published: 27 /
Ben Howarth, in his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column, questions the value or need for star rankings in music reviews
As the person secretly manning the Pennyblackmusic Facebook account – and pretending to be someone else when I link to my own articles – I now have a purpose built stream of music related ‘news’ and other general titbits. Perfect for avoiding work, but occasionally also a source of interesting online debates.
A good one this month came from our friends at ‘Drowned In Sound’ (the UK’s clumsier yet much more likable answer to ‘Pitchforkmedia’), who asked if their reviewers had become too generous, having handed five different albums ‘ten out of ten’ in their reviews this year. They wondered if the ‘passion’ writers showed in their reviews justified high scores or if they should regulate the system by making 9 the maximum score, allowing only the editor to then decide if an album deserved a maximum of 10.
At Pennyblackmusic, we get round tricky conundrums like this by not bothering to give albums any score at all. We hope that you’ll know from the words what we think of an album, and it avoids the tricky – ultimately pointless – activity of trying to stack up a brand new album against every other album ever made in a unified marking scheme. (If you took an English GCSE this summer, you might appreciate this).
Comments in reply to these questions varied between those who said that music fans understood that giving an album a perfect score didn’t necessarily mean you thought it was as good as ‘Pet Sounds’. Others felt ten should only be given to an album that was ‘perfect in every conceivable way’.
Another criteria suggested was that an album had to be ‘groundbreaking in its execution’, which sounds sensible enough, but would mean that none of the music I really like makes the cut. I’m much more interested in unexpected twists along well trodden paths than I am entirely ‘new’ music. While I can see that Burial’s music is innovative and unlike anything much else, I’d still much rather listen to David Tattersall’s guitar solos, Richard Hawley’s voice and Patterson Hood’s empathy for the common man.
Ultimately, the problem is that curious mindset among of music journalists: the belief that only two things matter - the happening-right-now, and then the critically acclaimed classics, firmly established in the ‘canon’. That’s a high risk approach that means you will miss quite a lot of good stuff: there are only so many records I can afford to buy, and just as importantly, only so much time that I have to listen to them (the new football season won’t watch itself, after all) so I have to be selective.
Are music reviews merely a buyer’s guide to help people like me or a shot over the bows in a great debate about music culture? I’d like to think they can be both. Only the most casual music fan can listen to an album without placing it into some kind of context against other music they like. But, I’d also like an honest assessment of the quality of the music – not just how well it is positioned in the music scene.
The band I’ve listened to the most this year, the Wave Pictures, are the best example of why star ratings don’t work. Though an objectively brilliant band – just see how they interact with one another when they play live, if you want proof – they make music that not everyone will like. I quickly gave up trying to make my folk/country loving brother listen to them. Under ‘Q’ magazine’s rigid star rating code-of-conduct, I would be forced to give their latest album three stars (“good, not for everyone, but fine within its field”), because I wouldn’t want to pretend every Pennyblackmusic reader will like them. But, for those who like this kind of thing, its as good as album as I can imagine. An honest review would highlight my ‘passion’, but also stress that the Wave Pictures are something of an acquired taste.
What this all boils down to is that, for music journalists, I’ve come to think that the ultimate skill – to be prized above all others – is to write positive reviews in such a way that anyone who won’t like the album isn’t tricked into buying it.