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Illuminations from the throne

The perfect album.

Photo Credit: Jonas Leupe

Many albums showcasing the pinnacle of songwriting and musicianship have stood the test of time to earn the honour of being hailed a classic.

Revolver, Rumours, What’s Going On?, Brothers In Arms, Nevermind, Different Class... It's not even necessary to name the artists, the titles alone attest to some of the finest music ever recorded, titles that are never absent from a publication’s Top 100 Of All Time.

Of course whether you agree that any album should be regarded as a classic, or not, is a matter of opinion. Most of those I've just named are among my favourites but I’ve never understood the fuss about Nevermind. I’d argue there’s only one good song on that record.

Alright, alright, let's not get started. All I'm saying is the term ‘classic album’ is applied a bit too liberally for my liking so I’m going to narrow the field by introducing my own benchmark: the perfect album.

The perfect album goes far beyond any accepted notion that makes a classic album. Every song; every verse, chorus and lyric is required to be flawless. Every last solo, note and meaningful pause needs to arrive at exactly the right moment. The entire production, down to the smallest perceivable detail, should beautifully complement the artist’s creative vision, allowing no room for debate over how it could have been done differently.

On top of all that, it has to be of major significance to the listener. For me, that means telling relatable stories that I can effortlessly slip into, whatever situation or mood I might be in.

Perfect albums come with a paradox though. It’s not easy to actually listen to them. I can’t just stick one of these records on while I occupy myself with household tasks. Neither can I play them while travelling or working. I need to put aside all distractions so I can do nothing else but sit and listen attentively from start to finish. It’s a rare treat and, as such, needs to be earned. A reward to purify my aural senses after a hard day dealing with demanding clients or surviving for too long exposed only to mediocre music.

Now that I’ve characterised the perfect album, it’s time for some real world examples. They do exist but there aren’t many. Three in fact.

It’s hard work being a Neil Young fan. Simply keeping up with his prolific output is a challenge and he’s so eclectic you never know what’s coming. He’s a guy who likes to experiment and doesn’t burden himself caring about what his fans’ reaction might be. A large quantity of his work is unlistenable dross but that’s not too strange a thing to say about one of my favourite artists when he’s also produced more than enough classics to cement his place in the Hall Of Legends. Sitting on top of the pile is Mirrorball.

Oh man. Just writing the title makes me shiver as the sheer unparalleled majesty of that record is brought to mind.

Neil Young is known as the godfather of grunge. Look no further than the guitar solos on Like A Hurricane to hear what Kim Thayil, Jerry Cantrell and their ilk were trying to emulate. So inviting members of Pearl Jam to back him was a masterstroke and recording the songs live in the studio played to their strengths. The resulting album is a raw, stomach churning, sublime demonstration of guitar music performed to its absolute perfection.

You’ll have realised I have a particular taste in music which is obviously reflected in my choice of perfect albums. That said, David Bowie is worlds apart from Neil Young, artistically anyway. While Shakey jumps back and forth between various styles, often returning to familiar ground, the Thin White Duke tended to explore certain ideas for an album or two then moved on, never to look back.

They are two men however, who can, without any need for frivolous debate, claim the accolade of genius. They’ve both produced one remarkable album after another, year after year and, perhaps recognising the need for a little idiosyncrasy for true greatness to be appreciated, they’ve both chosen to complement their catalogue with more than the odd questionable release.

The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars is my second perfect album. Or first, if we’re thinking chronologically.

The term ‘concept album’ usually prompts me to raise at least one eyebrow. But if you’re subsequently informed it’s the story of an egoistic alien, sent to earth to save humanity from an impending apocalypse, who then decides he’d rather be a rock star, what else can you do but sit back and say, let's hear it then?

You’re rewarded with the finest songwriting from one of the immortals, accompanied by exquisite melodies and beautifully simple musicianship that makes you assume you can just pick up a guitar and automatically start playing the hooks yourself. The minimal but impeccable production only enhances the understated genius of an all out masterpiece.

And there’s more than just one narrative. It’s a fluid album which tells no end of stories. I often pick up different threads that lead me to discover possible new meanings hidden within the tracks. Maybe it’s just my imagination but this is a record that stimulates my imagination. You most likely don’t agree with my choice of perfect albums but if you have your own equivalents, you know exactly what I mean.

Starting in the late 60s and throughout the 70s, my dad put together quite a respectable record collection.* He noticed that I was becoming a fellow music lover and began attempts to expand my education beyond Radio 1 and Top Of The Pops by turning me on to some of his own favourites.

A particular album he felt I should hear would be selected for an evening’s entertainment and he’d await my reaction. It must have been a largely disappointing exercise for him. I was growing up under the influence of 80s pop and his taste for early 70s prog rock meant I was soon citing too much homework as an excuse for skipping the next listening party.

We did find some common ground as the years progressed: The Who, Cream, Led Zeppelin to name a few. Enough that he called me a while back to ask if I’d like to have the whole lot. He wanted to declutter apparently.

I almost declined because the timing was annoying. My newly completed media storage alcove was designed, not only to house my entire collection, but also to provide plenty of space for future purchases. One hefty, post-Brexit customs bill later and the capacity I’d carefully calculated to suffice for the next 20 odd years was all but full.

As I unpacked the stacks of vinyl, I had to admit my dad had bought some gems. Tommy, Tubular Bells, Bridge Over Troubled Water, debut albums by Genesis and Pink Floyd... WOOAAHHHH... what the hell...?

I froze. For a few seconds I don’t think I drew breath. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. Was that an original pressing of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars? I slowly slid the vinyl from its iconic cover. Examined it, smelt it. Blew off a few specks of dust.

Holy shit. It was an original pressing of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. In pristine condition.

I’m certain I never heard my dad play this record. It was quite an epiphany discovering it for the first time so I’m sure I would have remembered hearing it as a teen who still thought Madonna and Bananarama represented the be-all and end-all of recorded music. Who knew he’d owned one of my perfect albums this whole time? Had I been aware, I would have devised a mission to fly back to the UK, sneak into my childhood home and pilfer it while he slept.

Not necessary as it turned out. He just gave it to me and I’d dare to venture that I’ve played it more times in six months than he did in 50 years.

I sometimes bend the truth during conversations with other music aficionados when I’m asked, “So, what was your first album?” The question is ambiguous after all. Do you mean the first one I owned or the first one I actually bought myself?

What form does the question take now that we’re well into the age of the non-physical format? “What was the first album you illegally downloaded?”, or “What was the first song you can remember accompanying a TikTok video?” I can’t quite understand people who clearly have a passion for music but consume it exclusively via their phones, scoffing at those of us who persist in going to record stores. They will never know what they’re missing out on.

Treasured cassettes by Culture Club, Madonna and the Pet Shop Boys, gratefully received as presents, had already kicked off my collection by the time I heard a song called With Or Without You on the radio. Witnessing some older kids at school asking each other if they had the new U2 album yet was the final nudge I needed to visit a record store and make my inaugural purchase. The Joshua Tree was No. 1 in the Our Price chart rack, meaning I couldn’t reach it. I would have to ask a sales assistant to get it for me.

I was nervous about being judged by a stranger for my choice. I was starting to realise the music you liked marked the sort of person you were in the playground jungle. These things mattered greatly so, staring up at the Current Top 40 display, I considered changing my mind.

Out of curiosity I dug up the official chart for that week. It’s astonishing how many of those albums I’ve ended up owning: Invisible Touch, Fore!, Different Light, True Blue, Silk & Steel, The Whole Story, Brothers In Arms, Slippery When Wet, So, Queen’s Greatest Hits, Revenge, Graceland. Almost a third of the chart.

On that particular day, I stuck to what I went in for and came out with The Joshua Tree. I’ve since bought or been given, inherited, downloaded or otherwise procured more than 2000 albums and it’s still my favourite today.

No doubt I played that cassette as soon as I got home. I try to picture a 12 year old me listening to The Joshua Tree for the first time, quietly contemplating themes of religious sectarianism, armed political conflict, serial killing, government abduction, drug addiction and inner turmoil. He probably thought it all came with some great tunes.

After gushing about Mirrorball and The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars, I’m not sure what I’ve got left to say about The Joshua Tree, except that it’s become part of my heart. Is there a better way to describe what makes the perfect album?

* Sorry dad, but compared to my own collection, which is far superior in terms of quantity and scope, respectable is the best adjective I can apply to yours.

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