Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Great Album

I was asked the other day what I look for in an album. What makes an album great? Here are my thoughts, based partly on thinking about my favourite albums.
• The music must be interesting (this discounts almost all of Green Day, for example), to my taste (if you don’t know, this is generally indie/rock-ish), and must have some oomph. By this I do not mean it must be heavy – A Day Without Rain by Enya has plenty of oomph. But I don’t like anything floppy or incidental (Jamie Cullum, for example).
• The lyrics must be inventive, poetic and purposeful (this immediately discounts most pop)
• The themes or message of the album must be something I really agree with. This is a difficult one, because it generally takes me a lot of listening to an album, and quite a bit of research, to work out all the themes. Therefore my appreciation of the music and lyrics tends to come before an appreciation with the theme. This is one reason why a Best Of album could never be a favourite of mine, no matter how good the songs are – a Best Of album is never a complete piece of work, precisely because it is amalgamated.
• The album must hang together well as a whole, rather than being disjointed (the main weakness of Mezzamorphis by Delirious). The whole should also be greater than the sum of its parts (the problem for How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb by U2).
• X factor – the indefinable thing that makes the album special. Sometimes it’s a unique vocal style, sometimes it’s a particular run of songs, sometimes it’s the memories attached to the album.
• Strong ending – the vast majority of albums start relatively strongly and then tail off in the second half (Californication by RHCP and Hot Fuss by The Killers are great examples). A great album is as strong, or stronger, in the second half.
The single album that most completely hits all these points for me is No Name Face by Lifehouse (which I’ve written about before) – my all-time favourite album. The music and lyrics are inspired and inspiring, the theme is superb, the album hangs together brilliantly, and it has a superb second half. I think the X factor is probably the honesty and rawness of the album.

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