Posted by: thebylog | August 29, 2005

What Makes a Great Musical Album?

Let me begin by thinking of some of my favorite albums (all Christian music and not very stylistically diverse; the reason for the latter should be the subject of a later post). Avalon’s In a Different Light, 4Him’s The Message, Chris Rice’s Run the Earth, Watch the Sky, Glad’s A Cappella Gershwin, Gold City’s Standing in the Gap, an old Brian Free & Assurance trio album.

From this snapshot of data, I make the following conclusion: for me, the principal determining factor in a musical album’s greatness (and I use this term fairly loosely) is “song.”

It’s not primarily vocal ability. Chris Rice doesn’t have an inordinate amount when you stack him up against the great vocalists out there. But he writes thoughtful, compelling music. I’ve heard a fair amount of Glad material, and though their sheer vocal talent can carry them for a little while on its own, the magnificent harmonic execution must be a part of a greater whole: the arrangement of the song and the song itself.

It’s not style. There’s so much average CCM, so much bad SG, so much punchless a cappella. Style says nothing about quality – certainly nothing about greatness.

Back to songs and what makes them great, since I believe a collection of great songs defines a great album. A great song is a combination of factors, but it’s not as if each factor has to be perfect to make the final product “great.” Here are those factors as I see them.

Lyric. Actually, an album can get away with some so-so lyrics if the other parts of the average lyrical songs are stellar, but a huge part of a song’s impact rests in its sentiment. Music is most powerful when lyric and music come together in an explosion of unity, the result of which is much greater than the individual parts. A great lyric on its own by no means defines greatness in music – it’s just poetry. Nothing against poetry, except that I’d rather listen to it put to music.

Melody. Some of the most wonderful pieces of music are some of the most simple. In these cases, it’s probably because of a beautiful melody being sung beautifully. If you have a seriously compelling melody you have the potential for a seriously compelling song. It can be ruined by a poor performance, bad harmonies, contrived lyrics, etc. A knockout melody isn’t essential in defining musical greatness, but it helps a whole lot.

Arrangement. This is somewhat style-dependent. In a cappella, it’s vocal arrangement. In SG, it’s both the vocal and instrumental arrangement. In CCM, it often is almost solely instrumental arrangement. To me, the further music strays from vocal, the less important this component is, though I realize this does show my bias for the human voice. For instance, arrangement is crucial to a cappella vocal groups like Glad, Take 6, or barbershop quartets. It’s not so important to folk pop acts, where sometimes the extent of their “arrangement” is strumming guitar chords and keeping a rhythm. In their case, their songs are driven not by arrangement, but by melody and lyric (and to a lesser extent instrumental harmony).

Style. Probably the least important of these components. It’s just that a particular person could never see the “greatness” that another person sees in a particular album because he/she doesn’t like the style of music. If you think rock music is inherently wrong, I’m fairly confident you’ll never see Pink Floyd’s The Wall as great.

We already said that vocal ability/performance isn’t the key to a great album, but it does make its contribution. A whole lot can be forgiven musically if the performer makes you drop your jaw. I think of Rachel Lampa when I think about this, but even her amazing vocal talent can’t make up for the subpar songs on her second album. Again, performance can carry you a little ways, but it won’t carry you through a whole album if there’s not some combination of substantial lyric, melody, arrangement, or style.

There’s another consideration closely related to “performance,” that some people might consider an eggregious omission: the subjective idea of charisma or … that unexplainable extra bit of emotion or depth or passion that supposedly separates the good from the great in a performance. I don’t really get this, and that’s probably why I don’t place more emphasis on it. I’ve heard it spoken of in the context of a record producer, in recording some artist, somehow being able to draw out of the performer something extra special. It’s almost a mystical thing or something. But when I think of my favorite albums, I don’t really feel it’s much of a factor, though at certain junctures in certain great songs I can feel it.

By the way, I realize that this is a pretty narrow perspective, covering only styles of music with which I am familiar. There’s so much other stuff out there and some of this might not quite apply in the same way to different genres.

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Responses

  1. Hmmm. I’ve always had a theory of, if a [talented] CCM solo artist is not getting the kind of success that he/she wants, they should add harmony in their songs, making them less of a solo artist (humbling them, basically).


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