Music criticism is dead. Long live music analysis.
Gone are the days when listeners relied on critics for guidance on which albums to buy. In the streaming era, there is no need to read about whether an album is any good—you can sample it for yourself with just a few clicks.
Now, instead of seeking out critics’ assessment of an album, many music lovers want to hear about how songs work, why albums are constructed the way they are, and other bits of musical minutiae.
Enter the music explainer.
Today, there is a plethora of wonderful media focused on how music is made, and why we like what we like. These explainers celebrate the creative process, break down musical theory, and otherwise highlight things that often go unnoticed to casual listeners. While there is some excellent writing that fits the form, the music explainer really shines in podcasts and videos.
Here are five of the best music explainers out there right now—and a few bonus suggestions if you want to go even deeper.
Dissect: Dissect is the epitome of the music explainer. Each season of the podcast delves into one classic album, with a nearly one-hour podcast explaining the musical composition and lyrics in each song on that record. The second season, focused on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is a masterpiece. The third season, examining Frank Ocean’s Blonde, is now streaming on Spotify.
VoxPop’s Earworm: These videos explain pop music trends in a way that is equally delightful and illuminating. Host Estelle Caswell takes on challenging concepts, like the rise of the triplet flow in rap and the unique compositional sense of Captain Beefheart, and makes them easy to understand.
Switched on Pop: Do you love Carlie Rae Jepsen, but you are not sure why? Then you must listen to musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding’s podcast on the music theory behind pop hits. They will convince you that Jepsen, Zedd, and Ariana Grande are all geniuses.
Song Exploder: On this beautifully edited podcast, artists reveal the inspirations and musical ideas that form one of their songs. Artists often share early versions of a song and explain how and why the instrumentation or melody changed throughout the recording process. The result is often surprisingly poignant: Solange explaining her song “Cranes in the Sky” is essential listening.
Genius’s Deconstructed: Usually the most important person behind your favorite pop song isn’t the artist. It’s the producer. In these pithy five-minute videos, producers walk you through the choices that led to their hits. To start, watch Ludwig Göransson explain Childish Gambino’s “Redbone.”
But wait, there’s more: Other music explainers worth mentioning include Sodajerker on Songwriting, the Financial Times’ Life of a Song, Sound Opinions’ Classic Album Dissections, the Requiem Metal Podcast’s album analyses, and Slate’s Hit Parade.