How can you assess an album (and why should you bother)?

What does it mean to compare one album to another? And what do we even mean by the term "album" anyway?

In the liner notes for the first release of Pet Sounds on CD in 1990, Brian Wilson is quoted as saying that “you design the experience to be a record rather than just a song; it's the record people listen to.” This statement is guaranteed to hit home with anyone who, like myself, views the album as the ultimate artifact of modern popular music. When Wilson uses the word 'record', we music-aficionados (or 'geeks', if our friends and family are to be believed) instinctively know what he means: we're not talking here about any mere document or recording or archive; a 'record' in musical spheres is a word and a world unto its own.

On these pages I often attempt to pass judgement on records, and find myself again and again resorting to vague, and above all personal reactions to the music. I imagine that many of you will see no problem with this approach, but to me it always feels like cheating. Cheating the process of analysing the work thoroughly, but also cheating you, the reader, out of an assessment of any value. If all my opinions are based on extraneous factors (such as personal biography, class origins, previous listening experience, the variables of conditions of reception, and so on and so forth) then how can my opinion be of use to anybody but myself? It's a pressing concern for someone who foists their opinions on others, I'm sure you'll agree, so now it seems the time has come for me to nail my colours to the mast and explain what it is that I look for in an album (when, of course, I can muster the energy to assess an album properly).

The form of an album

When I describe one record as a masterwork and another as a failure I am basing these judgements on something resembling a formalist reading of the works. The success of an album in social fields – either critical or commercial – should really be of no concern; what the argument ought to hinge on is a 'pure' judgement of taste. This kind of judgement – one free from personal preconceptions and biases – is not the antithesis of an aesthetic judgement, but rather an aesthetic judgement freed of all the vagaries and uncertainty surrounding the issue of personal taste.

Accepting that different individuals can interpret a record in different ways while at the same time accepting that the record itself imposes definite limits on their room to manoeuvre is a useful way of avoiding the two extremes of, on the one hand, an infinite pluralism which allows for as many possible readings as there are readers, each equally legitimate, and on the other, an essentialism which asserts a single 'true' meaning. To find the common ground between these two options one must strip away everything but the form of the work, and in doing so one can then make a judgement both aesthetic and, nevertheless, universal.

The main obstacle for this approach is that no-one is quite sure what should actually be examined. When musicologists talk of a work's form, the general consensus is that all 'traditional' musical features – rhythm, harmony, meter, melody – are fair game for inspection. However, finding a Schenkerian 'Ursatz', for example, (a popular technique designed to discover the 'deeper structure' of long-form motivic works) is patently ridiculous within the modern popular arena; the melodic and harmonic forms of pop songs are almost by definition far too simplistic to allow for an analysis of any depth, and more importantly, to only look at the 'notes' of a work is to miss the point of a modern album entirely.

In a classical-romantic work, almost all the events of note can be divined from the score alone. Certainly one's perception of a piece would be altered if one were to see it performed live, or even to hear it on record, but in essence – provided you have a sound musical knowledge and a familiarity with the repertoire – it is perfectly possible to pass judgement on the technical finesse and craftsmanship of a composition without ever having heard it played. The same can not be said, however, of 'pop' music. For starters, one would struggle to find a complete score for any pop record. You might be able to find a 'lead sheet' notating some degree of formal design (words, melody, chord changes, etc.) but that wouldn't provide anything approaching the full picture.

Historically, due to the limitations of diastematic notation, performances could never be recorded accurately enough to preserve the idiolect of a particular performer or the exact sonic qualities of an acoustic space, but with the wonders of modern recording such preservation is now an essential part of music consumption, and any aspirant analyst of a pop or rock album needs to pay just as much attention to the (seemingly) extra-musical features as to the notes themselves.

The 'track'

A useful approach here is to make the distinction between the 'song', the 'arrangement', and the 'track'; with the song being that which can be contained in a lead sheet, the arrangement being a particular musical setting of the song, and with the track being the recording itself.  The song and the arrangement may well retain an ontological independence through lead sheets, scores, and performances, but it is the track that is the ultimate artifact – and ultimate instance – of a pop song.

The key to seeing a modern album as a genuine artistic instance lies in the distinction between what the American philosopher Nelson Goodman called the autographic and the allographic. Autographic refers to works such as paintings, where the work is unique and genuine, whereas allographic refers to works such as books and musical scores, where “all accurate copies are equally genuine instances of the work”, and it is but a small step to extend the concept of the allographic to the musical record as well. An album's identity lies in its actual sound, and while that may change somewhat from one reproduction system to another – like a painting hung in different kinds of light or space – it is essentially a fixed set of relationships.

In these kinds of discussions it's hard not to mention Walter Benjamin, who's 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction kick-started the debate over the impact of technology on the essence of art forms. He insisted that mechanical reproductions were not genuine works of art in their own right; claiming that the authenticity of an artwork relies on its “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” He categorised this unique presence as the work's aura, and argued that it was only the original work itself that could claim to have one.

So to take his point and argue that, owing to the work's allographical qualities, every reproduction of a popular song is a genuine work with its own 'aura' sounds somewhat counterintuitive, but if one accepts that the sounds emanating from a loudspeaker constitute the work's 'presence in time and space' and create an “authentic musical moment”, then the notions of presence, aura, and authenticity must be transferred to the record itself. It is not the presence of a 'unique instance' that provides an album's authenticity, but rather its unique arrangement of elements; “All instances of the work are equally original as far as the audience – from the amateur to the connoisseur – is concerned.”


This approach leaves a would-be analyst (or 'reviewer', if you prefer) with a fairly comprehensive method for judging whether an album is any good or not. However, it's not that easy; the thing to bear in mind is that this judgement is only relevant to a very specific definition of 'good'. What a formal analysis provides is a judgement on the craft and technique on display in the record; it would view the albums of Jeffrey Lewis or the Clash as being considerably worse than the schmaltz of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Elton John. A lot of music fans would say that's a fair reading, to be sure, but even a cursory look through my past reviews will show that I clearly think differently. It's clear there's something missing from this approach; namely the adoption of 'historiographic' considerations in our judgements, as well as a proper assessment of what we mean when we talk about a work's 'value', and rest assured I will attempt to unravel these problems is Part II of this post which can be found here.

[NB: being as this is merely an idle post on a blog, I've tried not to be too academic in style. I've assimilated the thinking of fair few writers and musicologists in this piece, albeit in my own words wherever possible, and a select bibliography will be attached to the final post in this series.]

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