Earlier this year, the American musician Kanye West released his album The Life of Pablo (TLOP). The album had made headlines even before its release for having been continuously delayed, for having its name and track listing changed several times, and for showing off other examples of its creator struggling to make a final call.
Intriguingly, that flux didn’t end when the album was officially released.
At least several times, Kanye decided to make changes to the official version. The reason he could do so was that albums are rarely physical entities now, but instead exist in the digital space. Which means that making changes doesn’t mean publishing a new run of CDs or cassettes, but changing some files online.
Kanye’s experimentation was hailed by some critics as a contemporary response to the music album in the age of digital. During a time when singles and iPods and streaming rule the market, albums are often seen as an unnecessary commitment.
Apart from music nerds, who exactly is meant to care for the album any more? There is an argument to be made that audiences still react differently to an album, and perhaps engage with it in a more sustained way than with singles.
The Guardian wrote how Kanye’s release showcased how “…we have lived with definitive stereophonic versions of songs and albums for a long time now, but the artistic scope that is available in making new and exciting work that is constantly transformed either by whim, committee or algorithm is huge.”
In all fairness, the debate seems a bit irrelevant at first. Apart from music nerds, who exactly is meant to care for the album any more, even with the new possibilities at stake? However, there is an argument to be made that audiences still react differently to an album, and perhaps engage with it in a more sustained way than with singles.
I began thinking of this just a few days ago when local artist Mooroo released his first album, Pehli. Mooroo has been one of the most recognised acts in the Pakistani underground scene, and he is one of its most multitalented members. Apart from an impressive singing range, Mooroo has also distinguished himself for a number of fantastic videos, including one which won the LSA for the best music video this year. He’s also released a number of singles over the years, all of which have been quite popular.
However, Pehli exists as a sort of departure from his previous work. While it builds on the versatility of Mooroo’s talents, it eschews the lighthearted adolescence of his previous work to focus on a very personal album, featuring far more adult worries and concerns in its lyrics. It immediately comes across not as a collection of his releases but a definitive body of work. It represents what an album should, which is a set of creative ideas that come together as greater than their sum.
But at the same time, can one release a conventional album, or even song, in this day and age? Especially in Pakistan?
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Allow me to explain what I mean by that. There has been a concern for some time that in order for your music to reach contemporary Pakistan, you need a gimmick. That can either come in the form of being part of a corporate show that handles all the publicity and comes with its own expectations of what music to make. Or it can come in the form of virality, leading to many people encountering the song.
The problem with virality is that the only songs that go viral have some appeal that exists outside the music. So you can either have Taher Shah go viral, which depends on the cult appeal of the singer himself. Or you can have something like 'Waderay Ka Beta', which is as much stand-up as it is a song.
There has been a concern for some time that in order for your music to reach contemporary Pakistan, you need a gimmick. But at the same time. I’d argue that virality is not a goal to pursue at all. Songs that have gone viral have rarely done anything for the musician. Once the hype disappears, there isn’t much to work with. But an album offers different possibilities.
But it's rare for an original song that doesn’t have any such hook to go ‘viral’. Even the most popular Coke Studio song this year, 'Afreen Afreen', benefited from the sudden popularity of one of its singers, Momina Mustehsan.
In this context, Mooroo’s album becomes even more admirable given that he himself has had plenty of success making his own sketch videos online. It would have been quite simple to combine that into his music, but on Pehli he avoids it.
And perhaps that isn’t as bad a mistake as one might think. Granted, the lack of gimmickry kills off any chances of the music going viral and gaining widespread exposure. But at the same time. I’d argue that virality is not a goal to pursue at all.
Songs that have gone viral have rarely done anything for the musician. Once the hype disappears, there isn’t much to work with. But an album offers different possibilities. The best example of this can be found with Noori.
After a decade in which they sporadically made music, Noori came back strongly in the past twelve months, and tried a bit of everything. They released an album, Begum Gul Bakaoli Sarfarosh (BGBS); they released a couple of collabarative singles; and they appeared on both Coke Studio and Cornetto Pop Rock. They followed both the traditional approach as well as the modern, PR-driven one.
Looking at the numbers of their releases on Patari however, a clear pattern emerges. Almost every song from BGBS remains in the most listened charts even a year after its release. In contrast, their singles (particularly from the corporate shows) have largely fallen away despite the massive PR undertaken by the corporate patrons. What that suggests is that audiences are reacting differently to their music, and that engaging with an album rather than a single still produces a more dedicated audience.
Of course, it can be argued that a band like Noori is an exception to the current rule. However, given all the obstacles and difficulties faced by musicians of any type in Pakistan, my hunch is that doing a little extra and making a full album will yield much better long-term results than a bunch of singles. Perhaps the problem is that we have become too blinded by the bright flashes of viral songs to realise that there is still a lot of room for longform commitment to music.
As always, lets end off the column with a look at the top 20 songs in Pakistan over the last fortnight.
Despite being released in the last few days of the period covering this charts, Mooroo has four songs in the top 20 from his album. His highest rated song is sandwiched by two different Noori releases, neither of them from BGBS however.
Predictably, Coke Studio has all the rest of the slots locked up, but keep an eye out for Muniba Mazari. Her cover of Noor Jehan’s 'Silsilay Torr Gaya' has been extremely popular since its release, and has hovered in the top 10 for a few weeks now.
Do albums still matter in the Pakistani music scene?