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iTunes has killed albums, but that's not a bad thing

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John Lennon, Paul McCartney
Mccartney and Lennon: Bob Gomel/Getty Images

Here’s an irony for you, with a pop twist. Despite the rise of downloading, CD sales have inched up: In 2004, about 2 percent more discs were sold than during the previous year. A few more people, at least, are buying albums.

Yet, in spite of that statistic, the album itself — that revered, long-standing way of absorbing music — has never meant less in the culture. And I have to admit that I’m of two minds — or should I say ”sides” — about the situation.

You remember albums, don’t you? I’m being cheeky, of course, since truckloads of new releases arrive every week. By ”album,” though, I don’t mean just the concept of a cohesive set of songs by a band or a musician. I also mean something — LP, cassette, or CD — that gives you the experience of being engaged from beginning to end. In the MP3 era, the long-playing format, which begat everything from Rubber Soul to Blood on the Tracks to 3 Feet High and Rising to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, feels like a primordial beast from an unnamed prehistoric era. One current exception is Green Day’s American Idiot, a story-driven disc that self-consciously harks back to the days of Tommy and Quadrophenia. For its effort, the band has been rewarded with a million-seller and six Grammy nominations (including one for best ”album,” appropriately enough). But American Idiot feels like a last stand, an homage to a now-discredited way of making a grand statement. Those who champion it sometimes seem like citizens cheering on doomed soldiers in an unwinnable war.

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