Despite writing reviews for albums and singles for most of my adult life in some shape or form, it dawned on me the other day that I have very rarely given out a perfect 10/10 for a new album. In fact, the last 10 I gave out was for Jamie xx's 'In Colour' back in 2015. Now this isn't to say that last year had its fair share of great albums, but none seemed to tick all the boxes when it came down to what I consider the perfect album. Now this is all subjective, mainly for myself using the term "perfect" when describing a piece of art. But there are many angles myself and fellow reviewers look to when deciding what to rate an album. So I thought I'd spend some time trying to define exactly what an album needs to be when choosing to covert it in the glory of a top score.
This is a characteristic that can work both ways. On one hand, an album that is too diverse and expansive in its sound can become a little mismatched. Skepta's recent record 'Konnichiwa' trod very cross to this line for a number of reasons. Mainly because some of the singles on the full-length had been written and released long before the album was finished, resulting in a record that didn't gel as well together as it should. The other being that the range of his target market was far too broad. There were tracks in amongst his brilliant grime records that aimed to appeal too much to an American audience, which meant the listener would feel quite jarred while listening. But if you catch that diversity line just right, you can end up with a result that sounds fresh after each song, and still manages to maintain a core style throughout.
At the end of the day, the artist must be aware that people will want to listen to the album. It sounds obvious but we find ourselves far too often listening to music that seems only interested in appeasing the artist who wrote it. It's fine to be interesting within your sound and work to impress those that listen, but too far down the wrong path and you can find yourselves alienating your listeners. Whether it be from a new artist or one that has been going for years, no-one is interested in the self-obessed rambling of an artist looking to express themselves. I understand that there is great honour and nobility in being true to yourself, but having that at the expense of your audience is not the way to go. After all, this is still a business and record sales are still matter.
An easier-said-than-done category here. We all wish that we could pick up an instrument and create a whole new genre that takes the world by storm, but the reality is that 99.9% of the time, artists are going to be influenced by other artists. But those who can find inspiration without carbon-copying a sound are true masters of their art. And while the music industry is filled with samplers and stolen ideas, it is those that use those ideas to create something different that truly stand out. It means that when listening to a song from a familiar artist, you can tell who it is but at the same time, experience something completely new. Originality may be hard to achieve, but those that do are the ones we see topping Albums Of The Year lists time and time again.
This is probably one of the harder things to achieve in today's short attention spans. Simply being able to recite a piece of music you just heard is actually a very difficult thing to achieve. For example, listen to an album you've never heard before right now, and then try and hum any part of it in an hour or so. For most, this is incredibly difficult, yet if I asked you to do the same with Smashmouth's 'Rockstar', you'd have no problem. This is not because of repeat plays or over-exposure, but simply that some songs just have the power to stand out and infect your head. Whether it be a catchy chorus or a banging opening riff, most songs we hear day to day aren't given a second-thought, while others demand that we come back to them again and again.
For an album to truly be great, you have to want to listen to it again. Much like a great film, where you already know exactly what is going to happen but feel the need to simply experience it all over again. This is probably the most subjective part of this list as only the listener can decide whether or not it is worth revisiting. I massively enjoyed Radiohead's 'A Moon Shaped Pool' album last year, but if I'm honest, I've never gone back for a second go. And maybe that's the experience they wanted to give their listener, but if I am going to award it a perfect 10, I'm going to be sure that I come back again and again for another dose.
While I can appreciate this being a largely opinionated piece, told from my own personal preferences, it doesn't take away why so many reviewers usually draw the same conclusions. Because when it comes to deciding what makes a great album, being unbiased is the whole point of the exercise. If you asked me what the best album last year was, I would say Nick Cave. But my favourite album was A Tribe Called Quest, because I felt I enjoyed that album more but couldn't allow those feelings to take away the greatness of albums from others. Reviewing music isn't an exact science, but it has an understanding that allows us to find the brilliance in new music, even if we are personally not keen on the record.