A couple of disclaimers when it comes to songs. Unlike some, I do not look to 1 element (songwriting) when I look at what makes a good song. Unlike Top 40 fans, I do not look to hook and performance apart from craft. Instead, I use a formula honed over the course of my life, consisting of 5 elements. These 5 elements include 3 stolen directly from Bob Mould of Husker Du who said the perfect song has 1) Noise, 2) Melody and 3) Intelligence. I agree. When working in tandem (and turned up)- perfection is attained.
This is why I can appreciate Beyonce, as well as Arcade Fire.
In my formula I include
#1 Lyrics/ Song craft- this is where intelligence comes in. Does a song have smart lyrics? sometimes this can be deceptive. Coldplay's lyrics can sound smart on initial listen, but they are usual idiotic. Madonna's lyrics are usually deceptively simple, but usually brilliant on further examination. Are the lyrics smart, or just clever? Can you guess the next lyric based upon the rhyme scheme of the previous lyric?
#2 Loud/ Sound- I do like my music louder. However, even a single guy can make music that is loud. Listen to Bon Iver or Iron and Wine. It is what we call "heavy mellow." Does it sound grand or powerful?
#3 Melody- as you know, I am a big Pop fan (not in the Britney, American Idol misuse of the term). Bands like The Beach Boys, The Beatles, ELO and Cheap Trick understand melody and the hook. So do people we don't expect like The Clash, Bob Dylan, Radiohead and NIN. Is the song supremely listenable?
#4 Performance- This is the most technical aspect. Can they play or sing good? I am not looking for perfection. I am not looking for singers that sound like Broadway stars. I am looking for a person that brings it all to the table. I can care less if the singer sounds like a toad, as long as it is supposed to. I am looking for solid production, not Pro Tools and pitch correction. That is why I love what Rick Rubin gets out of each person he produces. They sound exactly like They are supposed to, not like someone else. Is the artist bringing it? Is the artist just getting by?
#5 Passion- This is an underrated piece of imminent importance. I am not a "emotional" guy in life, but I am in music. It is how I express emotion. This is why I would rather hear Murmur era REM before Journey. Talk about the passion. Technical perfection is fine and dandy, but it is cold and dry without passion. This is my major beef with Vampire Weekend. They make good songs and are technically impressive, but I don't FEEL anything from the singer. Listen to Arcade Fire or Ra Ra Riot, doing similar music, but FEEL what they are saying. Do you feel emotion, not forced, deep down?
From this list, you can see why I don't like most "Christian" music. It does not stack up well.
So, if a song has all 5 elements? Perfection! If it is missing 1 or 2, as most songs are? Then it has to make up for it someplace else. REM was never much for technical proficiency in the 80s, but everything else was perfect.
The lowest importance on my list is #4, by the way. I hate technically proficient music that is forced, uses fake emotions or pushes buttons. Even more so, I hate perfection without passion, ala 80s metal, AI singers and guitar gods.