What makes a great album?
Going away on a little trip and will have no time to blog, so I’m gonna steal a pretty terrific article from the United Kingdom’s Guardian that’ll hopefully keep y’all entertained until I get back. Enjoy!
There is some careless talk about digital downloads signaling the death of the album. So before it becomes obsolete, we’d better figure out what makes the LP a thing of wonder.
Where did the album come from? Many assume that technology has determined the length of the release. And it is true that recording length has generally followed technological constraints: the 45-minute LP and the 70-80 minute CD. However, both of these technologies were partially guided by music, not the other way around. The speed of revolution, size and other factors of the LP were set by its developers, Colombia Records, to accommodate 45 minutes, enough time to hold the majority of classical compositions. Popular artists then began to fill up these LPs with collections of songs and, eventually, musicians from Sinatra through to the Beatles were creating full-length artistic statements. Moving forward a few decades and allegedly Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 was used to determine the length of a CD. Many artists felt pressurized to fill the entire capacity of a CD and the overlong album was born. I’ll be intrigued to see how many great albums you can name from the CD ages that are longer than 70 minutes.
So what do we need for a fully satisfying album experience?
A theme, or dare I say a concept, is going to help an album hang together. As a 14-year-old my favorites were Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime, but in 2008 everyone from The Week That Was to Kanye West has released what could be termed a concept album. This can be a simple lyrical theme that unites the tracks, or it can extend into the music itself like Brian Wilson’s recurring themes in Smile’s song cycles.
Many well-known concept albums have pretty loose threads holding them together, but an overarching idea grabs the attention and is far less confusing than, say, trying to listen to Mastodon following Sibelius and Bill Withers when your iPods on shuffle mode.
A theme is often a fragile creation, sometimes existing only in the minds of the listeners having been told they are listening to a concept album. Often, it can hinge on such nebulous factors as…
There is no doubt that well-chosen artwork and packaging can lend an album coherence that may not exist in the music itself. Black Sabbath’s first six albums form an inky black hole in my CD shelving, sucking the music into a grainy doomscape that isn’t always present in the songs. The Cure’s Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me’s red lips are impossibly fruity and lead you into a rich kaleidoscope of styles, while the equally diverse singles collection Staring at the Sea will always be a grey, wistful listen thanks to the old man giving me his eternal sad stare from the cover. The debut album by post-rockers Tortoise, wrapped in brown card, is the brownest aural experience I can imagine. If they had put a rabbit being sucked into a multi-colored galaxy on the cover, perhaps I wouldn’t have this association. Talk Talk are eternally weird and artificially exotic, like their cover art, while the Flaming Lips are normally a riot of psychedelic color. Who has the blackest album: Jay-Z, Prince or Metallica?
How it all hangs together
So does my love of a good theme exclude albums without one? Can we not admit greatest hits albums into the hall of excellence as does Garry Mulholland in his wonderful book Fear of Music? Of course we can. Even though an explicit theme makes it easier to follow an album through from start to finish, perhaps great bands automatically convey their own musical thread through their idiosyncratic style. For some this will be in the composition, for others it will be in the production. Some bands go to greater lengths than others to ensure that their compilations have some integrity. Normally this will be careful mastering and sequencing, but Madonna took it the extra mile for the Immaculate Collection, hiring Shep Pettibone to oversee the project and remix all the songs so that they hang together better.
If we are going to be purist then we shouldn’t consider Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti to be a great album, as it spans recording sessions from three previous records to bump up one and a half albums’ worth of new material into a double album. Interestingly, it is easy to hear these differences, but the effect is minimized by mixing the eras up so that only two consecutive tracks (Trampled Under Foot and Kashmir) were recorded at the same sessions. However, like Pettibone’s work with Madonna, a quick glance at the credits shows that all tracks bar one were mixed or remixed with Keith Harwood at Olympic Studios, which gave the album added coherence. These days, a raft of über-producers brought together by a musical coordinator is not uncommon, but whether it leads to great albums by Gwen Stefani is open to debate.