We’re all fraudulent, but some people do it better than others. On the real side, a quality A&R is important to the process of making an album. A quality A&R also gets into the mind of the artist, figures out his intentions for an album, examines the workability and effectiveness of that idea, makes the best music and then helps find the hits.
Part of A&R work is also simplifying the listenability and enjoyability of an album for listeners. An A&R determines if the album will be an experience, a film, a friend or just hogwash. A core part of crafting an experiential, cinematic or empathetic album is a good track list or sequence, which can determine the experience or judgement of an album from a listener’s perspective.
Sometimes, the quality music is there, it’s just terribly arranged and sequenced in such a way that you only hear weaknesses as in the case of Wilmer by Patoranking. Other times, a good track list aids or flatters the overall experience of an album like Code Name Vol. 2 by Dremo.
But first, what is a track list?
A track list could simply refer to the songs on a particular body of work. In the real sense of it, a track list is the sequential arrangement of the songs on a particular body of work to aid progression, tell a story, paint a picture, convey an idea or enjoyment, ask a question or in the case of wholly pop albums, to aid a listener’s experience by simplifying/eradicating clusters.
The best albums in history have segues (read as segway or effortless transition from one track to another) and a quality track list is material to that. Quality album sequence determines the relationship between songs. Streaming might have changed our experience with music, but a body of work is still not a playlist made by a curator. That said, the best playlist curators must be excellent at sequencing.
Thus, a track list should go from just being a list to being an arrangement. A solid track arrangement determines whether the listener gets the idea, does not get the idea or just sees cluster. Sometimes, the listener enjoys the body of work, but the body of work just stops short of taking a listener places.
Sometimes, a bad track arrangement looks like a bad body of work. Don’t get me wrong, some bodies of work are beyond saving because the music is fundamentally flawed, but as a music reviewer, I have discovered that some albums would have been better served with a good track arrangement.
What determines a good track list?
Quality track lists are determined by the sequence they ooze. A good A&R is driven by two things while making a track list/track arrangement;
- Sonic cohesion/progression
- Topical/Thematic cohesion/progression
Sonic cohesion/progression usually relates to the sound and genres/types of each song on a body of work, their sonic relationship with each other and how they effortlessly lead to each other. For an A&R, this requires an understanding of music, the album and genres – this is usually instinctive. You either have the instincts for sonic cohesion/progression or you don’t.
For those who have the instinct, they understand the concept of sounds, genres and BPMs. More importantly, they understand music they have been tasked with arranging and the emotion they want the music to emit. These people then sequence the album as if they were the average listener.
There’s no hard and fast rule to what should be done. That’s why an A&R must be part of the entire process of making an album from conceptualization to execution. That’s also why a random person who was never part of the process of making an album should never be tasked with creating its track sequence.
Sometimes, you are like Jaden Smith and you go for the most cohesive opening few songs and let that lead the album. Other times, you are Kanye West and you open with the eclectic musicality of ‘Ultralight Beam’ or the softer Hip-Hop of ‘Dark Fantasy.’ But as a whole album, great sonic cohesion/progression is determined by the A&R’s understanding of what an album should be.
When the A&R does, he can then arrange based on genres, brands of music and BPMs. A good example of sonic cohesion/progression is ‘B.L.U.E’ or ‘P.I.N.K,’ the first four songs on Jaden Smith’s albums, SYRE and ERYS respectively or the first four songs on Logic’s mixtape, Bobby Tarrantino. As a whole album, 9ice’s Gongo Aso is a solid example of sonic cohesion/progression where one track leads to the other and nothing feels out of place.
The pace of the music is important. Sometimes, an A&R wants the album to be high-octane from start to finish because that’s the concept of the album – like a Scarlxrd album will be. But usually, good sonic cohesion/progression is understanding and harnessing the concept of sound as regards pace, intensity, emotion and timing of what should be where and when it should be there on an album.
This then determines the entire sound of a body of work.
This is how you can understand whether you need intense tracks to follow each other or when trap should follow boom bap or when the R&B track comes in.
This is pretty straightforward and it refers to the central theme(s) of an album and the story an A&R and the artist want the album to tell. Again, this also requires an A&R to be part of the entire process of making a body of work and to be in sync with the artist. Only then can the A&R and the artist understand whether the song is a bunch of themes or one with a central theme and story.
This is when the story can then be told from start to finish or based on the strength and sensitivity of particular themes.
What makes a good track list?
The best track lists are when sonic cohesion/progression meets topical/thematic progression/cohesion. This happens when the body of work tells a story while the sounds also agree with each other, progress sequentially with segues and follow an enjoyable pattern.
While topical/thematic cohesion/progression needs sonic cohesion/progression to thrive, sonic cohesion/progression can stand alone on pop albums made with a scatterbrained approach to club music. Sequencing is also important for playlist curators and even event organizers.