Reflections on Rock Music: What makes for a 5 star album?

As I’m still locked out of YouTube and waiting on a reply email from Google support, I figured it was the right time to add a fifth installment to the “Reflections on Rock Music” series…

By Chris Moore:

This year, I’ve been reading and writing more album reviews than ever before.  I’ve kept to my goal of writing one full review a week (typically long-form, 750-1000 words), and I’ve added regular installments in the “Yes, No, or Maybe So” series of one-sentence reviews.  As always, I look forward to reading new editions of Rolling Stone magazine, particularly the album review section at the back.

More often than not, I’m infuriated by what I read, but that’s half the fun of it, I suppose…

This year, I’ve been making regular trips to online sources for music reviews such as Allmusic, Spin, and Uncut when I have the time and interest.  Studying how other reviewers approach the same music that I’m reviewing has been educational as I develop the aspects of my writing style I like, and perhaps even moreso as I decide how I want to distinguish myself from others.  After all, for any given album or even song, there are multiple opinions and points of view to be had and expressed.

Which brings me to the question of the evening:

What makes for a five star album?

FACTOR ONE:  Instrumental Excellence

The most basic indicator of an outstanding album is its instrumental composition.  This is not to say that an album needs be complex in order to be excellent, but there is an ineffable quality of music that stands out, whether it be unique, or well-executed, or demonstrative of impressive talent.  Still, even the most simple arrangements can cause listeners to lose themselves in the flow of the song.

Perhaps the most notable example of an instrumentally excellent five star album is the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.  Under the direction of Brian Wilson, the studio session musicians worked together to create what is arguably the single best album of all time.  To put on headphones, or — even better — to sit at the center of a set of surround sound speakers, is a transcendent experience, listening to this flawless, intricately woven tapestry of instrumentation and, of course, vocals.

FACTOR TWO:  Lyrical — and Vocal — Excellence

A song can only go so far as its lyrics and vocals will provide for it.  Although some may disagree with me, a song needs to be lyrically engaging in order for it to have any longevity on my iPod.  There are exceptions to every rule, but songs should be engaging and thoughtful.  Even simple songs should be well-constructed.  If it seems like the lyrics are phoned-in, then it’s a foregone conclusion that the song can only be interesting for so long.

Bob Dylan set the standard for great lyrics as early as his second release.  By Blonde on Blonde, his seventh studio album, Dylan had not only perfected his sixties rock sound, but he also unveiled some of his wildest, most poetic lyrics yet in gems like “Visions of Johanna” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.”  The words certainly work best set to music, but taken out of context, they are poems in their own right.

FACTOR THREE:  Strong Individual Songs

Anyone who plays an instrument knows that it takes more than musical talent, a way with words, or distinctive vocals to make a great song.  Sometimes, all three can be present, and yet the song falls flat.  The ability to write a truly excellent song can’t be learned from a book and could never be deconstructed.  There are simply those who can create and balance guitar riffs, vocal hooks, and the like.  And there are those who can’t, or at least not often.

Pearl Jam’s Ten is a great example of a five star album on which each track is equally outstanding in its own unique way.  To think that rockers like “Once,” “Even Flow,” “Alive,” and “Porch” are on the same disc as ballads and dirges like “Black,” “Jeremy,” “Oceans,” and “Release” is mind-blowing.  This is a case of eleven five star songs adding up to a five star album.

FACTOR FOUR:  Thematic Cohesion & Relevance

It’s one thing to have a song or even several that are excellent, it’s another to have an album’s worth, and it’s yet another to have an album’s worth of songs that are thematically cohesive and provocative.  The latter is key, as an album needs to pass the “So what?” test in order to be considered for the full five star rating; after all, who wants to or will continue listening to an album repeatedly if it doesn’t provide relatable emotions, situations, etc.?  I’m also a strong believer that truly great albums have images, symbols, and/or themes that run throughout from front to back.  These don’t need to be blunt, but they should be available for those who care to listen for them.

The Moody Blues are the inimitable masters of the concept album.  The story of their first seven studio releases is one classic record after another.  Perhaps the best of that sequence is On the Threshold of A Dream, an album whose tracks all lend to the larger topic of dreams that unifies the album.  This was released at the peak of their creativity as a five-piece band, each member making notable contributions which range from rock songs to beautiful tunes to the spoken word.

FACTOR FIVE:  Timelessness

The fifth and final factor is such an important one, and yet it is the one factor that I will admit that I second-guess myself on.  True five star albums should be as relevant, thought-provoking, and entertaining ten years from now as they are today.  Only time will tell how my favorite five-star albums of this decade will stack up at the end of the next decade, or the ones after that.  It is quite easy to look back at some of the classics (such as those mentioned above) and recognize that they are five star quality.  It is another to imagine how one’s taste and interests will shift and influence the perception of contemporary albums.

I have no doubts that my five-star records of the 2000s — albums like the Wallflowers’ Red Letter Days, BnL’s Maroon, and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot — will be every bit as impressive to me for all my days to come, and I know with time that I will hone my ability to judge timelessness.  I’m already improving, and this is all the more reason to exercise my instincts and analytical abilities in weekly editions of the Weekend Review.

** Hurry back this weekend for a live set list — posted live song by song — from a great rock band on Saturday, and a review of the concert on Sunday! **

This is one in a series of acoustic cover songs, original music, and free mp3 downloads here on the Laptop Sessions Music Video Blog.

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