Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What Makes a Great Album

On Tuesday at work, I learned that some people at the company I work for had learned that I have a blog because someone in the music industry had read Monday's post about my review of Kaya's album and wanted to know who I was. I'm hesitant about letting people know I have a blog, particular employers because you never know how people take things. A few months ago, a former employee's blog was discovered and it created quite a stir.

I knew there was a risk of discovery if I reviewed Kaya's album on my blog, but I decided the risk was worth it because this album is truly amazing and worth promoting. I have been listening to it at least 5 times a day for the past week and a half, sometimes back to back listening sessions! It just grows on me from the first listen and has a positive effect on my personal energy dynamic.

When a co-worker walked up to my cubicle to announce that my blog had been discovered and people were interested in my review, I felt embarrassed. In my review, I was giving my honest "first impression" and I felt bad that I mentioned not being taken by Kaya's singing voice. I did not mean to give any impression that this was a "flaw" in any way. Singers have different and unique voices. Some are better than others. Among my favourite male voices, Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, Eros Ramazzotti, Youssou N'Dour, and Peter Gabriel stand out as incredible voices that I love listening to. I think Youssou N'Dour, in particular, has the most unique voice of all.

But there is more than just the singing voice to take into consideration. My all-time favourite singer is Johnny Clegg. I remember reading somewhere that Johnny Clegg considers himself a songwriter and anthropologist first, a musician second, and a singer third. He has a unique voice that is easily identifiable, but if I were to compare voices, as much as I love Clegg's music, he's no Bocelli. And he doesn't have to be, because his music is great and he has a unique niche all his own.

That's how I feel about Kaya. Yes, I was not impressed by his vocal talents on the first few listens (I would not have described it as "husky" but "muffled", as it is sometimes hard to hear what he's singing). But I've probably listened to the album at least 40 times now and the voice is part of magic of his music. At first, I thought, "This would sound even better if Josh Groban was singing it!" But, while I like the incredible sound of Groban's voice, I don't like every song that he sings.

When it comes to music, the melody is the most important to me. This is ironic, coming from a writer and I've actually had arguments with guys in the Navy over melody versus lyrics as being the most important aspect of a song. For me, though, I actually feel music so the melody matters. Plus, since adolescence, I've been exposed to foreign pop songs (in German, French, Italian, Thai, and Spanish) and my like or dislike (or indifference) was purely based on the sound of the song. Was the melody catchy, inspiring, moving? Did it grab me or resonate at a deep level? After melody, the lyrics play the next most important role. One development that I liked in music was the use of sampling. For example, in 1999 0r 2000, Jessica Simpson scored a hit that used the melody of John Mellencamp's classic from the 1980s "Jack and Diane." The song had brand new lyrics and was called "I Think I'm In Love With You." The melody remained the same but she made it fresh. Some music critics call sampling "laziness", but I think its much better to reuse a great melody and have new lyrics than to "remake" the same song. It might turn out even better the second time around (consider it a form of musical reincarnation).

Lyrics can add greatly to the genius of a song. Or it could be humourous. Think about the song "Bad Touch" by the Bloodhound Gang. Not only is the melody catchy as hell, but so are the lyrics. What might the song be like if it told a more serious message / story? To use a more recent example, I've been meaning to review Madonna's latest CD. Some of the songs have strange lyrics, which harms the song. This album has not been selling well and as a review in Rolling Stone magazine pointed out, more than half the songs on the album reference her ex-husband Guy Ritchie, and not in a good way. It's an angry album, even if the music is dance floor trance. Too bad. Madonna is someone who doesn't have a great singing voice, but I have all of her CDs and I love her music, though she can overkill on the sex topic.

So there you have it. When it comes to music, melody is #1 for me, lyrics #2, and voice is #3. Music / melody is the most important because it has an effect on my soul. It usually takes a few listens for me to get a sense of an album and it'll either hook me or it won't. With a band like U2, I was never fully taken by The Joshua Tree, which most people consider a masterpiece. I love a few songs, but as a whole, I just didn't love it. When Achtung, Baby came out, I wasn't interested in giving it a fair listen until a friend of mine sent me a copy. I was taken in by the first listen and loved it. Then they followed up with another great album, Zooropa. I was not a fan of 1997's Pop but their 2000 release All That You Can't Leave Behind took me in at the first listen and refused to let go nearly two years later. It now sits comfortably at #3 on my list of Favourite Albums of All Time (behind Johnny Clegg and Savuka's Cruel Crazy Beautiful World at #1 and Midnight Oil's Earth and Sun and Moon at #2). In 2009, I was really excited about U2's latest release, No Line on the Horizon. I bought it on release day but after a few listens, it simply failed to grab me. I like a few songs on there, but it was a dud.

It is actually quite rare that I will like every single song on an album. Even Johnny Clegg's last release, Human, from 2010 (its a great album that was my favourite release that year) has a song or two that I'm not in love with. I think the last album that I heard where I loved every single track is by Portland band The Retrofits on their 2007 release, Away From Here. That album had heavy rotations on my CD player. I was still listening to it quite a bit two years after its release. Madonna's Confessions on a Dance Floor is an example of an album I did not like on the first few listens, but it eventually grew on me to the point where I was still listening to it quite a bit two years after its release.

So, where do I put Kaya's Born Under the Star of Change? I believe that this album will continue to be played frequently on my CD player through the end of summer. In fact, I had the thought recently that this album has all the ingredients to be a great "Road Trip album." I need to take this album on the road and blast it from the car stereo as I'm driving through some gorgeous scenery. Perhaps that's something to do this summer.

I really love this album and can't stop listening to it. What an amazing discovery. I appreciate all the hard work and love that went into making such a fantastic album. Even the arrangement of the songs is perfect (the best albums I find are ones where the first track is a strong opening song that gets your attention and then the second song is an even better song, so it builds on your anticipation, with strong songs throughout and ending on a strong, contemplative note). I said in my review that "One Word" was my favourite of the 13 tracks. That is true, but "The Day of Questions" is a close second. I can't get enough of that song. I'll listen to it on repeat. This is the song I'd love to blast on the car stereo while driving down the highway singing along.

Its funny to think that I had recently lamented the state of music today and how difficult it is to find great, inspiring music. Then Born Under the Star of Change comes along and reminds you what great music is supposed to sound like. I'm pretty confident that I will likely not hear a better album than this one for the remainder of 2012.

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