Excellence in Music:
What Makes an Album Great?
Full Sail University
This document examines the qualities of a rock record that most embody truly excellent work, relying mainly on four principles of album impact: motives (or “hooks”), continuity, pacing/flow, and current culture.
We all know a lot goes into the making of an album, from the original idea that sparks the words or melody to the myriad of people who worked behind the scenes on the writing, production, and so on, but what truly makes a great rock record? To really stand out from the rest, an album has to have a few things: a series of catchy hooks (or repeated variations on one), continuity, pacing and flow, and some sort of underlying cultural message or appeal to the audience. There are plenty of records out there full of incredible rock songs that still do not manage to be truly excellent albums; they simply happen to have multiple good tracks. But the ones that hit all the marks are the records that will stand tall forever.
“Hooks” are a tricky thing. More professionally called a motive, these are typically a short, easily recognizable sequence of notes or beats that can be (and generally are) repeated throughout a song or album. Any one motive used in a song to immediately attract a listener’s attention is frequently called a hook in rock or pop music. That said, a hook could be lyrical, rhythmic, melodic, instrumental or emotional. The vast variety of hooks is what makes music so diverse; an artist can convey his message using any approach he feels is suited. These are integral in rock because they establish the groove or feel of the song. Some well-known examples of hooks are the guitar riff from Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and the bass line in Pink Floyd’s “Money”. Whichever hook is used, it is normally the first noticeable thing in a track and it makes the listener want to hear what comes next. Plus, anytime the hook is repeated, it reminds the audience of the first time they heard it, bringing them back to the same state of excitement. This segues nicely into the next topic addressed here: continuity.
Continuity can be stated as an overall sense of organization and intent. A record must make use of its hooks in such a way as to reward the listener for their attention. A repeated hook, especially a modified version in a later track, makes the listener feel accomplished and included because he or she was paying attention and recognized the sound or feel of that motive. When an album refers to itself either musically or dynamically, it adds an extra layer of depth to the experience, pulling one in much the same way as a good book will do. To be truly excellent, there must be a sense of consistency throughout. To that end, pacing and flow can almost be considered a subset of continuity. To achieve that sense of consistency, the record has to maintain a structure within itself. If the songs and hooks are not arranged carefully, an album may end up feeling too rushed or frantic to make its intended impact. One song should flow into or toward the next in one way or another, be it through tone, emotion, rhythm, or hook. For example, maybe after a sorrowful or melancholy tune ends the artist may decide to follow up with a more upbeat, driving song to redirect the listener’s attention. As such, a great record should have an “ebb and flow” feel; it should have its ups and downs in terms of emotion and tempo. And finally, much like a decent essay, the end of the record should in some way bring everything full circle back to the introduction and show some sort of progress through the album. It should be like looking back at the end of a long, arduous journey, especially if that journey is one that your audience can relate to in some sort of personal way. Speaking of which…
Cultural impact can be a huge part of making or breaking a rock album. Through history, the attitudes and values of every culture change drastically from one period to another: from the anti-war “hippie” era of the sixties to the hard-rocking, angry-young-man discovery period of the seventies, from the manic and over-the-top through the eighties and then into the grittier, lower-key additions of the grunge period through the nineties, tastes and times change, and popular music reflects that change better than most anything else. A truly great record strikes a chord at the very being of an audience; it seems to know you who are and can prove it by changing how you feel during the experience. An old-time protest album comprised of bubblegum rock and folksy guitar lines wouldn’t make a dent in today’s industry, but a driving rhythm and slightly confusing synth riff seems to be right at home. It’s important for an artist to know the world around him and to be a voice for what he really believes in. Timing is everything.
There are millions of great rock records out there today, many of which have several great songs on them. However, only a handful of these can be said to be truly excellent, and they seem to have a few key traits in common. The hooks draw a listener in, continuity keeps him involved and invested, the pacing and flow take him for a ride, and then his own personal experiences along with the final wrap-up of the album leave him thinking for a long time to come. These are the records that really hit home, and these are the truly excellent rock albums of our time.
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