Great Albums and Music that Feels Tangible
Music is an intangible sound or collection of sounds. It’s not something you can physically see, touch or grasp but you can feel it, you can become immersed in it and you can hear it. Good music often takes over our senses in ways that feel tangible. Sometimes you can hold a song in your hands. You can taste the emotions when they are undeniably loud and clear, delivered over intricately crafted beats or undeniably heart-stopping vocals. There’s a difference between creating music for the sake of it and creating music because it is an active duty, an outlet and a journey. When you feel an artist’s soul through their work, that album slowly transforms into the soundtrack of your life; a piece of moveable intangible art that you hold dear and carry with you for however long it resonates. This article is about exploring what great albums have in common and why great albums are special and important.
There are currently many factors in the music industry, which discourage artists from making longer projects or albums. Shorter albums or EPs (as opposed to longer albums) result in more streams and revenue for artists because audiences are more inclined to listen to shorter albums more consistently than longer ones. This explains the increased trend of very short EPs, typically with four to six songs. In recent years, there’s also been a huge focus on playlists as opposed to albums. Audiences, (particularly casual music listeners) are more likely to listen to their favourite Spotify or Apple Music playlist, which typically includes music from artists they enjoy listening to. Ten years ago this wasn’t the case, as audiences were more inclined to listen to their favourite artist’s work directly and not through a tailored playlist. As a result, many artists are not only paying streaming platforms to get their songs featured on prominent playlists, but these artists are also judging their worth and work according to whether or not their music is showcased on certain playlists. This is worrying because it takes the focus away from creating great, experimental albums. Instead, many artists are compelled to limit themselves and create songs that ‘work well’ for a specific type of playlist, not what they truly want to create. Although many artists, (particularly in the indie and alternative music space) do not subscribe to these constraints, it is still a prevalent flaw of the streaming service industry today. Streaming is often described as a great innovation which has made it easy for us to access and listen to music. While this is true, streaming has also made it really difficult for artists to sometimes see the point in spending hours on a long and full body of work that many listeners might not fully digest or take the time to appreciate and understand. It makes more economic sense for less established artists to release a few singles a year or create short EPs – both options being a lot more cost effective than creating a sixteen to nineteen track album.
I’m here to remind any artist reading this that people will care enough to listen if the music is great. Maybe not the whole world, but someone or a group of people will see you and hold your music in their hands as if it was a baby, their baby that they want to keep and nurture and hold unto even if it’s for a season, even if it’s the only source of joy which turns into normalcy because your music has become apart of them. Brandy’s third studio album, ‘Full Moon,’ (2002) did this for me while I was stressed, tired and anxious about my law exams. It was all I could listen to while I revised and it became the backdrop to my life for that particular moment, giving me a sense of self, reminding me of what I love when I felt displaced and anxious about my future. Tyler’s ‘Flower Boy,’ did the same for me at a very transitionary period in my life, when I was in that grey area where you feel yourself healing from a breakup but you still have this lingering feeling that you will never fully be over it. I credit Tyler’s ‘Flower Boy,’ (2017) album as one of those projects that pushed me out of the grey and into the white, clear opening where joy was possible – Tyler’s acceptance of himself and the positive energy on a lot of the songs felt infectious. ‘A Seat at the Table,’ by Solange is timeless. I felt stuck when that album came out in 2016 and it held me through my stillness. I recognised my feelings and myself through ‘Cranes in the Sky,’ and I felt empowered by ‘Don’t touch my hair.’ ‘Channel Orange,’ by Frank Ocean was released in summer 2012. I listened to it every single day of that summer, like the album would run away from me if I didn’t play it constantly.
There are many other albums that feel special to me but I decided to discuss these iconic contemporary albums to demonstrate a simple observation: we often remember where we were in our lives, what we were doing and the emotions or feelings that a special project brought out of us. Each of these albums and many more have done that for me and I’m sure if you’re reading this, the albums that have done the same for you fleetingly crossed your mind (or at the very least I hope they did).
A great album should have a theme. This doesn’t mean an album should be perfectly tailored or explore specific emotions or topics. Artists should have the freedom to explore or convey anything within their music but there should be a common thread that ties all the songs together. Without a theme, a project can easily sound like a disjointed playlist as opposed to a well-crafted album. For instance, some of Drake’s projects lack a theme and often times feel like playlists. There are great standouts on ‘More Life,’ (2017) but I could not tell you a single theme of that album. This was my major critique of ‘More Life,’ and more recently ‘Certified Lover Boy.’ (2021) Drake shines when his albums have a message and theme that runs through them. I love ‘Nothing Was The Same,’ (2013) because it feels like the perfect blend of who Drake is as an artist. The theme of that album to me is honesty. Not just through emotional vulnerability as reflected on ‘Own it,’ ‘Connect,’ and ‘From Time,’ but also Drake’s honesty to himself and his audience. ‘Nothing Was the Same,’ really shows his ability to occupy a delicate space where he embraces emotions and explores them like an R&B artist but also gives us rapper bars, great cadence and arrogance on ‘Tuscan leather,’ and ‘Pound Cake.’
It is also possible for a project to have a perceived theme before audiences even get the chance to listen. Sometimes this is good if interesting visuals or great singles are released before the album’s official launch. For instance, Ayra Starr had dropped ‘Bloody Samaritan,’ and ‘Fashion Killer,’ before the official release of her debut album. When ‘19 and Dangerous’ finally came out, I expected a great body of work and the themes of confidence and self-acceptance were already at the forefront of my mind, just off the back of those two singles.
On the flip side, the actions of an artist prior to an album release can also associate the album with negative connotations, therefore discouraging listeners from giving the album a chance. Drake is a clear indication of this. I have not listened to his joint project with 21 Savage ‘Her Loss,’ because I don’t need to hear or stream an album or song where Drake blatantly gaslights Megan thee Stallion over her shooting, in support of Tory Lanez. Women who like Drake’s music are not in the dark about his misogyny, which is a sad but common product of rap music. However, the lack of support for Megan was harrowing and made me (and probably many other women) re-evaluate my commitment to Drake’s artistry and music. I had such a negative reaction to the way he made Megan feel that the album (or anything else Drake had to say on the album) no longer mattered to me. The album was already tainted before I got a chance to listen. Sometimes, that in itself is a theme and in my opinion, it’s a theme artists should try to avoid.
Due to the increased rate at which new music is currently being advertised, released and showcased to listeners across various streaming platforms and social media, it’s become much harder for albums and projects to gain longevity but it’s not impossible. Longevity is difficult to strive for or anticipate but it’s achievable with time, patience, great skill and a love for creating authentic music. I think longevity is what differentiates a good or great project from a timeless; classic one. Anyone creating an album should consider whether they are creating music for the moment, or music that will last and impact a genre in a positive way. Only albums with longevity become foundational blueprints which do not fade with time. I’m reminded of Lauryn Hill’s album ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ which changed the way artists merged hip hop and R&B. ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ (1998) showed that it is possible to be yourself and still arrest attention and make an impact. R&B would sound very different if artists didn’t have that blueprint and source of inspiration to revisit and study. Another album that has longevity to me is Asa’s self-titled debut which sounded so authentic, visionary and soulful in a way that makes you know from the moment you listen that it will continue feeling special for years to come. It’s shaped me and so many people who love Nigerian music and have believed in its capability for variety and greatness for a very long time.
A great album should feel like a sonic movie. I think this is why I love smooth transitions, whether it’s on an album or a live DJ set. A collection of music feels much more elevated and intricate when you can tell a lot of thought has gone into the placement and arrangement of someone’s work. Beyoncé’s most recent studio album RENAISSANCE is a great example of how amazing transitions can easily make an album feel like a sonic movie, with each song being a scene that blends seamlessly into the next.
Grace and Luck
Last but not least, it’s important to also remember that these three factors – ‘theme,’ ‘longevity,’ and ‘cohesion,’ are not the only elements needed to create a great or timeless project. The most important and possibly less talked about elements are grace and luck. Luck often being linked to greater resources, a core and unwavering fan base, a huge label pushing an artist’s project and so much more. I think understanding this helps to put things in perspective and also encourages artists to think of music creation in a much more holistic sense.
Music is ultimately emotional but the industry in which it operates is far from emotional and still a business. It can be hard to balance business; economic needs with the creative and emotional requirements needed to create a great album. In such conflicting circumstances, artists should remember and hold unto their love for music. This should be the driving force which encourages you to experiment and dedicate yourself to creating albums, irrespective of how long, unorthodox or ‘uncommercial,’ these albums might sound.
written by zbk