Writing about music is a tricky endeavor.  Generally speaking you are putting your credibility on the line with each word more so than in most of the other topics that I normally cover.  This is because music people are snobby.  They are, it’s true, I’m one of them.  As I’ve alluded to previously in this space, I’m as guilty as the next man for liking certain bands, and finding kindred spirits within their fan base while completely turning my nose at anyone who admits to having attended a Daughtry concert.  Music is fickle as if you make it known that you enjoy The White Stripes, but claim ignorance as to the existence of The Black Keys, all credibility is still lost. 

There are countless entry points into a discussion on music but I want to start with something basic that I don’t think gets enough credit in the market.  The topic that I speak of is that of making an album.  There’s a strategy, nay an art if you will, to it and I’m not referring to the graphic design on the front.  An album should be an experience, and like a rollercoaster or movie script there needs to be ebbs and flows, & highs and lows that take you on the journey.  It takes thought and care to properly craft an album to take you on this ride and I feel this is where today’s one hit wonder generation is losing their touch.  This is where the Grumpy Old Man in me takes off on a diatribe about how no one makes albums any more in this day and age of iTunes driven singles, but I digress…

This following theory applies to both new albums that a band creates as they tap into a particularly creative vein as well as those of the Best Of variety further downstream in their career.  It also a good model for you to follow when making your next mix tape, err… CD, I mean Playlist… Ah, hell with it.

For my muse in writing this I will be using Mumford & Sons 2010 release Sigh No More.  I listened to this album last weekend while working around the house after having avoided it for the past few weeks and couldn’t help how it met all of the criteria that I had previously concocted for everything I’m looking for in an album.  If you haven’t heard it of yet I’d highly suggest you do so and if nothing else you might want to download it just so that you can follow along here.  What’s that you say?  You’re not familiar with Mumford & Sons?  Oh, you’re one of them… it’s ok, hopefully you pick up something along the way.  Let’s begin shall we?

It’s important to come out of the gate swinging with any new album you put together.  In a movie the key is to capture the audience’s attention in the first fifteen pages (rule of thumb is 1 page = 1 minute on screen).  Music is no different.  If the average album is 15-20 songs deep, it’s imperative that you grab the listener’s attention by the second (or third track at the latest) because that little artistic nugget you hid on track twelve is never going to be heard if there isn’t early buy in. 

Many bands make the mistake of opting to use the first track as the home of their biggest hit to create an initial hook, but I would argue that that comes across as desperate.  If you shoot your wad with the big hit as the first thing the consumer hears, then they’ll soon realize that each subsequent track is a little worse than the first and your audience will be lost.  You need to build some sort of momentum in the process.  Save that single for a little further down the playlist.  The first song is a window to get a bit creative but remember that it must be upbeat.  While Sigh No More takes the artistic route with the title track that starts slow with a gentle vocal harmony with no instrumental accompaniment (risky) but then escalates into an excellent introduction to what awaits you through the rest of the album.  Kanye West handles this in a different fashion on Late Registration by introducing his spoken word bits on track one (they’ll reappear peppered throughout the rest of the album) but track two introduces the upbeat and catchy first musical number “Heard ‘Em Say,” which is a guest spot with Adam Levine from Maroon 5.  Both “Sigh No More” and “Heard ‘Em Say” accomplish the same goal of eliciting a reaction from the listener along the lines of, “hmmm… what have we here?”  This is what you should be looking for with you opening track.

There was a law passed by the government in 1994 that states any musical or spoken word album produced can have at maximum four great songs on it.  That’s not to say that all the songs can’t be very good, I’d encourage any musician to produce as many good songs as possible, but by law only four at most will be commercially successful.  Depending on what you do with that first track, your first big hit needs to come from tracks two or three.  Mumford & Sons nailed this in dropping “The Cave” on us with track #2.  For the uninitiated, Sigh No More was released in October 2010 and by early 2011 Mumford & Sons were the “it” boys on the indie rock scene with their unique blend of blue grass and folk music.  You’d never guess that they’re a London based group would you?  The momentum of the album was built off of the songs “Little Lion Man” and “The Cave.”  While “Little Lion Man” was the first single, drew the most acclaim, and is the song your mom has probably heard on the radio, this writer would argue “The Cave” is the strongest offering on the disk.  It’s almost an anthem in its power and ever changing tempo.  When “The Cave” drenches you with a cold splash of awesomeness to the face on the album’s second offering, the listener’s mindset has inevitably evolved from the piqued interested of “what have we here?” to “these blokes are on to something.”

 As noted above, most folks who purchase Sigh No More are probably doing so because they heard “Little Lion Man” on in a bar one night and ended up hooking up with a girl that looked like their summer camp crush who they never had the testicular fortitude to ask out.  They end up going back to her place and having a really good time but her dog gets sick on the floor before they can get carried away, kind of screwing up his efforts for the evening, but he’s still in a good place as she’s all apologetic about the dog, gives him her number, and he gets to go back out and meet backup with his friends greatly exagerating his exploits.  When that happens to me I definitely download all the songs I heard at the bar when I get home. 

I bring this up because the way we got to where we are today is that iTunes allows the gentleman in the example above to just go purchase “Little Lion Man” on its own for $1.29 and our good fellow will never know about the songs that make up the album around it.  He’ll never form his own opinion whether Mumford & Sons is a quality group with a shelf life that he’s like to get behind, or if they’re the next one hit wonder to pass though his life like all that grass passed through the girl’s dog.  This is wrong and something I’m looking to right, but the populace needs to be reminded of what they’re missing with all of those lost tracks before they can pine for them.

Tracks #3-6 on Sigh No More consist of titles by the name of “Winter Winds”, “Roll Away Your Stone”, “White Blank Page”, and “I Gave You All”.  “Winter Winds” was actually the second single released from the album but it never caught the market the way “The Cave” did in taking the album to a new height in sales.  But you know what, it’s a pretty darn good song for a #3 hit on an album.  It’s even about love which any red blooded American girl cannot ignore.  The other three songs also are very strong in their own right but what I’m most impressed with it how they’ve become more than the four songs between the two big hits on the disk

I’ll admit there was a time earlier this year when I would throw Sigh No More on and listen to tracks #1, 2, and 7 and call it a win.  I refer to this mentality as my MTV Programming where you just show up for the hits.  Well, the counter programming to MTV’s work takes effect when you start actually looking forward to the overlooked gems.  Maybe it’s my Midwest upbringing as I’m a sucker for the flyover states as well.  Aside from “I Gave You All” – where I’d argue things slow down a bit too much for my liking – I’ve found that these once auto-skip tracks have become the happy warm little center of the Sigh No More universe.  And thus an album is made.

By the time “little Lion Man” slaps you upside the dick on track #7 you’ll find yourself in rarified air as only two to three musicians today put the care and craftsmanship into their work each year to deliver such a high end product.  For their hard work the reward is all tracks afterwards are fair game and free reign for their imagination.  This is the part of the album where you sneak in the passion projects that you know the radio will never pickup (see track 8 “Timshel” as a case in point).  This is also the territory where the superfans will swoop in and plant their stake in the ground.  Anyone that swears up and down that their favorite songs are tucked away into this nether-region after the hits on an album are also the same people who join fan clubs, have stickers of the band on their car/Trapper Keeper, and have posters on the wall from European concerts that they did not attend.  Anyone that says “Thistle & Weeds” is the best track on Sigh No More is trying to impress you with their knowledge and learned appreciation of music.  They’re also full of shit. 

It’s not to say that these songs are garbage.  Depending on the strength of the overall content there can be hidden nuggets the separate the good albums from the greats of all time.  I’m not here to argue that Sigh No More quite hits that Exile on Main St. rarified air, but it’s pretty darn good for 2010.  I’ll stand behind “Dust Bowl Dance” as a quality track regardless of its placement on any album.  At this point though a band is essentially playing with house money. 

In a lot of ways putting together an album is like filling out a baseball lineup.  Initially you’re looking for a sneaky, shifty guy who’s going to get on base and stir things up.  Then you want to follow up with a solid producer that may have a little pop in his lumber but also is going to do what it takes to get the runner over at the very least.  You follow those two with your best hitters in the 3-4 holes.  Like a baseball team, the hitting of your 4-6 batters is what’s going to separate the good teams from those that are in the middle of the pack.  If you then have one more thumper hitting in the middle to late part of the order, making the bottom of the lineup nearly as dangerous as the top then you start wearing the competition out and getting into the bullpen early.  When David Froese is hitting 6th for you, post season hardware soon follows.  If done properly you can even sneak in a light hitting, slick fielding shortstop and your free swinging pitcher at the end of the lineup without doing any real harm. 

So that’s the blue print.  Now you have the knowledge and I ask that you use it well.  The formula is simple and yet hard to produce.  I wish each of you the best of luck as the future of music depends on your success.  God speed.