Since the turn of the new decade, however, there has been a manic insurgence of albums and the industry has once again returned to being an album market, since the eras of CD’s and mobile Mp3 players. This contrasts with the previous decade where there were sparse releases of albums from A-list artists and premier labels. Now that music is more widely available because to DSPs with millions of tracks in their collections, we are in the era of streaming.
Additionally, social media has encouraged debate and constant comparison regarding albums and their inherent value. Unfortunately, a significant portion of this discussion is driven by personal bias and non-objective opinions; as a result, the arguments made are barely persuasive. This simply highlights how critical it is to identify the criteria and measurements that constitute a great record.
Let’s first bust some myths about what constitutes a great record before finding the important measurements. Some people fervently believe that an album’s brilliance lies in its capacity to deliver hits that would rule the charts. Some believe that exceptional albums receive the most playlists and stream traffic. And for some people, it’s the range of sounds and auditory diversity included in the body of work. All of these are reasonable justifications for what a great album may accomplish, but they are not the only ones. The music itself still has grandeur.
The art of creating a great album is not only lost on fans, but also on some of our A-list artists. So the question of what makes a great album arises once more.
There are five key metrics that an album must meet before it can be considered an overall great project, and they are as follows:
- Sonic cohesion.
- Unharried transitions.
- Expansive & pristine production.
- Excellent songwriting.
- Topical progression/optimal track sequencing.
To help readers relate, we’d be breaking down each point individually with real-world examples from well-known albums.
An album should feature tracks that sound like they were made from the same sonic material and have a common theme in their production and vocals. By encouraging a sense of unity, an album with strong sound cohesiveness helps to invigorate the experience and make the project more wholesome. Great musicians are aware of the importance of album coherence, which is why some of them choose to have one or two producers who share similar viewpoints produce the entire project.
Pheelz and Type A on Fireboy DML’s Apollo, London and Andrebeatz on Rema’s Rave & Roses and Ayra Starr’s 19 & Dangerous, Kukbeats on Ruger’s EPs, and most recently Magicsticks on Asake’s Mr. Money With The Vibe are some examples. By employing specific concepts in the song production, such as using common riffs, chords, and percussions across the board, the aural coherence is achieved while ensuring that each song has its own unique sound and feels like a cohesive whole with the other songs.
Even with many producers working on the project, excellent sonic cohesiveness is still possible. Omah Lay’s Boy Alone, one of the best pop albums released this year and with excellent sound cohesiveness, is a wonderful example. Despite the project having more than ten producers, the sound cohesion is still strong, which is a credit to the project’s A&R team’s efforts as well as Omah Lay’s vision.
On an album, it is crucial that the transitions between songs don’t sound hurried, forced, or harried. Why? When the transition is unpleasant, it detracts from the whole experience since it serves as a reminder that a change has been made and a new music is now playing. The best albums have transitions that are so smooth that the listener is so engrossed in the satisfying experience that it nearly doesn’t register when a song changes.
On Rema’s Rave & Roses, the transition from track 1 (Divine) to track 2 (Hold Me) is one of the best I’ve heard on a Nigerian album this year. The varied instrumentals in Divine’s final few seconds make it seem like a scene from a movie, and they seamlessly transition into Hold Me’s first few beats such that the change is barely audible. This album does have some flaws, but when it comes to transitions and even sonic cohesiveness, it really shines.
Expansive & Pristine Production
I mentioned earlier that some musicians choose one or two producers solely to guarantee the coherence of the album. On the other end of the decision-making spectrum, some musicians choose a variety of producers to guarantee a vast and flawless production. Utilizing multiple producers would encourage variety and diversity in sounds, which would help make the overall experience more enjoyable as opposed to being monotonous. It only makes sense because different producers have different strengths.
It is in fact a very fine line to walk because a diversity overdose could damage the album’s cohesiveness. Playboy by Fireboy DML is an album that does admirably well in this regard. Playboy aims to be a diverse showcase of sounds, which worked well in enhancing the album’s quality. This is in contrast to his previous albums, which had fewer producers and were more sonically cohesive as a result. Although it was not the most well-organized effort, neither the songs nor the transitions had the impression of being rushed.
Simply simply, good songwriting and solid execution are required for an album to be great. It doesn’t have to be the most complex and original writing; it only needs to be good enough for the songs and relevant to the genre. For instance, the most profoundly philosophical lyrics shouldn’t be used in a pop song. It is first and foremost a feel-good genre that should be groovy and entertaining. No matter how impressive the songwriting, it doesn’t work for it if it would hinder that.
Hip-Hop, of course, should have a more impressive songwriting structure overall because the beauty lies in the bars, punchlines, double/triple entendres, comical analogies, tight rhyme schemes, and so on and so forth. The R&B genre could benefit from more empirical songwriting because its core is primarily related to love stories. Songs of the same genre shouldn’t be approached in flows and rhymes in the same way; instead, great songwriting should be layered.
In terms of sheer technicality, Boy Alone and Bnxn’s Bad Since ’97 boasts some of the year’s most brilliant songs. The style of Fireboy DML in Playboy is more straightforward, yet it is very profound and features emotional and precise rhyme schemes. Although not very innovative, Asake’s MMWTV features some outstanding songwriting that successfully carries out its intended purpose.
Great music ultimately aims to make listeners feel good because to its pleasing harmonies. Great songwriting with poor sonics and melodies would always lose out against simple songwriting with excellent sonics and melodies. Don’t get me wrong, amazing songwriting can be found on some of the best albums, and every artist should want to achieve that. However, such writing is useless if it cannot be used in relation to the music or if it takes precedence over other, more important matters.
Topical Advancement/Track Sequencing at its Best
First and foremost, what exactly is topical progression? It’s simply an album’s inherent quality to have a track-by-track progression that makes sense topically and isn’t scatterbrained. It doesn’t make sense, for example, for an album opener to have themes about the artist defying all odds and coming out strong, and then in the second track, they’re already talking about cowering under pressure.
Not every album will provide a straight-forward, linear narrative like a book. Some albums have so many facets and layers that several interpretations and stories can be derived from them. While others only have a hazy development of subjects and don’t actually attempt to tell a tale at all. Whatever the situation, the topical progression should be logical and seamless. This is when the subsequent, concurrent point of ideal track sequencing enters the picture.
The order of the songs on a great album is ideal, with the topics complementing one another both sonically and thematically from the first song to the last. This is one of the key differences between an album and a mixtape or playlist, which are typically essentially compilations of songs with no real connection to one another. When played alongside the rest of the album, pre-released singles from a fantastic album make even more sense because of the excellent track sequencing.
Albums that successfully meet the aforementioned criteria are immediately regarded as classics. While some albums gradually acquire their classic status as a result of both their endurance and innate greatness. However, it is a reality that an album that checks off all the necessary criteria encourages its longevity and replay value because it delivers an excellent listening experience at an exceptional value.
Some albums have earned the title of “classics” throughout time due to their influence. Made In Lagos by Wizkid is the classic illustration. The album is excellent and has aged well, but it isn’t quite of the “classic on arrival” caliber. The making of this claim does not negate the album’s deserving classic status. It simply implies that today’s standards for what constitutes a classic album are significantly more complex. As is practically any discussion of what makes a great album.