The Real Guide to Giving an Album a First Listen
By: Thomas K. Welker, @thomaskwelker
September 2nd, 2016
WARNING: This post may get nerded out as a music fan. I'll try to keep it as simplified as possible- but no guarantees.
Music media, or all content media for that matter, is obsessed with being first. That's why more often than not an album will get deemed "trash" or "Album of the Year" hours after it releases. Even huge and supposedly reputable publications like Pitchfork, Complex, and MTV will try and sell you on their reaction to an album. The internet allows everyone to have a voice and that's great if you're smart because it lets you, the consumer, decide if you want to listen to Pitchfork's opinion or let that YouTuber with 30 subscribers tell you what you should think. Best yet you as a consumer can take information from lots of sources and disagree with some parts and make your own opinion. The biggest issue here is that it's about being first not best. Therefore first listen reactions and quick-to-print reactions on albums are often a waste of time. That is no longer the case now because I'm here with your own personal Guide to Giving an Album a First Listen. After this you won't need to watch the latest Fantano review or read tweets about an album without having your own conversational fodder ready.
1. Set the Scene
There's no way you you can and should be expected to give an album a true listen without finding a place where you can really hear all of the sounds. Shut your door, make sure you're alone (although listening with a group of friends is way more fun), make sure no one's going to interrupt you. The idea is to experience the album as the artist intended it. So even if it may feel a little corny and zen just find somewhere comfortable to really experience it.
2. Use the Right Speakers
It's also crucial that you use good equipment. Please, please, please, don't try and listen to the new Frank Ocean album through your Macbook speakers. You won't hear half the subtle sounds that really make the track and you definitely won't get that full sound with laptop speakers. Invest in either some good headphones or better yet drop at least $100 on some good quality speakers. Personally I think there's a whole snobby world of audiophiles out there that insist albums are only good if you have pure silver cables, a $500 DAC, and Bowers and Wilkins Nautilus speakers but that's a waste of your time and money. Just make sure your speakers give you room to feel pans and different sounds individually.
3. Play the Album Once... Then Play It Again
This addresses the big problem most people have. They listen once and they try and tell you what it means, how it sounds in comparison to other albums, etc. Just play the album once and enjoy it sonically. Don't try and dissect it too much or worse pause it to say something- just shut up and listen. Once your done, that's great, you did it. You enjoyed an album without trying to make it in to anything except what the artist intended.
Now it's time to listen to the album again but with a bit more thought...
4. It's Time to Examine the Music
If you want to play it three times just to experience it then do it! But once you're done with the last step you'll want to really get in to what all the think pieces and articles will do too quickly. Listen to it again but allow yourself to pause or replay parts you either like or want to understand more. The goal here is looking from both your side as a listener and then, even more difficult, try to put yourself in the artist's shoes and say "why did they do that?" or "what are they trying to do here?" I personally really like to pull up an album on Genius and follow along because sometimes the information there provides really great context. I treat it like a case study in that every line means something and the more confusing the line is to me in the first listen the better explanation that is likely to come out of it. This is also the most fun part for me.
5. Putting It All TOGETHER
Once you feel like you "get it" one of the coolest parts of the process is adding other pieces that the artist intended for you to see. This is when you watch the music videos, read the album liner notes, Google the names of everyone from the engineers to the writers. Take all those extra pieces around the music and give even more context in to what this album is. I personally have looked up certain people I see credited on the album and learned more about it then I ever could have reading a popular article. Detective work will make the album so much more fun to check out.
6. It's okay if you didn't like it
Listen, it's okay if your friends all told you it was the album of the year and you didn't get it. In the age where saying a bad world about Beyonce will label you as a "hater" to the queen I feel like it's not okay to just say you didn't like it. People will try and discredit you as a fan because you didn't like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy so how could your opinion be credible for any other album? I doubt they put in the same work you did to understand the experience and most of the time they're just quoting popular opinion. The important part is that you studied the album so if you don't like it you can actually explain to them why! Make your own opinions out here.
Some of my favorite albums to do this with include My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Good Kid Maad City but I'd recommend it to any album really. Let me know if you liked this via Twitter @thomaskwelker and what you want to hear about next.