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Name: Adam Bernard
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3 Qualities That Can Make an Album a Classic
Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The word “classic” is thrown around a lot today, especially among critics, and those on social media, who are always looking to heap praise on their favorite artists. We’ve reached a point where people are calling albums classics on the day of their release, after just one listen.

While being a passionate fan can be great, that’s going just a wee bit overboard.

An album can’t be a classic after 12 hours. You can really like an album in that time, but that doesn’t make an album a classic. Here’s what does …

1. The album stands the test of time

How often have you heard, or read, someone exclaim that the big release of the week is “an instant classic,” and then a week later that same person has tossed that “instant classic” album to the side in favor of the next “instant classic?”

It happens a lot.

Partly, our short attention spans are to blame, but the fact of the matter is if an album is a classic it stays in rotation not for days, not for weeks, not for months, but for YEARS, and we can’t possibly know if an album will stay in rotation that long until it actually does.

We all have a finite amount of listening time, and the albums that we keep going back to again and again, year after year, have the potential to reach classic status.

For the albums we like that came out yesterday, it’s no insult to say, “That’s a great album,” but that’s really all we can say, at least for now.

2. Future generations listen to the album

While it’s a pretty awesome feeling when we all collectively love an album, whether or not future generations listen to it is huge in determining whether the album is a classic, or simply a great moment in time.

Think about all the diamond albums from the TRL era. A lot of those albums are the soundtrack to people’s middle school, high school, and college years. They hold a special place in people’s hearts, and bring up great memories when they’re played. That said, did the next generation of listeners feel the need to listen to those albums?

You may say, “Who cares what the next generation thinks?” and that’s a valid question, but I’ll answer it with another question – “Doesn't every generation pick up Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Nirvana albums?” This is part of what makes those albums classics, rather than simply being moments in time.

Similarly, every generation of singer-songwriters listens to Joni Mitchell, and Paul Simon. In ten years we’ll see if John Mayer gets added to that list, but for now, two of those artists have created classic works, while the other has some great albums.

3. The album becomes a reference point

Back in the ‘80s, hard rock and hair metal had their day in the sun. There were so many bands with teased hair, and varying degrees of heroin habits, that you couldn’t throw a rock out of a window without hitting one. That era gave us a plethora of great albums, but what’s the first one you think of? It’s probably Appetite For Destruction, which is why that Guns N’ Roses album is one of the true classics of the bunch.

A second important aspect of this, and it’s something that might be hard for people to accept, is that our personal preference is not enough, on its own, to make an album a classic.

I’ll give a few examples from my own collection.

I love The Summer Set’s 2013 album Legendary. I’ve had it in rotation for the past five years. That said, even if it stays in my rotation for another decade I would still hesitate to call it a classic. This is because when it comes to pop-punk it will never be a reference point. Blink-182’s Enema of the State, however, which I also enjoy, is a classic, because it’s one of the first albums people think of when you mention pop-punk, making it an album everyone needs to know.

Here’s another example – back in the day I was a big fan of Eminem’s work, specifically his first three full length albums. My fandom faded, however, and I don’t think of those albums as being required listening for hip-hop fans. Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid In Full, however, is an album I bought years after its release, and is an album that’s required listening for hip-hop fans, as it set a new standard for lyrics, and flow, for all emcees.

When an album, years after its release, becomes a reference point, or standard bearer for a genre, it’s safe to say it has achieved the status of “classic."

So the next time you, or someone you know, is thinking of calling an album a classic, make sure it checks off these three qualities. If it doesn’t, just say it’s a great album, enjoy it, and give it more time to potentially reach classic status.


posted by Adam Bernard @ 7:00 AM  
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