Isn’t it ironic that a book billed as a paean to the album form, an antidote to the age of the playlist, is itself a kind of literary compilation, with mini-essays from 50 authors on the albums that changed their lives? But Tom Gatti’s new anthology has all the hallmarks of a great playlist – the big hitters, the slow burners, the randomness of the selection, the relinquishing of control, the ones you never heard before, the ones forgotten by time.
Starting with a superb introduction by Gatti, an English arts journalist and deputy editor of the New Statesman, Long Players is informative and entertaining, charting the evolution of music formats over the past century, while giving glimpses of the cultural predilections and personal lives of the various contributors. Like a book equivalent of Desert Island Discs, the joy is in discovering what celebrated authors choose as their favourite music. The answers are considered, colourful and frequently surprising.
Contributors are mostly UK based and include novelists, poets, politicians and musicians. Ireland is represented by Colm Tóibín, who picks Give a Damn by The Johnstons (1969), and Eimear McBride, whose choice is Tindersticks by Tindersticks (1995). Both authors conjure a specific place and time: 14-year-old Tóibín “in the front room of a small house on the edge of a town in the south-east of Ireland” imagining a wider world courtesy of music; and McBride taking a solitary walk through Kentish Town as she listens to an album in which “bathos and tenderness are balanced throughout”.
She and other contributors draw attention to Long Player’s unique selling point: the sense of cohesion, of a beginning, middle and end, and the importance therefore of listening to the whole thing from start to finish. Sarah Hall’s vibrant, atmospheric description of OK Computer by Radiohead (1997) – “the album is so layered, imaginative, spatial, and strange” – also acts as a reminder of the deeper experience of immersion that can happen with an album, something a playlist lacks.
Although the CD is often cited by vinyl lovers as the death of music, Gatti’s introduction blames the arrival of Napster in the late 1990s and subsequently Apple’s iTunes with its shuffle function: “The contract between fans and the business – the tacit agreement about the ‘worth’ of a piece of music – had been broken … fans were buying individual tracks and shuffling them in one long groovy, silhouetted party. The album was being stripped for parts.”
Streaming sites such as Spotify have had further negative impact on music (and particularly musicians), but Gatti is optimistic about the album’s chances of survival: “For musicians, it remains the holy grail, the ultimate vessel for their art. It’s essential for both critical attention and commercial survival.” From a consumer perspective, the figures back up the author’s optimism and point to the cyclicality of trends. Since 2007, UK vinyl sales have increased by 2,000 per cent and in 2019, one in every eight albums bought was vinyl.
As with any compilation, some entries in Long Player are stronger than others and there is the niggling feeling at times that longer pieces would have brought more depth to the recollections. But that is a small point about a book that offers a captivating mix of memoir and music writing. Whether it’s Deborah Levy on David Bowie, Ben Okri on Miles Davis, Sarah Perry on Rachmaninov or Ali Smith on various artists (there’s always one), we understand the power of music to transport to older versions of ourselves, to different moods and eras.
Those contributions that stand out have clarity of expression, something that can be hard to do when describing an aural form. There’s Neil Tennant’s pinpoint depiction of Kraftwerk as “intellectual, electronic perfectionists [who] had an underrated gift for simple melodies attached to minimalist, modernist lyrics, somehow both bleak and romantic”. Daisy Johnson cites Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You (2019) as “a furious call for both self-sufficiency and universal care. Lizzo is capable of a soaring voice and a low, mesmeric rap. These songs are incantations, spells for better days.”
On the subject of better days, and the power of music to evoke nostalgia, which is to say an ache for the home that can no longer be accessed, there is Olivia Laing’s ode to REM’s Automatic for the People (1992), played in her teenage bedroom, “its air dense with a nineties funk of white musk and patchouli”. Elsewhere, Melissa Harrison’s choice of Movements by Booka Shade (2006) will appeal to anyone missing the delights of the after-party, blinds down, clocks hidden, “intense, collusive and hedonistic, deeply trusting and connected, but addictively, dizzyingly separate from the world”.
In this pandemic-riddled age, Long Players harks to good times past and better ones to come, through that most universal of languages – music.