Tuesday, 4 May 2010

What makes a great album truly "great"?

We've all got a few albums, maybe a lot of albums, maybe just one, which you keep coming back to. Or perhaps you only come back to it once in a while, but it still surprises you when you listen to it again or it just never 'gets old'. You always enjoy listening to it when it comes on, sometimes you hear one song from it and you instantly have to reach for that CD (or vinyl or mp3 folder!) and listen to the whole thing through.

What is it about these albums which is so good? Is it something we can pinpoint and quantify?

For me, a lot of these albums are more laid back ones. Damnation by Opeth, Ki by Devin Townsend, Insurgentes by Steven Wilson to name a few. I have a lot more heavier albums which I really enjoy, but they all seem to require a certain mood, whereas my favourite relaxed albums just seem to work no matter where I am.

Its different for different people though. There are plenty of people who listen to nothing but death metal, so I assume some of their favourites at least have a collection of distorted guitar riffs in their midst. The same goes for other genres, though some people can surprise you with what their favourite albums actually are.

In fact, in this iPod generation a lot of people don't have favourite albums anymore; its become a state of individual songs and compilations, especially in the wider mainstream where too many albums are released as a set of singles and filler tracks.

But back to the album. What is it about our favourite albums that makes them so good? "Timeless" is a word used far too often in album reviews, usually in reference to some classic-rock goodness or some cult classic that still gets listened to decades after the band in question have split up. Is age a factor? Not for me - all of those three albums I mentioned were made within the last ten years, two of them were released last year in fact. Is that long enough to decide that they're truly great, classic and 'timeless' records? Maybe not. But if you've listened to them as much as I have and haven't tired of them after a year, then they've definitely got something special about them.

What's interesting about the three I chose is that they're all albums by people who, on the most part, make heavier music. Opeth have their evolved mash-up of black metal, death metal and progressive rock, Devin Townsend spent many years as the driving force behind Strapping Young Lad, easily one of the heaviest bands in my library, and Steven Wilson is the brains behind Porcupine Tree who keep sounding heavier every year.

Those are just three albums that came to mind because I've been listening to them recently, and it so happened that they shared that fact in common. Nevertheless, its one of the reasons why I think some albums stand out - they're different. A sidetrack for the norm, perhaps just in the context of the band making it or perhaps something completely new in the context of music at large. Perhaps some of your favourite albums share this trait.

A lot of people will have favourite albums or song that relate to that ever-present phenomena known as nostalgia. There's a fine line between timeless music and nostalgic indulgence. I have a lot of music from my early teens which I still love, but its hard to fathom if I really do love any intrinsic artistic merit within the music, or whether I'm just captivated by its power to take my consciousness back to a specific point in time, sometimes a specific moment in my life.

For example, a lot of this music is from the Nu-Metal era of the late 90s/early 00s. It was considered crap back then, and its considered crap now, but it was the era I grew up in and it was the music which made me fall in love with music. Listening to Rammestein's Mutter album reminds me of Warhammer 40,000, since I would always listen to it whilst painting figures or having tabletop battles with my older brother. Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP takes me back to when I would sneak chocolate bars into my bedroom and read books about art (which was my passion at the time - I hadn't picked up the guitar yet). Specific moments in time; such is the power of music. Music triggering memories can be a very emotional experience, sometimes good and sometimes bad. We all have songs which, at one point in our lives, we simply couldn't listen to because it was too painful. Then there are the songs that, when we get together with all our old friends, somebody puts it on and everybody looks at each other with that knowing stare as they are all simultaneously transported back to 'that time when...'

Whether its the nostalgia or the music is actually great, I don't really think it matters. The end result is a powerful emotional pull and a response, which is always a sign of successful music.

Another powerful aspect of great albums, particularly amongst musicians, is inspiration; an album that inspired you to do something. Whether its giving you the confidence to ask out the girl of your dreams or showing you that playing at blinding speeds on the guitar is actually possible, these are albums which reveal something to us about ourselves. Sometimes it happens in the most indirect way and you don't really notice until later, sometimes its an instant response. For me, Metallica's Black Album was what made me transition from a casual guitar player to "I want to be the greatest guitar player in the world". In the years since I have sidetracked from that goal, but nevertheless I wouldn't be where I am now if I hadn't decided to pursue that goal all those years ago. That said, I rarely listen to that album these days, but I still get the familiar wave of nostalgia when I hear it.

Before I begin waffling without a clear conclusion, there are so many reasons why albums are great that there's really no point in quantifying them in a list within a blog post. I merely want you to consider the fact that perhaps there is no underlying reason for it - music is great because it is. We all respond to a certain combination of notes, frequencies and rhythms differently, and sometimes an artist, band or computer makes these combinations fit together so well that we come back to listen to it time and time again. And its a wonderful thing when you discover one of these albums.

Keep loving your favourite music,

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