I hear over and over “it’s all about the songs” or “artist X is a good player, but he really needs betters songs.” Let me be clear, I don’t disagree that a good song is important. I appreciate the sentiment behind these statements – but what makes a good song is not easy to define. I’d argue that often the bar between a good song and terrible song is simply your personal preference. How much does the song connect with you? Ask 100 people what their favorite song on a classic album and you’ll likely find a lot of different answers. Ask 100 people if “popular song in genre X” is “good” and you’ll rarely get consensus.
If you listen to mostly metal, how much will a well-written country song appeal to you? Would you be able to say it’s a good song, even if you don’t like it? If you’re a big fan of prog rock, how much will you enjoy a well-written modern pop song? Lots of people – myself included – enjoy a wide variety of genres of music. That doesn’t mean I like everything, but even with genres or styles that don’t connect with me I can find something to appreciate. I suspect a lot of people have more narrow tastes, and they gauge the quality of the song itself against the context of their genre preferences.
I find this expressed a lot with blues. People say blue artist X is a good player, but they need better songs. It sure seems that I hear this from people that don’t listen to much blues, and don’t really like the genre. If you don’t think blues song X is good, what blues songs do you like? Is it really the song, or the performer? I tend to think that often it’s the latter – someone doesn’t really like the singer or guitar player or something, and it’s not really a lack in the song itself.
I grew up in the hayday of 80s hard rock and metal (Dokken, Def Leppard, Tesla, Ratt, etc). A lot of people have been disparaging that for decades. A lot of people say the songs are cringe-worthy. Lyrically, sure, there’s a lot to be desired in a lot of the material; but there are plenty of examples to the contrary. I’d also argue that a lot of those songs are really well-crafted. They have the pop craftsmanship and focus, with metal tone, attitude and musicianship. Great intros, hooks, nicely-placed bridges, mind-blowing solos… and they certainly resonated with a ton of people over many years.
How many people complain about the formulaic aspects of modern country and pop? To me, that’s a valid criticism. There is a lot of ‘formula’ writing. That doesn’t mean they’re not good songs with clever lyrics and great musicianship. They obviously appeal to a whole lot of people, and I must admit that from time to time I get modern pop songs stuck in my ear even though it’s not what I normally listen to and enjoy.
The Song or the Performer?
I had an interesting online discussion many, many years ago on a songwriter’s forum. We were talking about our favorite songs of all time, and one of the senior members made the clear distinction between the song and the performance. I hadn’t made that distinction before. I called out Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” as one of the greatest songs of all time, but truth be told, it’s really one of the greatest performances of all time (in rock, anyways). It’s not that it’s a bad song or anything. It’s amazing, it expresses and captures a feeling so incredibly well. I don’t know how well it stands on its own, though, if some other artist did a drastically different version. I often hear great performances that turn an unspectacular song into something really special, and it’s hard for me to draw the line. In my opinion, we can’t get too micro with music. Everything touches everything else, and trying to isolate individual aspects can lead you down an unending rabbit hole.
What Makes Good Songs
Then again, I hear a lot of mediocre stuff on blues radio: the lyrics are shallow and predictable, the music isn’t played with feeling and groove, and the arrangement is predictable and boring. I can’t always say with certainty what makes a given song connect, but here are a few things that make songs “good” to me regardless of genre:
- Interesting, well-crafted lyrics – for the love of God, please no more maxims and well-known phrases in song lyrics. If I never hear “rain fells like tears” or “cuts like a knife” again it will be too soon.
- Killer groove – rhythm is king! Period. If the song swings, drives or just grooves hard, that can get me moving and into it regardless of anything else.
- Great musicianship – could be a solo full of fire, an extension of amazing groove or a stunning voice.
- Melody – this one I put lower on the list because to me, melody is more important in some genres (pop, jazz) than others (blues, metal). A great melody sticks with you and brings you into the song even if you don’t understand the lyrics. It can completely define the song.
- Interesting changes – sometimes hanging on the I for 5 minutes totally works. It’s nice to have something to perk my ear, though. Does the song change at the right time and take you somewhere when it needs to? Does it have an intro that grabs you? Having a single chord progression loop from start to end – or maybe one verse progression and one chorus – isn’t always enough. Does the song lead you from one place to another or perk you up at the right time?