Researching Popular Music

FORMAT: Ten to fifteen pages (10 – 15 p.p.), typed, double-spaced, 12 pt. font, Times New Roman, standard margins, black ink. Provide MLA-style citations in-paper and Works Cited page. Make sure your full name, class, and section number are listed. Use page numbers to organize your paper. Please send to my CSI email by the due date:

GRADING: Rubric-based. Final copy due 12/17/20.

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ESSENTIAL QUESTION: Why is this album (your choice) considered a classic, groundbreaking example of virtuosity (artistic AND technical excellence)?

INCLUDE: The name of the artist and album, as well as its release date. The length of time it took to produce the album. The album’s producer (and how he/ she helped to shape it). What influences helped the artist and producer to make this album? How was it received critically? How was it received commercially? How did this artist and album adhere to (or break) traditional songwriting/ composition norms in the music industry? Which tracks were hits? Provide a criticism of three tracks from the album (musical key, tempo, timbre, instrumentation, close-reading of lyrical poetry, emotional “feel” of song). What is the theme of this album, and how do the individual songs build towards this theme? How did the album art add to the album’s theme, music, and success?


Tyler, the Creator, Igor (2019) Selena, Dreaming of You (1995)

The Ramones (eponymous) (1976) Black Sabbath, Sabotage (1976)

Prince, Purple Rain (1984) Metallica, Ride the Lightning (1984)

Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (1965) Run D.M.C., Raising Hell (1986)

The Who, Who’s Next (1971) Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison (1968)

Dr. Dre, the Chronic ( 1992) Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On (1971)

The Cure, Seventeen Seconds (1980) The Beatles, (eponymous, or “the White Album”) (1968)

Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon (1973) Outkast, Stankonia (2000)

Fleetwood Mac, Rumors (1977) The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced (1967)

Nirvana, Nevermind (1991) Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (1959)

Elvis Presley (eponymous) (1956) Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

Rolling Stones, Let it Bleed (1969) At the Drive-In, Relationship of Command (2000)

Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) Madonna, (eponymous) (1982)

Bob Marley and the Wailers, Burnin’ (1973) Pearl Jam, Ten (1991)

***Please speak with me if there is another classic album you would like to research; you need my approval first.

Structural Suggestions

Introduction: STATE YOUR THESIS!

What is a classic album? Stellar artistry; Slick production work; iconic packaging; Critical acclaim; Commercial success

Stellar Artistry


FIRST SENTENCE: Discuss who the producer is and how long the production process took

SECOND SENTENCE: Describe what both the artist’s and the producer’s inspiration was for the process. What was done to follow this inspiration?

THIRD/ FOURTH SENTENCE: Discuss two production techniques that were used during the process.

FIFTH SENTENCE: Try to describe the final result.

SIXTH SENTENCE: Transition to your next paragraph.


Butch Vig, a relatively green producer, took the helm of Nevermind at Nirvana’s request—a process that took two years to complete (for Nirvana had personnel changes and problems with finding a record label to finally commit to the project) (di Perna, 1995). Nirvana’s goal was to create a post-punk album with pop sensibilities: something that was certainly radio friendly, but still had the heaviness and poignancy of a socially-conscious punk project; Butch Vig understood the goal and definitely used the Beatles as a model (Kurt Cobain’s idol was John Lennon) (VH1 Classic Albums). Vocals were layered, Beatles-style (even the background singing was given two tracks) and here and there orchestral pieces were added. What’s the final result? An exemplification “of the band’s skill at inscribing subtlety onto dense, noisy rock” (Robbins) and an album that changed the musical direction for (as of now) three generations. But it’s not just the music: the album’s art continues the story.

Iconic packaging/ art


Commercial success: how many in a year? How many today?

First song (key, tempo, timbre, lyrical interpretation)

Second song

Third Song


To sum up, Nevermind is a seminal work that, in the early 1990s, propelled music towards a more honest, college-radio-friendly place, thereby killing off the pretentious “glam rock” that preceded it. Nirvana’s critical praise and album sales are a testament to this: and the fact that there are still teens wearing iconic shirts affirms the authenticity of the album as a classic work of virtuosity.

Sample Draft (incomplete):

Obligatory College Bro

English 151, Professor Ramos

Paper #4, Draft 1

In the early 1980s, a relatively unknown dancer and aspiring singer from Detroit was desperately trying her hand at songwriting, trying to create the perfect dance album. Through sheer passion and determination, collaboration, failure, acceptance of change, musical synergy, and lots of hard work, her vision came to fruition: Madonna Louise Ciccone’s debut album was born. And although initial critical reception was lukewarm at best, time has shown this album to be a classic: it has sold over nine million copies worldwide ( An exploration of the creation, production, and reception of Madonna will prove its immortal importance in the pantheon of classic albums.

The Infancy of Madonna

Madonna was in New York City in 1982, playing with a hard rock band with her boyfriend at the time, Steve Bray. The duo was also working on a side project, something with more funk and dance-sensibility: this produced a rough track of the song “Everybody”(which would wind up as the last track on her LP). Madonna then took the single to Mark Kamins, the house DJ at New York’s Danceteria nightclub, and asked him to play it for the crowd:

One night, Madonna entered his DJ booth with a four-track demo tape that she’d written and recorded. The singer was already familiar to Kamins. “She was always on the dancefloor [sic],” he recalls. “She had a tremendous need to perform – when she danced, people watched.” Kamins listened to the tape and one track in particular, Everybody, grabbed his attention. He played it immediately to gauge the reaction of the packed dancefloor [sic].
“I liked it and the floor liked it,” Kamins says [sic] (

As Madonna’s band with Bray failed, her R&B career took off: Kamins passed her demo to management at Sire Records and she was signed for a two single deal (with Kamins taking over production duties from Bray in the deal). When “Everybody” reached at number 7 on the Billboard Club/ Dance chart in January of 1983 (, Sire was in for the long haul and bequeathed Madonna with a shot at an LP, and the future star was preparing to, as she told Dick Clark on American Bandstand in 1984, “…rule the world….”

Interestingly, the original single’s record-sleeve artwork did not feature Madonna (see Figure 1); it consisted of a street scene in New York City, seemingly with an absurdist, hip-hop feel. This was intentional: Madonna’s visage was left off and an inner-city motif was presented to create the illusion of a Black singer, as Madonna would be played on predominately “black” stations like WKTU in New York City; therefore, when Madonna first achieved success, “…it was presumed that she was black (the sleeve didn’t feature her photograph) and, for a while, she became known as “the only white girl played on black radio…” ( once her origins were discovered.

Figure 1: “Everybody” record sleeve

As the debut album’s production progressed, the reins were turned over to Reggie Lucas, a disco/ R&B producer (Sounds Magazine). Although he had successfully produced albums before, Madonna did not like his style and invited John “Jellybean” Benitiz to assist her in finishing the album (the Atlantic). Jellybean remixed the tracks and produced new material, including “Holiday,” a song which would go on to hit number one on the Billboard Hot Dance chart and, more importantly for Madonna, number 16 on Billboard’s Hot 100. More hits ensued with “Burning Up,” “Lucky Star,” and “Borderline” (which peaked at number 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100). The punk-inspired queen of R&B had arrived (Lindsay): and her album—after almost a year of work—was born into the pantheon of classic pop legend.

Figure 2: the eponymous LP cover issued in the U.S. July, 1983

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