Sunday, February 19, 2012

Building a Great Album: On The Album as a Journey

From time to time I stop prattling on about Korea, and prattle on about music or film. If you prefer my Korea prattle, hang in there. I'll get back to it soon enough.

I love music. I don't have training in music, so it's not about the chords... it's about the place the music takes me. And if a four chord song can do it, that's fine. And if you need a masters' in music theory to explain it... that's fine, too. I'm like people who drive a car, but can't explain how the engine works: I don't quite understand how, but if it gets me where I want to go, we're good. And even if engineers tell me it's built very cleverly, if it doesn't get me there in a way I like, somebody else might, I don't really care what the engine specs are.

So you're welcome to disagree with me about which music I love, but I was just listening to OK Computer, and listened to "Exit Music For a Film" followed by "Let Down" followed by "Karma Police" -- which, despite having made so many great songs, might be the best three-song run Radiohead's ever strung together on an album. Might.

Exit Music (For a Film)

I almost always listen to albums. Maybe I'm a relic because of it. I don't grumble that digital music sounds different from vinyl, I don't have a hi-fi and a set of $800 headphones, but I believe that an artist who knows what they're doing puts enough care into the songs they write, and the order they appear in, and how they fit with each other, that it's worth listening to the album, to get what the artist was going for. Skipping to your three favorite tracks instead of listening to the album in the track order it was made, if the artist knows what they're doing, is the difference between going on a road trip with someone, and looking at the five best pictures they took on their way.

And these days, when the internet, and Youtube, have diminished the returns on making a full album, rather than condensing it into an EP, or releasing it as two EPs (each with their own hype buildup and lead singles), so much that an artist has no reason to make a full-length album... unless they have something to say that can't be broken into an EP. This is all the more reason to continue to listen to albums, to see if artists are worth their salt, before looking up the best songs on Youtube.

Let Down

Sgt. Pepper probably marked the beginning of the album as an artistic expression of its own, rather than just a collection of artistic expressions. The less nuanced approach was to put the most radio-friendly songs either at the beginning of side one, or the beginning of side two, or somewhere on the first side, as far as I can tell from checking the track lists of my pre-1967 albums. (this continued after Sgt. Pepper as well). Some bands still just put their most likely hits first, and pad out the rest. This is less forgivable than ever before, now that iTunes has rendered album filler obsolete, and extra annoying.

But there are still bands out there that can put together a hell of a good album, and this series, like my old bliss-out posts, is a little celebration of albums, particularly the ones that are well-built... and perhaps it's an elegy for them too, now that the album as artform is becoming less and less relevant in the face of music videos and EPs that can boast a higher hit-song to track-listing ratio (available for 99 cents on iTunes!)

Karma Police

There are a few keys to a well-constructed album, in my book. Not every well-made album has all these features, in the same way that not every relationship-driven drama involves a misunderstanding or deception in the second act... but enough do, that I'm not going to say this is why these albums work, but it's clear that this does work. I'm giving examples here from some albums I really like. Some of them are classics and all-time greats; others are middling albums where the only thing going for them might be that they were built the way they are... in fact, some of these albums are basically the equivalent of a mediocre painting with very good composition... which just makes the composition stand out more admirably.

Go to part 2 of the series.

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