As I’m going through tons of albums to prepare a list of my favorite 2019 releases, many questions emerge. Most of them revolve around a bigger one:
How objective am I within my own subjectivity ?– Shroomie, using quote format to get a different font style
Obviously, no review will ever be completely objective since we are all so different. For example, I don’t generally pay much attention to lyrics (sorry), but anything with floots earns my heart. Keeping this in mind, can we individually be somewhat objective in our own way of reviewing albums? Can we identify what it is we value in music and have our own consistent rating system within our own framework?
Quick background : I started listing albums that got my attention this year (2019 releases) and as I (re)listened to them, I started ordering them by preference. However, I was quickly reminded of my poor memory and realized that I couldn’t really compare an album I heard today with one from two weeks ago. So, even though I hate rating albums, I started doing it without much thinking, just to help ordering. It went something like this :
7.5 = a pretty good album I’d recommend
8.0 = one that probably makes my top 20
8.5 = a solid, clear-cut top album
9.0+ = an outstanding album that makes it within my all-time favorites, or something like that
Eventually, I realized that my system was working fairly well :
As of today, after going through about 50 albums, seven have a score of 8.5, six have 8.0, and four have 7.7. The rest all have 7.5 or 7.0. This makes it way easier to then compare the same-rating albums to try and have something like a countdown. But what actually influences my rating? What is it that makes an album get 8.0 and not 8.5 ?
Allow me to try and dissect what makes an album a great album. But before we jump into what an album can offer, let’s take an honest step back and address a key factor:
Experiencing an album is like a trip. And like a trip, Set & Setting has a lot to do with how you will experience and perceive it. Your mood, energy, what you’re doing, where you are, on which device you are listening, will all affect your perception. I could go on but I think you get the point. Furthermore, being open to whatever you are about to experience before listening is also very important. We all have artists or even genres
(reggae) that we love and others that we think less highly of. But when going for a first listen, just like for a trip, it’s good to let go of these judgements and to fully open your ears and heart.
Now, back to the substance and how I determine whether an album is bad, decent, good or great.
Kids, gather aroundSnoop Dogg’s 2nd verse on Plastic Beach
Yeah, I need your focus
I used to worry about everything I mentioned above and think : Hmm.. I don’t clearly remember that album, maybe I wasn’t in the proper mood, or in a proper setting. However, after going back to these albums that didn’t catch my attention on the first play, the conclusion was always the same: It was good, but not great. I think that is in part because a great album will, at the very least once or twice, catch your attention while its playing. Plus, a song can get your attention without you noticing – by doing entering your subconscious, kinda like Joja discussed in his recent post. In that case you won’t instantly love the album, but it will come back in your head, and most-likely make you want to give it another spin.
So, a great album can do one of two things : 1) Draw your attention at some points (killer beats, catchy lyrics, crazy solos, vocals over jazzy melodies 👀 ) or 2) Never fully have your attention, but make you feel things even if you’re not focused on the music.
Both scenarios can be a starting point for what I could potentially consider a great album, which is why I don’t worry too much anymore about whether it’s the right time to listen to it or not. Interestingly, listening to an album differs from reading a book or watching a movie: it doesn’t need your full attention to be fully appreciated. It all depends on its purpose.
(2) Perfect Occasion
Some albums you get the best out of when paying full attention to the music. Others will be perfect in the background. Some are perfect during a party, a wedding, a road trip, a rainy road trip, a snowy road trip, a road trip at night, a snowy road trip at night in an unknown town after you’ve had a rough day but look forward to tomorrow. Ever had an episode where you question reality so much that you seriously wonder if your whole life could be a dream? Try listening to Taming the Dragon. There is an album out there for any specific occasion and mood, and any great album can work perfectly in at least one of them. In other words, there has to be a -possible- moment where you feel like listening to that album. And for an album to achieve that, it needs to be cohesive.
Even though themes or concept albums are interesting (see Deltron 3030), they are not necessary for an album to be great. The broader idea that they enhance is cohesion. I have heard albums full of great songs that are just all around the place and because of that I can’t say I find the album to be great. One example is Cotonete’s 2019 album Super-Vilains. My favorite song of the year is on it (Layla), it’s full of groovy tunes, and pretty much every track is very good. Yet, I cannot say it is a great album, simply because Layla feels out of place, and the rest of the album feels like at least 2 whole different vibes. It doesn’t stick together. It left me with the impression that the band is looking for their sound and could go for at least 3 different directions. But I’d rather have three cohesive albums than one that feels disjointed.
So how do you make an album cohesive? I think there is an infinite amount of ways, so you surprise me. But having a minimum of consistency in any of these could be a start : Sound, genre or style, musicians, lyrics, …). There are many ways to improve cohesion, and a big one is the song order.
(4) Flow / Track Order
A quick search confirms that there is a lot of song sequencing theory out there, and I’m not gonna get into it, not only because I’m lazy, but mainly because I don’t want to promote an ideology of how you should order your songs. I personally don’t care if your best song is first, third, last, or anywhere! Make it cohesive, or surprise me! In any case, shout out to this reddit user for comparing song sequencing with baseball batting). But if I don’t care for sequencing theory, why even address the subject then? Because of these three point :
Even if you want a somewhat homogeneous album for cohesion, you also want variations within that frame. Usually these variations will be present in two main aspects : Energy (low vs high) and Mood (low vs high) but you can play with others like reliability (or as I like to call it, Popiness), Styles, Instruments, Musicians (feats), etc. When properly used, these variations create a flow.
The flow of the album is (again, for me) key for a great album. But shroomie, what about beat albums? Well, ever listened to J Dilla’s Donuts? A smooth flow not only makes the album experience better, but it also has the following effect :
Songs make each other sound better
By having energy and/or mood and/or other features go up and down in a wayve that feels natural, each track will benefit from the previous one, and benefit the next one. But since most readers here are professional DJs, I didn’t have to tell you that. Also, it helps if every track is already great on its own.
(5) Every single track is good
Can you have a pretty poor song on a great album ? For me, that is a no. Experimental? Yes. Very short of very long? Yes. But something that just feels weak and that after the verse and chorus you feel like hitting the skip button? For me that has no place on a great album. Can you find a weak song on Radiohead – In Rainbows? I get that we live in a streaming era and artists are probably benefiting more and more from great singles rather than great albums (if that wasn’t always the case) but a great album is an album in which every song deserves its place and that you can enjoy. So, what is it that you enjoy ?
(6) Soul & Groove (insert your own criteria)
Since I mentioned that the purpose is to try to be somewhat objective within your own subjectivity, you can replace this one by your own criteria. Now I don’t know about you, but for me, a big part of what I enjoy in music is the amount of heart or spirit that musicians put into their vocals, instruments, and songs, as well as tasty grooves that make you bop your head or want to boogie. Just think of the smooth grooves of Azymuth – Águia Não Come Mosca, or the soul that is poured into every single solo -even the drums!- in Alfa Mist – Keep On (live sesh). I was about to go more in depth about these two elements but realized that I could write a whole post about them so I will keep it for later and spare you the details to stay on track by staying on albums. Nevertheless (running out of transitional words here), one thing I can expand on is that soul & groove can help generate feelings within the listener.
(7) Generates feelings
A 21st Century performance actor and philosopher once said :
Anything that moves you is art.Shia Laboeuf, in short-documentary ”Hot Ones”, 2019
It might be obvious that a great album will usually trigger feelings, but I think it’s both a (sometimes unconscious) reason why we love an album, as well as a good criteria to wonder ” was this a great album? ”. Sometimes everything is there: theme, variations, great lyrics and display of skills, yet the album doesn’t feel memorable. You will see songs from it in your playlists and think ” oh right, that was a great album, but I never went back to it… ”. That could be because few feelings emerge when you experience it. However, an album like Phase by Mildlife will instantly make you feel like you’re in for a comfy voyage in space in a way that is very…. how can I naturally blend this paragraph with the next one in a way that feels natural, in order to create a flow that makes every paragraph better…. hmmm, UNIQUE!
Although uniqueness is technically objective, its subjective for the artist (depending on what they have and haven’t heard) and for the listener (same reasons). Was Billy Cobham the first to play crazy drums over crazy electronic music on the opening of Stratus? Probably not, but hey, he killed it, and I’ve never heard anything like it. You’ve all probably heard some pop artist bring a certain musical element to light, and then witnessed someone say ” Wow they’re so original!! ” while thinking ”No, in fact, many have done it, it was taken from this artist who took it from them, who took it from…” But hey, you’re a music nerd. And a snob.
99% of creativity is A + B = C. Some people just put a mustache on C and sign their name on it, but that’s for another article. What’s the other 1% of creativity? It’s when you’re playing guitar on acid but its not a guitar, it’s a snake, and it’s the snake that plays you. Anyways, given that uniqueness is relative, if by being influenced by A, you successfully create a C, and that C inspires a wave of artists to add a D to it while still holding onto that C, you get AC/DC. Sorry.
Lastly, I hesitated to talk about if an album sticks in time (and I still hesitate, but as you can tell from that AC/DC joke, I’m getting tired). But really I feel like if you can check most of the points I already addressed, it will anyways. And if an album is great today, does it matter so much that it won’t be as great in a decade? However, it should be at least as good on the second listen and, ideally, better. That is why an important factor is depth.
Depth could be layers, lyrics, samples, or basically anything that you will only notice on a second, third or fourth listen. It can even be the background of the music. I just recently learned that one of my favorite albums : The Cinematic Orchestra – Man with a movie camera, was composed to play along a 1929 soviet experimental silent movie with the same name. The theme song builds up through a three part 6.5min progression before breaking into a sample, only to ‘slow down’ back into the first part. The sample can be heard at the very end of The Jimmy Castor Bunch – It’s just begun. And even if that wasn’t caught by whosampled.com, when I heard it, it drew my attention. Another way to get my attention is with the album cover.
(10)* Bonus : Cover Art
I’m adding this one as a ‘bonus’, because I believe that a ‘poor’ album cover can hold a great album, and vice versa. However, let’s be honest, especially crate diggers, cover art is a prime way to influence a listener that did not fully open his ears and heart to what they are about to witness (and we’re all guilty of that). What I mean is that we always have expectations, even if tiny, prior to listening, and some of them are due to the album art. I mean, have you ever heard a great Cumbia album that does not display round shapes?
I could write a whole article about cover arts, but I won’t. All I’ll say is that I think that just like great music, great album art is conceived without too much thought, and more with intuition. I think we deeply connect through symbols, and if an album cover speaks and gets my attention, I like to think that in some deeper way I connected with the artist (whoever made the art), just like we do through music. But enough with the trippy thoughts.
With a solid cohesion and flow, a great album can drive your chain of thoughts without you noticing. A great album can put you to sleep within 5 minutes. A great album can help you go through harsh times. A great album doesn’t have weak moments. It’s got whatever it is that moves you. It sounds unique, and reveals depth through many plays. A great album will make you want to spin it again, probably because of accomplishing many of these things at the same time.
To answer my sub-question ”Can I be objective within my own subjectivity?” : I think it’s getting clearer that the answer is: not really. I mentioned how you can open your horizons to new genres and styles. These breakthrough will more likely give more credit to the artist that did it, because if will feel very unique, when it might not be the case. Another element of subjectivity would be when you’re going through meaningful events. The music that will fit and magnify your feelings during these moments will forever remind you of those times. There is a reason why pop and recycled music is popular : we enjoy what feels familiar. And that is just part of why I think you cannot ever be completely objective.
”So, you’re gonna write a lanky article on what makes an album great, without giving us a chart that you could use to rate them?”Angry Bastard
Yup. What is it with us to always seek objectivity in any human experience anyway? Why does everything need to be in well defined closed boxes? Are we so insecure that we need to understand and justify all of our opinions and feelings, to the point of clumsily articulating them into a lanky blog post? Even after writing all this, I still use the same vaguely defined rating system, because at some point you have to accept that nothing remains still forever. Hope you still enjoyed the food for thought 🙂
What did you think? Did you agree with my points? Are there aspects I did not mention that are a key criteria for you? Let’s discuss in the comments! Have a great week you bastards!