What makes an album stand the test of time? What is the secret ingredient that pushes a good album into great territory? When confronted with these questions people generally sort themselves into one of two categories: a great album is either 1) an album where every song stands out on its own merit or 2) an album where each song works cohesively with the others to create a whole work that is greater than the sum of its parts. Nowhere is this divide more obvious than the debate between two of The Beatles biggest albums Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and their eponymous White Album, with fans of the former almost always coming from the “cohesive work” position and fans of the latter almost always coming from the “standout songs” position. Both sides certainly have their merits, but neither is without their flaws either.
While an album full of great standout tracks is an impressive feat, a common flaw with this method is that it often removes any flow from the album as a whole. In this situation the album itself isn’t really special at all, it is merely a collection of great songs, more like a portfolio than an artistic medium unto itself. I would argue that The Beatles White Album falls into this camp, however, that is not to say that all song-focused albums do. Rumours by Fleetwood Mac is an album composed almost entirely of radio singles, but it also works well in sequence as a cohesive unit.
On the other end of the spectrum, focusing more on cohesion may almost always make an album flow better, but it can also lead to generic, formulaic songs or conversely to some of the hokey and bloated, albeit amusing, failed experiments of forgotten 70s prog-rock bands, where the album’s grandiose story is thrown haphazardly over the same three riffs for 14 minutes at a time. An album that gives you ten copies of the same song may be coherent, but it is not greater than the sum of its parts. Likewise, an album whose sum is greater than its parts is no great accomplishment if all the parts are awful.
So where does this leave us? If an album lacks cohesion, then it loses its character as an artistic medium and becomes only a container for songs. However, if it is cohesive at the expense of depth and/or diversity then it lacks any real staying power. Even combining the two categories to say that a great album must have strong cohesion and be comprised of lots of standout tracks leaves a lot on the table. Such a theory may capture the essence of an album like Rumours, but it doesn’t capture the brilliance of an album like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. There is no definitive equation to explain what sets great albums apart from their peers, but I would argue there is one common thread that holds true most of the time, though it is not a concept commonly applied to music: world building.
I would propose that, for the musician, writing an album is similar to the process of world building for the novelist. You must create a space where the songs on your album can believably exist with one another and you must, proverbially speaking, give your audience something interesting to look at. This can be done in a myriad of ways, but for our purposes we can narrow the process down to two general components: scope and depth. The scope of an album here refers to the range of musical dynamics in the arrangement, anywhere from the simple quiet versus loud dynamic all the way into contextualizing different styles and sounds together. On the other hand, the depth of an album usually has more to do with the melody and the lyrics (if the song has lyrics), providing differentiation between songs based on melodic movement and variation, or through artful lyrical craftsmanship.
When a great album has a small scope, it almost always has sizable depth. For instance a great minimalist folk album may not have a ton of musical variation, but it will be set apart either by its lyrical craftsmanship or the emotional power of its melodies, generally a combination of both. Conversely, great albums with large scopes often have a shallower depth comparably, usually because the busier or more unusual the arrangement the harder it is to put compelling melodies to it, and thus the harder it is to put lyrics to it. There are of course the rare few albums that pull off a large scope and sizable depth, such as Kendrick Lamar’s 2016 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly, which leaves us with three general types of great albums: a small scope/sizable depth album, a large scope/shallow depth album, and a large scope/sizable depth album.
Thinking of writing albums in terms of world building seems to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom given most artists early in their careers, which is: “find your sound.” While that advice isn’t bad per se, it often ends up leading to formulaic music when artists inevitably take it as “pick a genre you think suits you and do whatever it is people in that genre do.” It takes many artists years to break free of this simple, often self-imposed cage and begin making the music they are capable of making. Part of my goal as an editor here at Not a Sound is encouraging artists to push their craft and helping them to break out of the creative cages they end up stuck in. So shake off those shackles and when you start writing that next album remember to build a world, not a sound.