Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Perfect Album

There are several aspects of the perfect album of music, released as a record or CD or an MP3 playlist or whatever. Some artists achieve one perfect album, and never again; some others achieve more than one, which can be a sign of brilliance or luck, depending.

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

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

For God's sake, Art, where Dark Side of the Moon? Has there ever been a more perfect perfect album from the cover art to the mad Irishman? I don't think I took it off my record player for weeks after I got my first copy. I also rank A Momentary Lapse of Reason up there having worn out two copies of the damn thing.

I think Vangelis's soundtrack to Blade Runner is one of the outstanding albums of all time. I have all the versions of it and have probably listened to it more than Dark Side of the Moon.

I don't know how well Marillion was known in the States but I bought their first album after hearing one track once over the radio and I've bought every one since. When the lead singer, Fish, left I followed his career too. To my mind he's one of the great unsung singer songwriters if I can put it that way. Again, I think cover art is a factor and so I'd have to plump for Misplaced Childhood although the darker album Clutching at Straws comes a very close second.

I think I own everything Mike Oldfield ever put out. I love Ommadawn but I would suggest you wrap your ears around The Music of the Spheres. It is his best work in yonks. A real return to form. I'm not sure about it being perfect but it's close, damn close.

On the classical front, I never tire listening to the Naxos album with Philip Glass's Company followed by his sublime Violin Concerto. The same goes for his soundtrack to The Hours and I have the solo piano version too. Our cockatiel loves it too. On the whole although I love a huge amount of classical music I don’t tend to think of them as albums.

I've just had a quick look through all my albums and I have to say I'm finding it hard to pick perfect albums. There are a lot that I think are excellent but very few that meet your exacting criteria. I would however offer up the following:

Lou Reed: New York
U2: The Joshua Tree
Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man
Tangerine Dream: Quinoa
Lonnie Donnigan: Muleskinner Blues
Arvo Pärt: Alina, another favourite of the bird
Duke Ellington: New Orleans Suite

1:09 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I considered Dark Side of the Moon, but the truth is I don't know it well enough to put it on the list. I only ever owned the CD starting last year, and it hasn't been in heavy rotation on my stereo. (On the other hand, Sarah McLachlan's Surfacing has been, ever since I first heard it early this spring.) One discovers what one can, when one can.

But you've fulfilled my intent by providing your own list. I hope others do so, too.

I considered U2's The Joshua Tree, but again I need to re-listen to it some more. There are, to be honest, one or two songs on there that I recall as being not up to the highest standards of the rest of the album. So, by my criterion it's near-perfect but not perfect. I think that when Dan Lanois and Brian Eno team up as producers, though, perfection is often achieved.

Some of this list IS about production values, after all, not just performance and composition.

As for Ellington, I prefer the music of The Far East Suite, but you make a good case.

Again, there are several people who have written brilliant pieces, but not entire single coherent albums. That's an important distinction.

I think maybe the Velvet Underground's VU album might be on the list, but again, I need to listen to it all again.

I've never been a Cohen devotee, or a Dylan one, for that matter. I get that they wrote individual great songs, but the whole "great poet" thing in their case turns me off. I've talked about that before, too.

The Oldfield album that tends to stay in heavy rotation on my stereo lately is The Songs of Distant Earth. It's a masterpiece. But I'm not sure it's a perfect album. It's close, but there are slack moments in there, in short sections between high points.

I'm far more of a Steve Reich follower than a Phil Glass follower. Glass has done some great stuff, but he also is guilty of repeating himself (ahem) a lot. He doesn't disagree with that assessment, according to the most recent interview with him that I've read. I think his single greatest filmscore is probably Powaaqatsi. Einstein on the Beach is probably a genuine masterpiece, too. I considered the old Tomato Records LP set of Einstein for this list, but again, I need to listen to it again to be certain.

There are classical recordings that are perfect albums because they're definitive performances of a piece from the repertoire, or, like the Gorecki symphony, are contemporary masterworks by a living composer in definitive recordings. With classical, you have to consider the artists. For the Bach Cello Suites, I always loved the Janos Starker recordings more than the Casals, or all the rest; but this Ma recording, which is actually his second recording of the Suites, has become definitive one to my ears.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I also left Tom Waits off the list. I would add, having listened to a live concert of his on NPR this morning, that there should be at least one Waits album on the list. Probably either

Rain Dogs



1:40 PM  

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