[Updated album list, 28th June 2009 -S]

That’s actually a misquotation from Casablanca, but it’s so ingrained in our contemporary ethos that no one really cares (she actually says “Play it, Sam, play ‘As Time Goes By‘, one of the most sappy songs of all time). Bogart’s ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’ wasn’t in the original screenplay either — it was something said from Bogart to Bergman while he was trying to teach her poker in between takes.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about music. A wide, all-encompassing love for every kind of music. Except for death metal, which just doesn’t count as ‘music’. Maybe if they turn their amps down, they might be able to hear the shit they’re pumping out.

I know this is a touchy subject. Everyone has their own taste in music, which they are often irrationally proud of. ‘Yeah, I listen almost exclusively to Norwegian Death Metal, nothing else is even worth listening to.’ Most people firmly believe that their taste in music is approaching some kind of divinity, and anyone that doesn’t like their music (Impossible!!) can go stick it where the sun don’t shine.

The thing is, in general, ‘good music’ can be quite easily defined. There are a few bands and a few genres that are widely accepted as ‘good’. You won’t often find the Norwegian Death Metal lover saying that ‘Ah yeah, that Bacharach song was shit’ — some music is just so perfect. Some songs hit all the right spots, in all the right places, at just the right times. It’s this wide-scoped genre of music that I like to think I am an aficionado of. I’ve spent the last 10 years or so trying to locate, listen and identify all of the greatest albums ever made. I think I’m completely spoilt, being able to listen to some of the best music ever made, at any time. The power of digitising your CD collection!

So what makes music ‘good’? What can turn a piece of mediocre music into something truly ‘awesome’?

  • An element of excellence. Be it vocal excellence like Whitney Houston, or an instrument like Ben Folds’ piano antics, or even excellent lyrics (though this is often a subjective measure, so I’m not really going to use it as a metric for measuring ‘good music’)
  • Major tonality. This is slightly harder to get your head around, but generally this dictates ‘happy sounding’ music. Most of the anthems that you know will be in a major tonality, with some key-change later in that drives you up to the ‘next plane’ of the song. Pandora actually enlightened me to the fact that almost every song it chose for me was of ‘major tonality’ — sadly it’s a USA-only service due to licensing restrictions. Blah.
  • Does the music take you places? Do you feel positively stimulated by listening to the music? More energy? More relaxed? Often a good album (not necessarily a song) will take you on some kind of ride through the thoughts and emotions of the artist. The music needs to appeal on enough levels that it gets you involved — it needs to be intellectual, emotional or spiritual (or all 3!) . I’m not talking about just the lyric here either — the music itself can take you to all of these places too.
  • Most importantly, the music has to be so well made and so well engineered that you can listen to it time and time again, each listen-through granting you a new facet of the music, a new understanding and thus more appreciation. I’m still amazed that I can listen to a song by Marvin Gaye for the 100th time and pick out an instrument that I’ve never heard before. The quality of the recording is important here — the mixing and mastering has to be very well done so that it never detracts from your enjoyment of the music. All too often music is mastered for playing in cars — it’s heavily compressed so that you can still hear it over the driving noises, which means you’re probably never hearing what the artist wanted you to hear.

So, given the above attributes, you can start to pick out good albums (I’m not going to pick out ‘good songs’, as it’s pretty easy to make a good tune — look at Burt Bacharach and Hal David, or the Elvis Presley — it’s making a good album that’s the tricky bit).

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I can almost guarantee you will enjoy each of these albums. You’ll even want to listen to them again and again… and again. It is no surprise that they are are also some of the best-selling albums of all time.

In no particular order:

  • Marvin Gaye – 1971 – What’s Goin’ On
  • Miles Davis – 1959 – Kind Of Blue
  • Miles Davis & Gil Evans – 1958 – Porgy and Bess
  • Elton John – 2008 – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Remastered)
  • Paul McCartney & Wings – 1973 – Band on the Run
  • Fleetwood Mac – 1977 – Rumours
  • Bruce Springsteen – 1975 – Born to Run
  • Ben Folds Five – 1997 – Whatever & Ever Amen
  • Michael Jackson – 1979 – Off The Wall
  • Michael Jackson – 1982 – Thriller

There are a few other albums which I feel could make the list, but they would most likely be very controversial. My inclusion of Ben Folds Five into a list of ‘historic greats’ is no doubt a bit dangerous, and it’s certainly a lot more ‘eclectic’ than the others in the list. Though, any album which I can listen to once a day, for 3 years, without being bored has to be a prime example of ‘good music’.

And now… I am going to slide my Grado headphones gently over my ears, press ‘play’ on my iPod, and dance around in the rapidly descending snow like a lunatic. It doesn’t get much better.

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I am a tall, hairy, British writer who blogs about technology, photography, travel, and whatever else catches my eye.