, and I can ditch my USB memory key.

    note: the shuffle is also a lot better for athletic-types (not me), since solid-state devices don’t suffer skippage.

  14. I don’t get this whole ‘death of the album’ thing–the album is clearly not dead. Radio has always played singles first. If anything, there’s been a huge death of the single, since singles sold so much better back in the day.

    Meanwhile there are tons of great bands producing excellent, cohesive albums every single week. The biggest new band on the American indie scene, the Arcade Fire, produced a totally great 50-minute album. The album is alive as well.

    I’ll add, too, that though full-length albums are obviously a product of technology, they offer more aesthetic possibilities for artists to explore than the single, simply by virtue of combination and pacing. It’s the difference between a photo essay and a single photograph. So the album isn’t going anywhere IMO–I think it’s all just a lot of internet hype. Just because people download single MP3s doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have purchased singles 15 years ago, and it doesn’t mean that real artists aren’t producing albums.

    Also, I want an iPod shuffle after reading this psot.

  15. For the record, this article really hit home. After reading it, I realized that, like you, I never shuffled my songs. It was way to inconvenient anyway with my 3rd generation iPod. Albums sound better in succession, right? Well, today Apple released an update (2.3) for my iPod which changes it’s menu to match that of 4th generation iPods. I’m going to give shuffle a shot and see what happens. Who knows? Maybe I’ll enter the ‘shuffle craze.’

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.