When I purchase an album, I usually try to listen to every track at least once before I begin the critiquing process.
To get things started, here are the core things that I assess whether creating or listening to a song and selecting keepers:
- Content: What is the song about?
Number one on my list when it comes to determining quality music is lyrical content. Whether it’s a rap, ballad, or rock piece, rhetoric matters the most. Regardless of how beautiful or rhythmic it sounds, if the writing is garbage, the rest of the song might as well be.
Word play, prose, alliteration, syntax – all of this matters when it comes to putting together a song, along with the level at which is fashioned. I would argue that the most work and talent is put into the lyrics of a song itself, and not necessarily the performance or delivery of it. My hat is tipped to those who serve as “ghostwriters”, often receiving little to no credit at all for their hand in crafting whether it’s secular or non-secular. Their contribution matters.
Are there gray areas? Sure. What do I mean by that? If an R&B artist who mostly sings about love and relationships switches up their tune a little and decides to make a fun song or two dedicated to how much they love animals, then there’s no harm in that. Music is an expression of our feelings and human nature, and a part of that is silliness and fun, especially when it comes to children’s music. In fact, some musicians even specialize in what I call “the art of facetiousness”. Ever hear of Weird Al” Yankovich?
Anyways, to put it plainly, there is time and a place for everything, and if you find yourself dipping too much into unfamiliar territory, it may end up decreasing the quality of your work rather than increasing it. There has to be consistency and a clear definition of what the music in general is all about.
- Originality: How creative is it?
I don’t typically like following trends and keeping up with the latest fads. I marvel at how swift people are to conform with every new thing that comes up- sometimes mindlessly. From the latest gadgets, internet slang, popular album, hairstyles, and more. I just wish people would think more for themselves, be more original, and consider carefully before putting on “the new black”. As for me, like I said, I don’t like to follow trends. I like to start them. -Bandy
As you may notice, I’m Big on originality. Why? Because I have deep appreciation and respect for those who sincerely labor with their own hearts and minds to give audiences a taste of who they are. I love it when people take moments of silence away from the clamor of the world to give others something that is “exclusively theirs” and not cut from the cloth of what is popular and stereotypical. Having such qualities makes one more unique and less predictable, I believe, which in turn adds even more anticipation for successive projects.
Are there exceptions? Absolutely! The world is filled with a lot of talented people, and several have come along and “done it right” in terms of honoring another person’s work by doing their own rendition of it. There was Aretha Franklin with “Respect“, Jennifer Hudson with “And I’m Telling You“, John Lennon with “Stand By Me“, and the list could go on. Once again, there are some who succeed at this thereby gaining more respect, and there are many who do not, heartfelt as they may have been. In my opinion, certain things need to be left as they were and re-doing would actually be more of a disservice. And being real, not everybody can get away with doing a cover either due to their lack of experience, lack of maturity as an artist, or their own reputation.
My advice to many artists would be to stick with their own flow. Use the blocks that others have laid before them as stepping stones and not crutches. Being unique is not a bad thing and should be embraced.
(Food For Thought: From the Christian perspective, every person is gifted with a different but useful function, no matter how big it is. In the end, we are all woven together to form a beautiful masterpiece, harmonious and acceptable in the sight of God. -ref 1 Corinthians 12:4-31)
- Production: How does the music sound?
The actual music behind the vocals plays a big role as well. It often can “make or break” a track in terms of how well it is received. For example, I’ve listened to a number of tracks where the lyricism was great, but the production fell through, causing me to only give it a listen or two before shelving it. In fact, in the Christian Hip Hop realm specifically, there are a few artists whose album I feel could have ‘reached’ a broader audience if more ‘work’ was put into the production.
Does it have a neat, clean sound? If it sounds like it was composed using an app on a phone or was mixed with some cheap editing software down in someone’s basement, could that cause me to tune out? Yes. Note, I said if it sounds like it was created via those means. Meaning, if I can hear that was poorly made then that could be a potential deal breaker for me. It’s hard for me to listen long to something if it sounds grainy and full of static, partially because it would literally hurt my ears.
Another important aspect of production is creativity. This touches back on originality to a certain degree. Auto-tune is often a major turn off if it’s not used properly or in small doses. Nowadays, it seems to be the instrument of choice, especially for break out artists. Another ‘trend’ I wish were just done away with due to over usage. Additionally, if a song comes off as your “typical” pop song or your typical rap song, hitting all the ‘right’ ‘cues’ and sounds like “all the rest”, what would ‘draw’ me to wanting to listen to it over the next pop song? I believe part of being a musician is developing your own sound, giving you something that distinguishes you from the rest. Otherwise, as I mentioned before, how much motivation would there be to hear you over someone else?
This is def not a diss but rather a challenge for artists or producers to be creative. Don’t be afraid to blend various instruments, notes, and rhythms. Even if it doesn’t sound so great, I at least give credit to those who fearlessly tried venturing outside of the box.
- Performer(s): Who’s singing/rapping/featured?
This category is as simple as it sounds. How much I’d be willing to give ear to a particular album or even song can largely be based upon who is actually performing it. This would depend on a lot of things, including (but not limited to)- 1) How consistent the artist/group has been with making successful albums, 2) The general direction the artist/group has gone content & sonically speaking, 3) The overall talent of the artist/group and whether or not there has been marked progression or regression since their debut, 4) The reputation of the artist/group.
In addition to these factors, collaboration albums/songs are looked at as well. For instance, a Robin Thicke featuring Pharrell Williams song may not stir concern, but perhaps a Lecrae featuring Lil Wayne song would. I have noticed that more and more artists have been “experimenting” with different sounds in recent years. This has seemingly been even more prominent in the hip hop realm, with artists who have blended rap with rock, or rap with soul or pop. Reach Records, which is primarily a hip hop label, actually did a whole remix album one year where they remastered several of their “classics” and meshed them a variety of rock themes, instruments, and sounds. A move like that was risky, but it certainly was worth it especially since it was during the peak of the MySpace days. The album was def a success in my books, and I am glad to have heard it.
- Re-playability: Can I listen more than once?
One of the first things that I ask myself upon first listening to an album is can I put this on repeat? In other words, would I give this record or album a second spin? Something that I cannot stand is getting excited about a purchase-maybe due to the artist/group being ‘beloved’ or there being a lot of ‘hype’ about it- popping it in the cd player (yes, I said cd player), and then being upset that money I just spent was essentially lost due to there being no desire whatsoever to listen to it a second time. Overall, my aim is to make invest, support, and promote things that are quality and will hold a decent lifespan in my collection. Unfortunately, for a lot of albums, they were indeed “one-hit-wonders”, permanently laid to rest in my rolodex of old.
Granted, there are some songs or albums that while they meet all the criteria for a great hit, have what I consider the “Mayfly Effect”. This is another way of saying that they can get old quickly, and sometimes, if played too much can even progress into an annoying/grieving status. I cannot tell you how many well-made songs have been tragically laid to rest due to my over-playing of them. These days, I have learned to be careful to not accelerate the life span of a track or album and to preserve its quality by listening in small enough doses.
- Relevance: Do songs flow with the theme of the album?
Last but not least, consistency is honestly the glue that binds it all together. If an album has a title to it, my general expectation is that the songs included will reflect that topic to some extent. What I listen to will be connected to the overall theme that the artist is trying to convey to their audience. This is the general expectation, but yet again, there are those whose albums do not connect at all to the theme, making it difficult for one to fully appreciate it.
Theoretically speaking, if an artist labels their album “Memoirs of My Life”, I can expect there to be less of a specified connection between tracks because one’s life is such a broad spectrum to dig into. They could talk about what it was like to grow up or their love for family or whatever without much cause for confusion. However, let’s say an album is titled “Memoirs of My Pain”, then the theme is a bit more specified. Each or most of the songs would feature some aspect of this artist’s pain.
Mind you, this is all in theory. I am not saying that there is not room for bonus tracks, remixes, and what have you. I am speaking generally in terms of what someone is purporting to ‘advertise’, if you will, vs what they actually give you and whether or not that message is clearly communicated through the songs.
This may not matter to some people, but I suppose for myself, it helps me to understand and appreciate the artist and their work when I do not have to try extremely hard to figure out how a project ties all together.
My last bit of advice for listeners is that if you manage to find a “keeper”, support it! Cop it, share it, let the world know why you feel it’s great. Bootleg is not the answer, and it’s a slap in the face to the artist(s) you may have grown to love and respect. Stay away from the YouTube MP3 Converter sites, and get your music the old fashioned way: in dollars and cents. I made it a point in my teenage years that unless someone gifted it to me, that I would purchase all of my music myself and show love in that way. I would want others to do that for me.
So, there you have it. Here is my list for how I analyze and rate music. You may or may not agree fully with me or you may even have some add ons. For now, this is where I begin. Overtime, I hope to build trust with my readers, and I haply welcome suggestions, ideas, and feedback over what is shared.
*Note- Being a Christian, yes, I mostly gravitate towards Christian music, but that doesn’t mean that I have limited myself in terms of being willing to give ear to different genres and styles. As a surveyor of music, I definitely feel it important to partake in something different from time to time, whether it’s to be inspired, gauge the culture, unwind, or simply to have fun.*