Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Very Rough Guide to Good Albums

I'm always writing about end-of-year lists (my lists, other people's lists, year-end polls ...) but I don't write much about exactly what makes a good album so good, a great album so great, or a Best Album of the Year so different from All the Other Albums of the Year. With a hefty dose of arbitrariness, let's identify a few categories and demonstrate their utility by using some recent albums (including those from 2007) as examples.

Strongly unbalanced albums. These albums contain one or two exceptional songs that basically obliterate everything else on there. Note the contrast with the Verve release, which is 2/3 godlike, 1/3 ordinary; whereas the strongly unbalanced album is more like 1/3 godlike, 2/3 material of unspecified quality (which could actually be quite good, just nowhere close to the quality of the other 1/3). It's been that kind of year for members of Animal Collective. "Strawberry Jam" contains "Reverend Green", "Fireworks", and a bunch of other tracks that are left in their dust. Panda Bear's "Person Pitch" has "Bros", which is not only the best track on the album but is one of the best of the year.

In subcatagorizing these two, the key difference between them is to consider what you're left with once you remove that fantastic leading 1/3. Is the remaining 2/3 still essential listening? If "Yes", then that album is Top Ten of the Year material in most years, if "No", then it's most likely not. Applied to "Strawberry Jam", the answer is "not really", but with "Person Pitch", it's "absolutely". Last year, "Altar" by SunnO))) and Boris fit the "Yes" category, and "The Air Force" by Xiu Xiu came closest to fulfilling the "No" condition, but in a year where the quality of the Top Ten falls off precipitously after #5 or so, albums like that can still rank as high as #8. Compare this to 2005, which was a much stronger year. Here, I'd maybe slot Madonna (#20a) and Six By Seven (#18) into the "No" category, and even then those are borderline calls.

Pleasant albums. Decent enough, but not so good that you would ever listen to it on its own, without either cooking, reading, watching TV, working, or some other very common music-listening mental distraction. Perfect for random play, either by itself or lumped in with a few more albums. Apparat's "Walls" fits the description very well. The major flaw with this type of album, obviously, is that you listen to it without really *listening* to it, so the melodies have a memory half-life that lasts to the end of the day at best. In the long run you never bother getting too attached to this kind of album, and they essentially drop out of one's personal consciousness once the calendar year is out and newer albums start getting A-space placement on one's hard drive or CD rack. In a weak year, these can crack the personal Top Ten due to the force of oft-listened familiarity (i.e. Jan Jellinek's "Tierbeobachtungen" in 2006). Ordinarily, you'd prefer to not have these mini-albatrosses around your neck when reviewing your charts a few years down the line, but in most years, I think you'd be hard-pressed -- be it as a fan or a critic -- to not have one or two of these albums in your Top Ten each year. There's nothing wrong with having a bit of audio junk food lying around, it's just a natural element of everyday musical enjoyment.

Rotating favourite song. This is #1 on my list of ways to separate the Album of the Year Contenders and Personal Classics in the Making from the sizable chaff of more ordinary musical releases. Maybe you don't think it's such a rare thing that one's favourite song would hop around an album during the course of a year. I believe that most of the time, people's favourites get locked in after two or three listens. Sometimes these are the inescapable singles, but not necessarily.

This year, I'm not sure that any albums fit this category for me, which is a bit worrying because even in the weakest years, there tends to be at least one album like this that stands out. Even a weak year like 2006 had "Ticket Crystals", but 2007 has been a much better year for albums overall. 2005 was even stronger and provided two textbook cases in "Takk ..." and "Before the Dawn Heals Us".

Once in a while, there are exceptions, where an album doesn't really come close to being the best of the year, but features rotating favourite songs. I find that The Arcade Fire's "Funeral" is one rare example of this.

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