09 September 2013

THINKING ABOUT: The Perfect Album

"What is the 'perfect' album?"

That's a question I've been turning over in my head for the last few months or so.

Obviously, the idea of a "perfect" album is hugely subjective. And the reasons for why one would think an album is "perfect" is based on tons of variables: age, geography, environment, parents, musical taste (or lack thereof), etc.

But, me being me, I want to make some attempt in documenting what the "perfect" album is. At least what I consider perfect according to my age, geography, environment, parents, and musical taste.

No doubt, it is difficult to try and create the criteria for a perfect album (especially a criteria that everyone can agree on). After all, the idea of perfect doesn't necessarily mean the "best." Back in 2003 (and revised in 2012), Rolling Stone magazine attempted to determine the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

The list is hardly controversial: The top 10 featured four albums by The Beatles (The Beatles, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), two records by Bob Dylan (Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited), then rounded out by Marvin Gaye (What's Going On), The Rolling Stones (Exile On Main Street) and The Clash (London Calling). All fantastic albums. All influential. All brilliant in their own right. And many of those albums have been well-worn on the Pet Bear Sounds hi-fi over the years but none of them quite reach perfect status for me. (Hint: That last line is called a teaser).

So, what makes a "perfect" album? So far, I have come up with this rough criteria:
  • Album length: The perfect album (we're talking LPs here) is usually between 35 minutes and 40 minutes and rarely over 50 minutes. To a certain extent track length also comes into play. Individual tracks should generally be around that typical pop-song length of 2.5 to 4 minutes. (e.g. I'm on the fence about The Velvet Underground & Nico - an album I love - as a perfect album because of tracks like "Heroin" and "European Son" being over 7 minutes (!) long and with "All Tomorrow's Parties" at a flat 6 minutes).
  • Track sequence/Pace: Anyone who has had some experience making mix tapes/CDs - and believe you me, I do - knows the importance of track sequencing (the ordering of tracks on an album). Sequencing, I feel, is often overlooked when discussing great albums and is something that can easily make or break an album which is why I put a lot importance on track sequencing when talking about the perfect album. Excellent track sequencing will also generally result in less "filler" songs and is related to having an efficient album length. Excellent track sequencing will also create the perfect pace, the perfect ebb and flow of an album (e.g. The Beatles (The White Album) by The Beatles is a fantastic study in track sequencing but at a little over 90 minutes it will never be perfect). In most cases, the careful ordering of tracks will result in a fantastic opening and closing song.
  • Hits/Accessibility: Often times the best album in an artist's catalog can be the most difficult to digest. On the other hand, the perfect album tends to be pretty universally accessible and has at least one massive hit single on the album. The other tracks were likely hits, easily recognizable or at the very least could have been a hit with proper radio play.
  • Cohesion: I'm not saying the perfect album has to be a concept album per se but there just has to be some sort of common thread to make the album feel cohesive, whole - in one way or another - whether it is thematically, lyrically, sonically, technically (or perhaps all of the above!).
  • Intangibles: And then there are the intangibles of an album that likely includes bits of the above mentioned criteria. But then there's that something extra. You can't quite put your finger on it, but there's that special moment in music that creates a visceral reaction: warm fuzzy feelings, heartache, unbridled joy.
Admittedly, these criteria are not concrete and they could change based on album, based on whim, based on whatever. But I think it's a good starting point and I think that once I start discussing and digesting what I consider to be the "perfect" album, the criteria could be modified, expanded, tightened. I think one initial difficulty that I foresee is recognizing and accepting that your favorite album may not be the perfect album.

Finally, I'm hoping that the by-product of this project/discussion is to help me re-approach and re-examine music in the context of a full-length album as opposed to just a single (which is how we seem to be consuming music these days but that's a different discussion for a different time).

So, stay tuned here at PetBearSounds.com and look out for the on-going series on the Perfect Album!

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