The 10 secrets of a perfect album

Making an album isn't just a question of getting together a bunch of songs, whacking them out as painlessly as possible and hoping for the best. There are all sorts of potential hazards along the way that can turn a would-be masterpiece into a tin-eared mantelpiece.

So, with the benefit of Radio 4's Mastertapes archive of interviews - each one a two-sided delight in which an artist discusses a key album in their career - here are 10 things that have helped, during the creation of some of the best albums in music history:

1. Tenacity is just as important as talent

I made the tea and cleaned all the wind instruments

While putting together the sound system that would become the band Soul II Soul (and also a shop and a fashion imprint), main man Jazzie B served time in a recording studio, just waiting for his chance to nip in and cut new rhythm dubplates for his musical mates to jam over.

He explains: "I was an assistant engineer, basically I was a tea boy... I made the tea and cleaned all the wind instruments, which you know is a gross job, getting rid of all the phlegm. But my cup of teas are magic, I tell you."

I made the tea and cleaned all the wind instruments

2. Artistry thrives under pressure...

It kept you on your toes - you're only as good as your last record

Unless you're a born genius, the only way to hone your skills is to practise. As Paul Weller points out, when your band is expected to make an album every year, and tour it, and come up with hit singles while you're at it, you have to get very good, very quickly. In 1981, by the time The Jam came to record their last album The Gift, they were already five albums into a five-year career:

"It helped you refine your craft, y'know, and find yourself as a writer and a band, and it kept you on your toes - you're only as good as your last record... It was a lot of pressure 'cause I was pretty much the sole writer in the band."

It kept you on your toes - you're only as good as your last record

3. ...but when you're on a roll, you're on a roll

I think, 'I can't do anything better than that; that's got to be it'

Although Noel Gallagher does not subscribe to the Paul Weller work ethic ("I'd love to be able to do it, I've tried!"), he's astute enough to know when he's written a particularly great series of songs and to be thankful for the inspiration, as he was putting together his first solo album, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds:

"There's a always a kind of sadness 'cause I think, 'I can't do anything better than that; that's got to be it. I've got to dry up after that.' So when something else comes along and you know it's great... I get a wave of happiness."

I think, 'I can't do anything better than that; that's got to be it'

4. Reading is an important part of writing

I was reading a lot of books at the time; Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie...

When trying to establish themselves as a credible British reggae band, outside of the genre's home turf of Jamaica, Steel Pulse had to decide how to tackle the subjects that most affected them - fear of racist abuse and police harassment. They turned to black writers for inspiration to help shape Handsworth Revolution, their defining statement from 1978. As singer David Hinds explains:

"That's how we started to find ourselves. I was reading a lot of books at the time; Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie... there was an autobiography of Malcolm X that was there as well... and the letters of George Jackson. All these books were being read during that period of time."

I was reading a lot of books at the time; Marcus Garvey, Haile Selassie...

5. Communication is overrated

How we communicated was through writing... definitely not verbal

During the early years of their collaboration as songwriters, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford of Squeeze barely exchanged a word about their songs, and the result was a run of immaculate pop hits, including the album East Side Story. The music press tagged them 'the new Lennon and McCartney'. So they must've been doing something right.

Glenn: "When we started out writing, we set a template for what was to follow in that we never talked about it, we just started doing it. Chris gave me a lyric and I wrote a tune to it, and we just sort of acknowledged to each other that it had worked and carried on that way. Really, how we communicated was through writing, our communication was definitely not verbal."

How we communicated was through writing... definitely not verbal

6. Good friends are worth their weight in gold

Whoever showed up, really, that was the band

Without the influence of bandmates such as Neil Young and Graham Nash, David Crosby's 1971 album, If Only I Could Remember My Name, would sound very different, and may never have got started. The recordings were loose, musicians would wander in, jam, and wander out again, as David explains: "Whoever showed up, really, that was the band."

All he started with was some studio time and one guitar riff: "I'm sitting there fooling with it, so Neil starts playing along, Graham starts singing with it. We get to the end and we're like, 'That was fun!' And Graham says, 'I think that's the beginning of your album,' and he's a pretty smart fella."

Whoever showed up, really, that was the band

7. Pain can be beautiful...

I remember I looked like hell, I'd just been dumped by my girlfriend

In 1994, Manic Street Preachers approached the recording of The Holy Bible feeling out of step with society, worried about the band and with a batch of startling lyrics from Richey Edwards about capital punishment, sexual tourism and anorexia. And somehow, in a tiny studio, they created a dark masterpiece.

James Dean Bradfield explained the situation: "The first song that we recorded in the studio was 4st 7lbs... and that was a tough one, because there's lots of changes in it, and it's probably got the most lyrics in. I remember I looked like hell, I'd just been dumped by my girlfriend, I just had that dumped-by-my-girlfriend beard, a cold-sore, and I think it was Valentine's Day."

I remember I looked like hell, I'd just been dumped by my girlfriend

8. ...but art doesn't have to be deep

It's just perfectly crafted... it's almost like a party when you're playing it

While discussing his enjoyable and hugely popular 1989 recording of the Four Seasons by Vivaldi, Nigel Kennedy let slip that it wasn't normally his sort of music ("Bach was more my man, because he's a deeper composer") and that, as a concept, it constitutes a kind of greatest hits from Vivaldi's concerto career, with "no relationship to the seasons at all".

And yet it was hugely fun to record, and went down enormously well with audiences thanks to the simple joy of the music: "It's not the most cerebral or philosophical or deep music in the world, but it's just perfectly crafted... it's almost like a party when you're playing it."

It's just perfectly crafted... it's almost like a party when you're playing it

9. Tradition is there to be challenged

You can get into big debates about what's pure and what isn't pure

Bellowhead's John Boden is not a man to worry unduly about the labels placed upon his eleven-piece folk band. In fact, they quickly learned to let their various influences guide their approach to arranging traditional songs, rather than the expectations of the folk scene:

"The whole labelling thing has its use, but it also can be quite restrictive. It's all music that people enjoy and we're all influenced by different things. For example, I like a lot of Bengali folk music, and there's a particularly famous Bengali folk music that's actually from Scotland. You can get into big debates about what's pure and what isn't pure and I think that's slightly missing the point."

You can get into big debates about what's pure and what isn't pure

10. It's not finished until it's ready

There were three orchestras playing and something like a thousand vocal parts

Rufus Wainwright's Want One is a very ornate and plush album of heavily orchestrated songs written during a period of huge upset, so it's no surprise to discover that Rufus was more than a little particular about getting everything just so.

"When we first mixed Want One, we had to mix it three times. It was such a massive undertaking, like, on I Don't Know What It Is, for instance, there were three orchestras playing and something like a thousand vocal parts on that song... and when we first mixed it we didn't quite capture the essence of what we were trying to do - so, too grand or too all-over-the-place."

There were three orchestras playing and something like a thousand vocal parts

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