The proliferation of MP3s, peer-to-peer file sharing, and streaming services like Spotify and Rdio have put ridiculous amounts of content at our fingertips and in our pockets. Some argue that all this music weakens our ability to appreciate it. Why focus on a full album when something potentially more interesting always lurks a click away?
One unintended side effect, for a generation raised on Napster, has been a renewed interest in vinyl. Not only does this old-school format force us to choose music with care and listen in longer chunks, but thumbing along with liner notes provides a satisfyingly immersive experience — perhaps the perfect antidote for audio attention deficit disorder.
iAlbums (free), released Tuesday, aims to recreate that feeling for anyone who’d rather listen on their iOS device than pony up for a turntable and some records.
Like VinylLove before it, iAlbums emulates the process of picking and putting on a record, laying out all the albums in your collection attractively on virtual shelves. After you pick one, though, the app’s interpretation of the vinyl experience gets a little less literal — and a lot more interesting.
Rather than trying to duplicate the old-fashioned record experience, iAlbums creates a spiritual successor of sorts. The app aggregates content from all over the web in a feed that’s meant to be perused while listening, just like grandpa’s liner notes. It includes lyrics, band biographies, pertinent news articles, interview snippets, and live performances among other things.
Listening to Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out pulled up news clips about “Portlandia,” the awesomely surreal hipster-skewering comedy co-starring SK guitarist Carrie Brownstein. It’s the kind of insight a static set of liner notes would never be able to give, considering Dig Me Out was released more than a decade before the show debuted. With iAlbums, old school fans of the band can check out what Carrie and company are up to now rather than just rereading the same old stale liner notes.
“We had such a great connection with audiences,” he explains, “and felt it [was] such a shame that all that excitement and bonding will end up in a Facebook Like that will soon be drowned by other endless amounts of content.”
He wanted an easy way for fans to connect with an artist’s wealth of media and information, and figured the easiest way to do so was to put it in the music player itself.
A single tap takes you from a more traditional “now playing” screen to the app’s content feed, where you won’t find the tabs segmenting different types of media that we expected to see there. Keeping text, images, and video clips all together like that may seem confusing, but we found it made for a pleasing, exploratory browsing experience — like a well-curated Tumblr devoted to whatever band you’re listening to.
We also like that browsing iAlbums’ content never gets in the way of the music. After you watch a video, for instance, the app plays the album from wherever you left off, while tapping text and image links doesn’t stop the music at all.
A good deal of the content comes from AllMusic and Wikipedia, which is a shame. The interface and ideas behind the app are great, and they deserve better content than the mostly bland reviews and band biographies from those sources. However, the developers say the experience will be constantly updated, so there’s reason to believe it will only get better with time.
For vinyl junkies, an iPhone app could never truly replace the experience of listening to records, and iAlbums doesn’t try to do that. Instead, it takes some of the best parts of that experience — carefully choosing an album, listening, and reading the liner notes — and cleverly updates them for us “digital natives.”