Eclecticism and What Makes A Good Album?

I had a little conversation with someone on Twitter today. About how the differences between my tracks maybe create a disjointed feel to my albums/eps. It got me thinking: does similarity in sound or mood make for a good album? It is, of course, a rhetorical question, as everybody has different ideas about what an album should be. Some think an album should have some kind of narrative, some think an album should convey one prevailing ‘mood’ or atmosphere, some think an album should be based on a concept and some think it should just be a collection of tracks.

That’s been one of the issues regarding digital downloads, where you can download the entire album, or just individual tracks. Musicians and listeners have highlighted the fact that to separate a track from an album’s running order is to listen to the track out of context.  But with the prominence of compilations (they’ve always been around, mind), playlists, virtual ‘mixtapes’ and streaming services, the ‘album’ as we knew it in the days of vinyl is of less importance to the general listening public.

Then again, we live in an age of self-empowerment when it comes to how we get our entertainment. So, is it a bad thing that albums are split and de-contextualised? We’re just tailoring our listening to our own preferences.

Which leads me onto my pet theme…….the eclectic nature of listening habits and, as a result, musicians’ creative endeavours. And I’m afraid I’m going to use myself as one of my examples, it’s what I know best. A good album, as far as I’m concerened, creates an audio world of its own. It moves you in different ways, it contains many moods, it jars you, it sometimes challenges you, it evokes memories of people, places, times, other music or movies.  It also, at times, is contradictory.

This is the nature of eclecticism. An area where genres collide, a place where music is influenced by wildly varying sources. That’s the area I operate in. That’s why I find that my favourite albums contain tracks which may be similar sonically, but they offer contradictory moods. A perfect example being Aphex Twin’s “Drukqs” album, a double CD of drum n bass, dark electro and contemplative avant-ambience. Or virtually any of John Zorn’s early output (with the exception of ‘Spy vs Spy’ perhaps). Or ‘Ultravisitor’ by Squarepusher. Or, more recently, and more mainstream, Radiohead’s last three albums and the albums of Elbow.

So, when I record an album, I purposely try to juxtapose tracks which offset or, in some cases, upset each other. It’s all in the running order and, that, is the crux. That’s what makes an album. It’s not always about continuity, it’s about disruption. It doesn’t have to be drastic…it may just be a sad song next to a happy song; or a deep tone next to a harsh bright tone. But the preceding track determines how you listen to the next track. That’s the point of an album, to me.

Having only reached a conclusion which I already knew and which is entirely personal, I’d be interested to hear your views on the subject either as a listener or a musician.

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7 responses to “Eclecticism and What Makes A Good Album?

  1. I think the whole thing has to “flow”, and the cumulative effect of the songs has to result in an album where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

    Very few albums achieve this – I can think of a fair few which would actually benefit from removing a track that doesn’t quite fit.

    • Yes. I do partly agree with that. But I do think that an album doesn’t stand or fall by whether it has ‘flow’, in mood or structure at least. The narrative can be formed by sound or tone or timbre. It’s what gives it a signature sound. Even if we go back to the Beatles, their best albums relied on a signature sound and, later, experimentation; but the tracks were quite distinct in mood. But after all, as I said, it *is* all down to personal taste I think. Albums are functional and it’s a question of what each individual’s idea of what the function of music is.

  2. I was thinking of Mostly Autumn’s “Glass Shadows” as one that flows well, alternating rockier numbers with atmospheric ballads, male and female leads, and a narrative flow in the lyrics. Up until the last track, “A Different Sky” which just doesn’t fit, because the mood is completely wrong.

    Should really have been left off the album. and put out as a single.

  3. You may or may not know my stance on this, but when I create an album I purposefully try to lull a listener into a sense of security and then “fuck the mood up” – it’s jarring and some people dislike it but it has become a part of my signature sound, or something. In the end though, my albums are a complete entity, with, and I think this is the ultimate goal of an album: a point. My point is to expose for example a techno-head to some death metal when they weren’t expecting it (underlying the pivotal lyrical point of the whole that is). I often find the “point” of an album, as in why I’m doing it, what I’m doing with it, and what it’s gonna do to the listener, grows on its own as you create the tracks either by whittling away from a large quantity of material, or building something out of nothing. In the end, I think it has to be about the listener, how the point is perceived rather than how it is conveyed, but I do believe the listener should respect the album and not just dump their favourite song in a playlist. I say “should”, because most don’t. iTunes made the single the king of the digital age of music.

    • I’m totally in agreement with you Angus; it’s all about how one track nestles next to another. But alas, as you say, the album as an entirety has become less important as the individual tracks.

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