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Album Theory: What Ingredients Create a Classic?

As a music producer, I tend to have two kinds of clients: Clients who want to record a full album and Clients who work on one (or a few) songs at a time. There are aspects I enjoy about both approaches. After all sometimes I want a snack, and sometimes I want a good meal. However, in this post I won't get into all the ridiculously bad-for-you food that I enjoy, and focus on the elements of a good meal. Just like a perfect meal takes thought and preparation, so does a great album. I love the additional puzzle-work that comes with producing an album, and I'd like to share some of my insights into what I think makes a good album. 1. Not Every Song Should Be a Single: Okay, not all genres are chasing "radio hits" but there are still "hits" in all genres. But an album that does nothing but go after hit after hit is boring. There is a stigma to the words "album cut" and there shouldn't be. A great album cut is song that appeals to the artists true fans, and perhaps not EVERYBODY in the world. Perhaps it is lyrically more sophisticated or musically adventurous, or a number of other things, but great album cuts are what makes a great album. How many "singles" did "Dark Side of the Moon" have?

2. Artist Consistency Does Not Mean Every Song Needs to Sound Alike: 2 kinds of bad albums… All the Songs Sound Alike AND All the Songs Sound Different. I like to look for the “core” sound for the artist on the particular album they are working on… Then I loosely use a 2/3 rule. 2/3 of the songs should be pretty well within bounds of that core sound, and then the other 1/3 should explore territory on both sides of the core… i.e. if the artist is mostly a breezy, mid-tempo kind of singer, on an album of 12 songs, there should also be 2 ballads, and 2 really up-tempo songs. There are many things that can go into identifying the core, and then many ways of finding the variety to spice it up, AND still retain a clear sense of who the artist is.

3. The album Shouldn’t Be Too Long: Okay, maybe I’m showing my age, but one great thing about vinyl was that artists couldn’t cram in 80 minutes of music. They pretty much had to keep it to about 38-45 minutes to get the vinyl to print. I personally think that most albums these days that are much longer are usually a victim of my #1 rule… they are so desperate for hits, they want as many “chances” at one as possible. Maybe they feel they are offering more value for the money, but in this day and age where more people tend to listen to music on random, I feel we need to give people a good reason to want to listen to the whole album… and time to do so. There are a few albums I enjoy that are looong, but I can rarely find the time to listen to the whole thing at once… and I do enjoy listening to (good) full albums now more than ever… but I want to finish what I start, and albums that fall under 50 minutes tend to get played more often… and I don’t think I am unique here.

4. An album Should Flow Like a Good Mix Tape: Nothing kills an album like the frequent (record label) decision to put all the potential singles right in a row at the top of the album. Spread the love! And while I’m sure it appeals to some people, I hate the whole uptempo half/ballad half concept… Mix it up! Find a good flow that takes the listeners through peaks and valleys and takes them on a journey. I still think most of the best albums do this, and I work hard to help my clients with this as well.

5. Find Those Special, Unique Things and SHOW THEM OFF: So perhaps you’re an incredible guitarist and guitar solos are “out of style” right now… Who cares… This ties into rule number one… don’t overdo it on the singles, but let those licks and riffs fly everywhere else on the album. Find places to really showcase the singers and musicians in the most fresh and unique ways, and you’ll create an album with personality and life.

Nothing beats getting the chance to work with an artist to create an album. These are just a few of the things I think of when trying to helf craft a memorable album (not just a collection of songs). What do you look for? Is your ideal meal a plate of Twinkies or a Five Course Gourmet Meal?

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