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How to shape an album

How to shape an album

By: Hamish MacBain

The album, we are told by broadsheet columnists on what feels like a bi-minutely basis, is dead. No-one cares about albums anymore. No-one. Everyone just streams single songs now, don’t they? Well, no.

2016 was, in truth, an incredible year for albums that truly were albums, from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Anohni’s Hopelessness to Kanye’s Life of Pablo to Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool and beyond. And the year 2017 is shaping up to be just as tasty, with Lorde, London Grammar and even some acts whose name doesn’t begin with an L readying their latest long players. Plus, the vinyl revival has revived the five-a-side LP format, out-earning digital sales into the bargain. Long players are where it’s at: always have been, and always will be. For anyone planning on making one, Hamish MacBain presents the anatomy of the quintessential album.



Jay-Z and Kanye West: No Church In The Wild (4.32)

A great album opener should announce that what’s coming is much more than a mere collection of songs. It should feel like the start of a long, cohesive statement, and one whose sequencing has been endlessly slaved over. It should be more than a little ostentatious, like it’s the beginning of An Event. Jay-Z and Kanye West (particularly Kanye West) recognised that Jay-Z and Kanye West releasing an album together was As Big An Event As You Can Get, and so for Watch the Throne set about crafting the most grandiose opener ever; a song that begins with Frank Ocean asking big questions like “What's a king to a God?” and “What’s a God to a non-believer?”, before detailing scenes of unimaginable decadence and highbrow philosophising. Basically, when you hear it, you think, “This is not the kind of party I will get invited to very often, so I’m in. Let’s go.”

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Skepta: Shutdown (7.40)

Once people are hooked in by the sheer scale of the ambition and of the possibilities of the journey they are about to take, it is best to slap them in the face with something instantaneous and super-familiar: a short, sharp reminder of why they fell in love with you in the first place, and why they should now trust you wherever you choose to go over the next 45 minutes. The most natural slot for the big single is in the second slot (see, by way of a recent example, “Love Me” on the last The 1975 album). And big singles haven't come much bigger in recent times than the reigning King of Grime’s signature song. 

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David Bowie: Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich mix by James Murphy for the DFA) (18.04)

By now the attention deficient have departed, and those who are left are strapped in. The people remaining are your people, and this means that you can lead them off into pastures new and adventurous. Like, say, into a ten-minute groove that slowly but surely evolves a round of applause into a hypnotic rhythm track, with the vocal not even arriving until two minutes in. David Bowie was smart enough to know that this remix of The Next Day’s best song was a) incredible, but b) not something that he could foist onto his audience until he had totally and utterly re-captivated them.

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London Grammar: Rooting For You (22.33)

Unless you are called Coldplay, the first ballad on your album should not arrive too soon. Ballads require trust, and that’s trust from the performer as well as the listener (because you don’t want to bear your soul to just anyone, do you?). The first big comeback of 2017, London Grammar surprised everyone with what is a much more low-key affair than one might have expected of a collective known primarily for their up-tempo bangers. When the album comes out, bet it sits four songs in. 

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The Lemon Twigs: As Long As We’re Together (27.37)

Track five of an album is – obviously – traditionally where side one would have ended. And while the very notion of a Side One may be even more obsolete than the idea of an album, in terms of ebb and flow, it’s still an important slot. You want an epic, a sense of a first act ending. But at the same time, what you do not want is an ending that overshadows the actual ending later on. Which makes the lo-fi twists and turns of the song that introduced The Lemon Twigs to the world the perfect way to end any Act One, including this one.

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Slaves: Cheer Up London (30.10)

Similarly this is the point where, in olden times, the record would have been flipped over, and the stylus re-dropped onto the vinyl. As such, another brash, loud wake-up call is required: Slaves’ abrasive, sarcastic racket feeling particularly suitable here. Really, it could have been any Slaves song (in the best possible way, they all sound very similar), but their ode to the cooler-than-thou crowds of the Capital gets the nod by virtue of also having a ludicrously infectious hook.

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Kaytranada: You’re the One (33.57)

Pop. At this point pop is required. But not straight up, duet-with-Olly-Murs, all-over-the-worst-radio-stations-in-the-country pop. No. What we need at this point is intelligent, breezy pop, to counteract the volume, indulgences and melancholy of the songs that have just passed by. One of the most straightforward moments on the truly-great-all-the-way-through 99.9%, this features Syd (aka Syd Tha Kyd of The Internet fame) and occupies a similar timeslot on that album. (Note: if you have the time, do remind yourself of just how great the ’90s sitcom-styled video for this was)

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Christine and the Queens: Chaleur Humaine (37.54)

Title tracks are always a good idea. But if one is to have a title track, it should come nearer to the end of the album it lends its name to, so as to serve as a reminder that this has been a complete piece that needs to be revisited as soon as possible, as a whole. The title track of Christine and the Queens’ breakout actually only appeared on the French version of the album, and subsequently as an extra track on the UK’s deluxe edition. This is a shame because a) deluxe editions are the work of evil, hardcore-fan-fleecing record company suits, and b) it’s a magnificently low-key, sonically adventurous song that in its rightful place on the original album performs exactly the role described above.

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Eminem: Campaign Speech (45.43)

And so to the grand finale. Except of course, you don’t really want a pompous, bells and whistles grand finale. You want the world’s most elusive megastar rapper, laying in to the President Elect with more venomous, entertaining eloquence than he has displayed in about a decade, over a backing track that is barely even there. Em’s latest (and possibly greatest) diatribe is unforgettable, and feels, in a good way, like it might go on forever. Truly, this is how you make an exit.

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The Beatles: Her Majesty (46.06)

Unless of course you are The Greatest Band Of All Time, in which case you end The Greatest Recording Career Of All Time with a 27-second, almost impossibly inconsequential ditty. Just to show people that you weren’t really taking anything too seriously, lad. 

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