The Perfect Album
I have a few criteria for what constitutes a perfect album; some of my points are about content, and others are about presentation. I note before getting into the details that my criteria are not entirely subjective—perhaps more objective than most—because I talk about production values as well as aesthetic ones. I want to be clear that this is not a list of favorite albums. A perfect album can be one I respect as perfect, but it might not be my favorite, and I might not listen to it as often as some others.
Most critics fail utterly in making distinctions between their personal taste and what they present as great art; I am very clear that those two categories do not necessarily overlap, as any honest and reasonably impartial critic will admit. The things we love the most are often flawed. The things we respect the most might not be our personal favorites. It is wise to be aware of the distinction.
Here's my criteria:
A perfect album carries a piece of music that is perfect in itself; you cannot imagine adding to or taking away from it, it is complete and self-contained. It might be a set of songs that are complete in themselves, as songs, but also add up together to form a larger experience, a unified whole. A perfect album is a unified experience just as much as it is a compilation of pieces.
In a perfect album, there is not one misstep in the writing, no slack pieces, no filler. Every piece was meant to be there, and you cannot imagine the album without them. (Note: Most listeners tend to pay attention to music on the song-level, rather than the album-level. That's a problem, because there are plenty of great albums that were composed to be complete albums, to make a journey, to carry you all the way through a story.) The songs may be eclectic in style, but the segues between them are all good and appropriate.
A perfect album is just the right length to leave you feeling satiated and complete, but also wanting more. You are enticed to go back and listen to it all over again. A perfect album invites repeated listening, and each time you listen to it, you hear something new in it. A perfect album is endless, and mysteriously bottomless in terms of your attention, even as it is a self-contained entity with known limits to its duration.
A perfect album has perfect production and mixing: all the voices are clear and present and appropriately placed and mixed. The sounds are good, the microphones were well-chosen and placed, the panning and placement in the aural field of each voice is good and true. The mixing must be perfectly appropriate for the character of the music: glossy where it should be, grungy where it must be.
In a perfect album, sometimes the singer's voice is not placed front and center. Are you surprised by that? Then you've been hoodwinked by popular music's habitual assumptions about mixing and voice placement. Sometimes a really good song pulls you in because the mix makes you work to hear what's going on; that is one kind of perfect and appropriate mix.
A perfect album has all the right and true instrumental choices in the arrangement and the mix. When it's supposed to be a guitar solo, it has one. When it's supposed to be solo piano, that's what it has. When symphonic strings are appropriate, there they are. It's as if the arranger read your mind. (Good arrangers and composers have a knack for appropriate instrumentation, a truth rarely known or discussed outside music-theoretical circles.) A perfect album can range over a lot of styles and moods, and have great variety in its arrangements. The important thing to remember is that the production values and performance choices all serve the music, and in service to the music, do whatever is necessary acoustically and musically.
Sometimes serving the music means that a perfect album's author and/or producer hired the right session musicians, the right performers, the perfect musicians, the right orchestra. Picking the best people for the job is what the great record producers and recording artists have always known how to do, and the results can be a quantum leap greater than if those particular musicians had not been involved. This is one area in which synergy matters a great deal, and can be most obvious to the listener's ear.
A perfect album can be hard for some people to listen to, because it doesn't meet their preconceived notions of what (good) music should be; usually these are unquestioned cultural notions, things that people think are right and true only because they've heard them done that way a zillion times before. But the masses are not always right. Sometimes the surprising choice can push a piece of music to the next level, to a place where it transcends everything around it. A perfect album can also be hard for some people to listen to because it is an intense emotional experience; it stretches them and makes them think and feel, when they would rather be passively entertained. But a perfect album is not passive entertainment: it invites actively listening, active participation, active response.
When you listen to a perfect album, there's nothing you could change or improve. Nothing to be added, nothing that can be safely taken away. All wheat, no chaff. It is all as it must be, as it should have been.
Some artists achieve individual perfect songs or pieces of music, but never make a perfect album. Sometimes a perfect album depends on the artist's collaborators and peers who helped it all come together and synergize into something greater than the sum of its parts. The list of perfect songs, performances, and pieces of music, is another list for another day.
Here's a short, partial list of what I know are perfect albums. I've no doubt left a few off the list. There is overlap here with my "desert island" list of music—those albums you'd want to have with you if you marooned on a desert island, and had nothing else to listen to for a long time—but that list is slightly different. What I might take with me are things that are comfort-food albums as much as they are perfect albums; so some of those for one reason or another might not make this list, although they are otherwise beloved albums.
Joni Mitchell: Hejira
Steely Dan: Aja
Henryk Gorecki: Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Dawn Upshaw, soprano; the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman.
Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians.
Nicky Skopelitis: Ekstasis. (Produced by Bill Laswell, who has more than his fair share as a producer and bassist of perfect albums to his credit.)
Pete Namlook and Bill Laswell: Psychonavigation
Mike Oldfield: Ommadawn
Astor Piazzolla: Tango: Zero Hour. (Produced by Kip Hanrahan, who own albums released under his own name often approach perfection, and are otherwise simply amazing musical documents in their own right.)
Wendy Carlos: Switched-on Bach
Yo-Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach (the 6 Cello Suites)
King Crimson: Discipline
John Cage, with David Tudor: Indeterminacy
John Coltrane: Ascension
Louis Sclavis/Dominique Pifarély: Acoustic Quarter
Jan Garbarek, with Ralph Towner: Dis
Henry Wolff & Nancy Hennings: Tibetan Bells. (The first in a series; only this first record has not made the transition to CD, which is a loss to humanity.)
David Sylvian & Robert Fripp: The First Day
The Tony Bennett / Bill Evans Album
Enigma: M C M X C a.D.
Jonathon Elias: Requiem for the Americas: Songs from the Lost World
Peter Gabriel: Us
Low Pop Suicide: The Disengagement EP
Addendum: A few more albums to be added to the list.
Willie Nelson: Stardust
Tom Waits: Rain Dogs