The greatest thing about music is how every single person’s taste differs. People reading this will love bands I hate and vice versa, and there is no question that that is how it should be. If everyone liked the same music, all the artists would sound the same and it would lose the heart and soul that makes it special. In these blogs I will never question an individual’s music taste – I despise people who do. So, with that being said, it makes the answer to the title very difficult indeed as it all comes down to personal choice. My favourite albums include Californication and Origin of Symmetry, which were both very successful but weren’t met with universal praise nor did either reach #1 in their native charts. There’s no individual recipe for success however I believe there are certain aspects that, if followed, can make an album particularly special.
Maybe the first point to consider when looking at this is that albums are becoming less and less important. In 2014 so far, the #1 singles are being dominated by pop acts such as Pharrell while the #1 albums are a more mixed bunch with the usual pop acts being joined by Bombay Bicycle Club, Kaiser Chiefs and Elbow. I can think of two reasons for this, with the first being that the more successful artists in the download (shudders) era are the ones who sell the most singles rather than albums. Therefore, musicians such as Katy Perry, Rihanna and Rita Ora aim to get multiple number one singles and maybe a week at number one in the album charts as a result of the sheer load of singles. For example, Rita Ora’s first album was top of the charts for a week yet had 2 number one singles while Kaiser Chief’s Education, Education, Education & War spent 2 weeks at number 1 without spawning a top ten single.
The other aspect of this chart disparity will be because artists are in the music industry either to sell singles or sell gig tickets. Bands such as Muse and Bombay are never going to have multiple #1 singles but are known for being good live and, as a result, make good albums so they have a lot of songs to play. As there are two different types of acts, there are two different types of albums. Those that with one listen the listener can pick the good songs from the bad ones and those that all songs seem to be at a similar level of quality, good or bad. Both kinds can produce great albums, although you are more likely to enjoy the latter.
So what makes a great album? For me it boils down to three things: the second single, album tracks and putting the songs in the right order. Obviously, the first single is important as it introduces people to the sound of the album, is most likely to generate chart interest and therefore entice new fans. The first single needs to appeal to old fans and to bring in new ones, which is no mean feat, but it is the second one that is more important for me. First of all, the lead single is chosen as the most industry-friendly song, while the second is usually the one which the artists prefer. The second single gives you an insight into two things. How the artists themselves view their record and how good an LP it is overall. I find that on a lot of occasions the second single is actually better than the first, such as Starlight, Biblical and Paradise.
I usually wait until the second single to buy an album, unless they are one of my favourite bands. Once I’ve listened to the songs I know, I don’t just ignore the album. Which brings me nicely onto album tracks. Those songs that artists don’t release, which casual fans ignore but hard cores adore. I’m a big fan of album tracks, they separate the talented musicians from the industry generated hit makers. The one band I have in my collection that walks the line between those two is Coldplay. There’s no question they have released great singles in the past, with usually one or two per album but then the albums themselves (with the exception of Viva La Vida) are incredibly poor. The best albums are the ones where all of the songs are of a similar good quality, where picking singles is a difficult task, such as American Idiot or So Long, See You Tomorrow. Even if the album has 5 or 6 standout tracks (such as Californication), it can be one of my favourites as long as the others aren’t poor.
Obviously you usually expect the singles to be better than the album tracks. However, there are some albums where the album tracks are so bad they are nothing more than fillers. For me, there is a stark contrast between simply not being the quality of singles and being a filler. By fillers, I mean songs of little quality used so the album isn’t simply a collection of singles and these are usually more apparent on pop artist’s albums, although not limited to. Most albums are a collection of singles, good album tracks and fillers (Employment by Kaiser Chiefs: I Predict A Riot, Saturday Night and Team Mate) although I think it can be agreed that the best album have fewer fillers than good album tracks. It goes without saying that the best albums are those with no tracks you class as a filler; with Absolution springing to my mind as an example. The beauty of combining a live band with good album tracks is that these, while present on the album tour, become rarities on later tours. Fillers are rarely played so the best albums can be judged by which album tracks get played 5 or 6 years after the release. For an act designed to release singles, the set will invariably just be a collection of hits so set lists are a good judge of which albums the artists prefer.
The third aspect I mentioned was the order of the songs. While not as important as the two above, it is advantageous to avoid the album sounding disjointed and carelessly put together. For an example, I’d describe Franz Ferdinand as well put together. Starting slowly, Jacqueline kicks in and the energy doesn’t stop. The songs flow and so if you listen to it in the order that it’s been made you don’t ever question the song choice. You can tell an album is organised well if you can’t stop listening to it in order, especially on a device which shuffles songs. One possible stumbling block is if an artist tries numerous different styles on the one album and interchanges them. On the rare occasion this could work, but usually it just sounds like they have drawn lots for songs. To combine styles and make it work, look at Repent Replenish Repeat by Dan le sac vs Scrioobius Pip. That record starts off with a dub step vibe, before transforming smoothly into a more mainstream, less heavy electronic sound.
With hindsight, perhaps an easier article to write would have been about what makes a bad album. At least we could all agree there that some mediocre singles, dreadful album tracks which are mainly fillers and a disjointed feel to the album would make the worst album ever. In truth, even if the first and second singles are good, the album tracks are decent and the order is fine the album might not get the recognition it deserves. There is no definitive guide to making a great album; I’ve just explored some ideas that popped into my head when thinking about my personal favourites. You, as a reader, will like different stuff to me. Maybe you prefer the Coldplay approach, with one or two incredible songs and 10 decent to boring ones or maybe you don’t buy albums at all.
If you don’t then may I be so bold as to suggest that you do? You learn a lot more from a physical album than you do from downloaded singles. You get to hold a piece of that artist in your hand and listen to it over and over again. Albums and music are timeless, a reflection of how the artist felt at the time of writing whether it be about love, politics or whatever. Cherish them, even the ones you don’t like, as time and effort were put into every single LP you buy. Never be ashamed to like a band or album based upon public perception and try new styles as not to limit yourself to the same genre. Once you have done that, you can decide for yourself what you like best from albums. Obviously I’d recommend you start with any album I’ve mentioned here but your taste may vary from that.