I’ve been reading record reviews for more than 40 years. Magazines, newspapers, blogs … there is always more than a little to read about a band and its new album.
Any number of superlatives are thrown at these albums: Classic. Transformative. Legendary. Otherworldly. I’ve read a lot of choice adjectives over the years.
But there is one descriptive I rarely see, if I ever have. That word is perfect. After all, creating the perfect album is a pretty hard thing to do.
The modern music industry is largely geared around singles. Now that many consumers seem to prefer to build their music libraries one track at a time, the quality of an entire album doesn’t seem to be quite as important.
It will surprise few to learn I am an exception to this musical rule of thumb. There was a time when I could buy an album based solely on a single track. But those were the pre-family expenses days. Now, I have to be a bit more selective, since disposable income is at a premium. More often than not, I have to like at least three tracks before I take the plunge.
Even with my favorite artists, it’s not realistic to expect every release to contain nothing but instant classics. Perfection is, by my personal listening standards, practically unattainable. But a a few special releases have managed to strike me as absolutely perfect.
What makes an album perfect? Well, let’s start with the most obvious statement of all: perfection is in the ear of the listener. It is far and away one of the highly subjective categorizations one can imagine. What’s perfect to me might not even be a blip on your musical radar. So it should go without saying that anything I put on my list is based on MY opinion, and MY opinion ONLY. I’m sure the urge to compare lists will come from anyone reading those opinions. Not only do I welcome these comparisons, I look forward to them.
Also bear in mind that there are a LOT of incredible albums that won’t achieve my definition of perfection. It could be a matter of one song, sound, or minute lyric that puts me off just a little. But that will be enough to knock the album in question out of contention.
That being said, allow me to offer up my personal criteria. This should give you a pretty good idea of what it takes for me to see an album as perfect.
- Is the album truly unique? Something about the perfect album should stick out from the very outset. It should break new ground, be revolutionary, or take me into completely foreign musical territory. This doesn’t have to be solely about the music, per se. Recording techniques, unique arrangements, odd chord changes … anything showing deep thought from the musicians involved goes a long way toward perfection.
- Am I captivated from the beginning? The instant the needle drops or I hit “play,” I should be drawn in. First impressions are the most important, they say. So I should be compelled from the get-go.I can’t think of a single perfect album on my list that didn’t have me at Note One. Few albums start better than Radiohead’s Kid A. “Everything in its Right Place” sets the tone for the rest of the album beautifully. Yet that album did not make my list.
- Can I join the record at any point and still be excited? If I’m flipping through radio stations, a song from that album should pretty much stop me in my tracks. Steve Vai once said when he heard Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” come on the radio, everything he was doing stopped, no matter what. I know exactly how he feels, and I second that emotion. For an album to be perfect, I have to feel that way about every single track. By the way, none of Vai’s records made my list, either.
- Is the music timeless? I’ve listened to more than a few albums I once thought perfect. But upon hearing them several years later, all I could hear was the era in which that album was made. Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life springs immediately to mind. It’s still a great record (it really is), but I can hear the mid-’80s all over the production, and that’s distracting. Thus, perfection is impossible. Sure, there may be sounds of the times playing a role in some perfect albums. But those elements shouldn’t dominate the recording.
- Does the album stand up to repeated plays? This seems obvious, but I feel it must be said. I want to know that I’ll never get sick of this album, no matter how many times I play it. There are tons of albums that I may not be able to get enough of for a couple of weeks, but then I have to put them away for a while. A perfect album never gets shelved due to personal ear fatigue.
- Will I move mountains to own a copy? If I go to my favorite record store to buy a copy of a certain album and they don’t have it, I’m not resting until I find it somewhere else! Sometimes that means going to one or more other record stores. Sometimes that means making a special order. Sometimes that means Amazon or Discogs or CD Baby. The point is, my world will not be right until I have that record. This happened a lot after the Great Download Debacle of 2006 (which I discuss in my book). That’s how important those albums are and will be.
- Does the music move me emotionally? Great music should elicit some kind of reaction. A sly smile. A tear. A shake of the hips. An unrestrained outburst of “air” guitar or drums. Anything! Otherwise, what’s the point in playing the music? When I think of an album like Prince’s Lovesexy, I’m always put in the mood to move. With one exception: the song “I Wish You Heaven” does absolutely nothing for me. It’s just there. I call it a “stock Prince song,” and it ruins an otherwise perfect record.
- Will I recommend the album to a stranger, without hesitation? You may find this hard to believe, but I have engaged a stranger or two in conversations about music. I have been asked more than once which album I would recommend as an entry point to a new (to them) artist. That perfect album should fly from my lips almost involuntarily. That’s how good it is. When I say, “You must own this album,” I’m speaking for a pretty high level of enthusiasm.
Someone reading this just said something along the lines of, “Well with that kind of criteria, NOTHING you’ve heard can possibly be perfect!”
Exactly. That’s my point. Perfection is a near impossibility. But a few have, in fact, done it.
And so, from time to time, I would ask for your tolerance while I attempt to make my case for the perfect albums in my collection. I’m sure you have a few in your collection as well, and can’t wait to tell me about them. I’m all for it! I ask only one thing, which I can always remember hearing from my math teachers: show your work! In other words, defend your positions.
Let’s have some fun.
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