The aesthetics of music are so troublesome to define, and should be! The arts by their very nature, as an expression of our innermost beings, are not easily explained (let alone defined). So when someone asks what constitutes a ‘good’ song, or a good work of any art form, it depends on how one feels about it, and what one personally considers to be ‘good’. The fact that a general all-encompassing consensus has not been made on the matter, and probably never will be (and doesn’t ever need to be, if you ask me), shows that every individual approaches art differently...
This is only my view on the subject!
Music is a matter of taste! Image source: https://spinditty.com/playlists/100songs
I was going to attempt, like Spector and Burgess, to make my own list of ‘good song’ requisites, but I don't find it the most true-to-form means of expressing aesthetics in art. I’d rather ramble on in a somewhat disorderly (possibly confusedly) manner to eventually (hopefully) come to some sort of a worthwhile conclusion whilst enlisting examples of songs I consider to be well ‘good' in order to help inform my argument.
Speaking of rambling, here is a favourite song of mine called Ramble On, by Led Zeppelin. I would say it is very much a good song, a great song even! So what’s cool about it? What makes it good?! Or at least not bad...
Ramble On, from Led Zeppelin II (1969). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_284RNK8eCo
Well for starters, it’s got one of the smoothest, coolest, foot-tapping feels that opens any song I've heard. The subtlety of the persistent knocking with the flutter of the acoustic guitar drives a playful, light-hearted energy, the bass slides in and a style is building... The vocals softly begin; drawing a thicker image, you're brought right in and it keeps your attention, because nothing is stagnant... The voice slaps conviction, "for now I smell the rain, and with it pain, and it's heading my way"... Instruments enter, rhythms are changing, layering, there's a dense interplay of parts, and something's impending, you can feel it.
Everything heightens as the drums pulse into the hard-hitting chorus, the style has changed up, there's a strength in its funky groove - the kick on the off beats, the wailing guitar - there's even more power in the vocals now, with the bass going mad in the back of it all, until, as abruptly as it began, we’re back out of it again - in the simmering build-up, knowing the punch will happen again...
What does this all mean anyway for how it's 'good'? Well the song is dynamic - it's up and down and in and out... It’s interesting! It has the large and looming, the loud and soft, the high frequencies and low frequencies… You can appreciate the grandness, the scope of intensities, through the quiet, the small - the flickering intertwining solos dancing through the structure of the song... Good music needs variation.
I'd call Led Zeppelin supreme at this... From Dazed and Confused to Stairway to Heaven, Since I've Been Loving You to Moby Dick - they master the art of contrast. Especially in one of my ultimate favourites of theirs, The Rain Song... The breakdown at 5 minutes, a heck eyeas!
The magnificent Rain Song, from Houses of the Holy (1973). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDVnjCwCYCs
No matter how songs chop and change throughout, though, good songs always seem to have an underlying connectivity - a unity throughout their parts (at any given time), with individual features working as a whole, to give songs an intrinsic character, or feel.
There are rules that govern music and the arts (even when it seems completely at random), and ways of using principles that make art pleasing to our nature and satisfactory for us to experience. Humans like things to make sense... There is importance in a song's harmony - amongst the arrangement, the feel and energy of the various instruments, between the rhythm and the groove, the key and chord progressions... Good music has symmetry.
In Ramble On, the mix has been masterfully balanced, so as to make everything in it feel like it should be there, it belongs there. The stereo image too, so full and luscious, comes together to make the entire mix rich and purposeful. This is something I find key to determining a good song - it's a complete mix, a complete aural entity.
Tomorrow Never Knows is a wild song, for 1966 especially! There's anarchic drumming, a bellowing vocal from Lennon, strangely disturbing tape effects and whining strings, but it all fits!
It works because within the scattered calamity there's a unity - a common undercurrent in its meaning (there's no uncomfortable contradiction).
Tomorrow Never Knows, by The Beatles, the final track on the album Revolver (this is a random fan-made video, I am unable to locate any other one with any form of original audio). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7UjvdZm-Tu8
Same goes for Days Are Forgotten, which I consider to be an artfully balanced and blended song... Its parts are masterfully integrated.
Kasabian's Days Are Forgotten (2011). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBsQVP-Olmw
It's this integration of parts that gives songs a particular sound - a distinct, recognisable quality...
I would say most songs that could be considered 'good' do have a uniqueness, a particular character to them - they propel a certain emotion, connect to a particular thought, feeling, experience - there's a time you would listen to them, even an image you recall, a scene, a circumstance.
These are the songs that make a mark, that are special! That stand-out, are popular, intergenerational, timeless...
Such is the case with House of The Rising Sun (the Animals rendition) - there's a great solidarity between features that gives the song a complete, recognisable sound - in its main riff, the interrelation of the rhythms (such as the guitar solo with the cymbals), the way he yells the vocals so full of fervour, the growing menace that builds with the song - it has its own feel (a focused determination in a way). This is most likely why it's been so commonly used in film and media in emphasising particular purpose and emotion.
The Animals' impassioned performance of House of the Rising Sun (1964)... My throat hurts just hearing him sing this. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sB3Fjw3Uvc
Alt J have mastered an unmistakable sound I'd say. I consider this track to be brilliant, and it serves as a good example of uniqueness in music. It's strikingly unusual on first listen, and its starkness against other songs sets it apart. It is cross-genre and cross-style - a song in and of itself (as a track such as Bohemian Rhapsody is)... In this song's eccentricity lies great artistic value.
Fitzpleasure, from Alt J's debut album An Awesome Wave (2012). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npvNPORFXpc
Songs need to have their own recallable character In order to be in any way memorable. How else could it be catchy? So that before you even play the song, its aura is in your mind, with refrains that dig in enough that as soon as it finishes you could very well start it all over again, the music still swimming in your head...
Good songs have a style of their own...
The cool, unusual amalgamation of syles in Jack White's I'm Shakin' (from the album Lazaretto, 2014).
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkcGuZHPbKk
Supergrass' ball of youthful energy Alright (from I Should Coco, 1995).
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0KLEkZWL5k
With all this talk, the number one calling card for Ramble On is its spirit - it has character, funk, strength, soul! It's fun, it’s got a liveliness to it (the outro full of vocal quirks)! As do the other songs I've mentioned - the bouncing grunt of I'm Shakin', the pure fun of Alright... Music expresses anything between sorrow, angst, love, relaxation, madness, calmness and good songs come from feeling, and appeal to feeling.
Like the honesty of conviction in Cash's voice, along with the solid rhythmic guitar and the rich chord progressions, burning with spiritual undertones, in The Man Comes Around...
Johnny Cash's powerful The Man Comes Around. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9IfHDi-2EA
The placid spirit, with its emotional build up, of The Boxer...
One of Simon and Garfunkel's best, The Boxer. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wzUEL7vw60U
To a hearty voice like Bill Withers, expressing lyrics so genuinely...
The soulful Ain't No Sunshine. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIdIqbv7SPo
And a song of calm softness like House Of Cards...
Radiohead's beautiful track House Of Cards (2007). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nTFjVm9sTQ
To the emotive rawness of Julian Casablancas' screaming amongst a plethora of noise in Reptilia...
The Strokes' Reptilia, from Room On Fire (2003). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8-tXG8KrWs
... Good songs have feeling. They have passion.
This is the part that translates, that affects you. Good songs stick with you, they define a moment in your life, a part of you... In short, they connect.
Maybe that’s what Burgess meant when he said ‘heart’.
Image source: http://quoteaddicts.com/tags/song-titles/11
Well what do you know, I think after all that I did incidentally formulate a list! (Whoever thought rambling could lead to such coherence)...
To me, good music needs:
(...almost looks like a list of ‘what you need for a good life’ ha).
And as a prerequisite to any of these, the beginning and the end, within and throughout them all - the song's spirit - its passion, its emotion, its heart, whatever you want to call it... The thing that connects... that gives the arts any value.
Image Source: http://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/nme-staff-pick-their-top-10-greatest-albums-of-all-time-21877
In the end though (like I said at the beginning), it does come down to personal taste. If I’ve enjoyed a song in my life (even once), and it's added something to my life (even for a while), and maybe even if I am quite possibly enjoying this same song in 50 years, there's no mandate - I can safely judge it's a good song.
As an encompassment of everything I've spoken about, here's my 'song that I wished I'd written' - Heroes, by David Bowie. I find it just perfect, and I'll be listening to it for a very long time to come because it makes me feel good. As the late, great Prince Nelson astutely pointed out:
Image source: http-//www.picturequotes.com/prince-quotes
YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tgcc5V9Hu3g