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How to write a good album review

Intro: Musica practica
The music album review is a blank canvas. Specialized, technical music criticism – anything that addresses time signatures, keys, or the musicians’ technical ability at length – has long since left the mainstream, leaving behind abundant opportunities for writers to unfurl lengthy tracts infused with anecdotes, fake correspondence, riffs on Marxism, and geographical inaccuracy.

The divergence of technical critique and music writing may be the result of rapid expansion in opportunities to consume and experience music. This growth that has not been matched by advances that would make music production any easier. Roland Barthes was onto something when he hypothesized about “two musics” in an essay, noting the ascent of receptive music at the expense of its productive counterpart:

[P]assive, receptive music, sound music, is become the music (that of concert, festival, record, radio): playing has ceased to exist; musical activity is no longer manual, muscular, kneadingly physical, but merely liquid, effusive, ‘lubrificating” …

EDM is ground zero for the emerging dominance of “passive, receptive music.” With DJs as well known for their record collection as their technical abilities, the musical producer has become one with the festival-goer – sort of like Deadmau5.

The music writer has been acquiescent in the transformation, by making commentary on tracks – but especially albums – immensely personal and unacademic:

  • Reading a positive album review is the equivalent of running up to someone in a crowd and asking for an explanation of why the artist is so great.
  • Reading a negative take is often barely better than being swarmed by a faceless Internet commenter.

Yet, there’s art in Internet comments, and music isn’t a form to be evaluated solely on technical merits, especially given its inevitability in so many contexts. After all, even the top 40 music playing in the background at the mall is a successor to the country music that once played in the countryside, or the hip-hop that spilled over 1970s and 1980s NYC. It’s contextual music that listeners cannot curate and are instead forced to experience. Such music, under such circumstances, almost deserves a similarly imprecise, broad-brush form of criticism in return; technical dissection is asymmetric.

Learning from styles around the Web
There are a million and one music review sites out there, including, sometimes, this blog. Everyone’s a (music) critic. Like the Internet comment, it presents an easy way to produce words at scale and create an appearance of sophistication. I looked at four sites that I have frequently read for music criticism at some point. Here’s how to write a review in each of their house styles, which between them cover a comprehensive range of approaches to criticism. Combining traits of each is a good foundation for reviewing.

Pitchfork

  • Background: Pitchfork is one of the most successful music sites on the Web. Started in 1996, it has grown into a brand synonymous with indie music, and it sponsors the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago’s Union Park.
  • Stylistic hallmarks: Introduction heavy on personal anecdotes and/history of the artist; subsequent historical information on the artist’s back catalog; references to classic albums perhaps not from the same genre (“OK Computer is, after all, one of the greatest albums our generation has experienced in its time,” in a review of Grandaddy’s Sophtware Slump); if not, perhaps comparisons to similar-sounding artists (see below); references to other media (“”As a lifestyle, you always being the focal point is innately unhealthy,” Ocean recently told The New York Times,” in a review of Frank Ocean).
  • Representative sentence: “There comes a certain moment in the life of a music fan when the realization hits that you’ve crossed the line from being merely interested in a band to being a collector, a bit obsessed maybe– scouring magazines for a curiosity fix, digging in dollar bins, scanning instrument credits in used shops, making long lists of great songs for driving past lakes in the moonlight, buying things by bands that look like they might sound kind of like the Smiths, and…well, half a decade after you cross that line, you look around your home and the teetering piles of discs you’ve barely had time to listen to, clear the liner notes from the second Nuggets boxed set off your coffee table and think to yourself, “is this what I’ve become?” (introduction to review of reissue of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible).
  • Strengths: Pitchfork’s approach has matured over 18 years and resulted in good journalism if nothing else. Reviews often link to contextual and corroborating materials. Each review is of digestible yet comprehensive length, with key tracks highlighted and assessed in comparison to each other and the band’s overall catalog.
  • Weaknesses: Early Pitchfork reviews are by and large awful, with self-indulgence on both the negative (a mean-spirited takedown of Tool) and positive side (the review of Radiohead’s Kid A talks about a song sounding like “mating tyrannosaurs”). Also, certain genres and artists seemed walled-off from Pitchfork’s good ratings (anything 7.0 and above, it seems like) – Pitchfork’s stylistic focus is narrow.

Rolling Stone

  • Background: Rolling Stone is a music and entertainment magazine operating since the 1960s.
  • Stylistic hallmarks: Short overall format; generalizations (“EDM has changed pop”); lifestyle reporting; rhetorical questions (“Where do lonely hearts go?”); rockism.
  • Representative sentence: “Three years ago, Lana Del Rey seemed to hatch into existence as a fully formed provocateur: She has introduced previously untasted flavors to pop music (her slow, torchy genre of choice might best be described as “Calvin Klein Eternity commercial”) and shaped herself into as crafty a video star as Lady Gaga, making her racy, mysterious clips a core part of her brand.”
  • Strengths: RS reviews are brief, rarely testing the attention span. The five-star system is also much more discrete, if limited, than the 0.0-10.0 system of Pitchfork; a 4-star album is easy to tell apart from a 3-star one by RS’s criteria, whereas distinguishing between 7.0 and 7.9 on Pitchfork is more difficult.
  • Weaknesses: Too much lifestyle reporting tinged with rockism. Certain artists (such as Bruce Springsteen) could get five stars for anything. Others are almost guaranteed 4 stars for their mainstream debut (e.g., AFI’s Sing the Sorrow).

Resident Advisor

  • Background: Resident Advisor is a massive, fully-featured website focused primarily on house music and electronica.
  • Stylistic hallmarks: Usually just a few paragraphs; heavy on adjectives and similes (“the soft, grainy feel of old black and white footage”); highly contextual – no album is assessed in isolation from its respective scene or its creator’s catalog, unless a debut; sharp, straightforward transitions (“Other tracks are less effective. “); nice short introductions, occasional generalizations (“As genres enjoy peaks in popularity…”).
  • Representative sentence: “Peder Mannerfelt and Malcolm Pardon aren’t lacking ambition. The Swedish duo’s new album as Roll The Dice is the third in a series that’s chronicled the full sweep of Western civilisation over the last two centuries, from the agrarian existence evoked on their self-titled debut, through the Industrial Revolution on 2011’s In Dust, to the late-capitalist society of Until Silence.”
  • Strengths: Highly educational: I knew almost nothing about house or EDM before reading RA, but now it’s the genre I am most comfortable talking about. Rating system is a simple 1-5 stars. Article comments are actually worth reading an informative, a small miracle among Internet comments sections.
  • Weaknesses: Most reviews are in a narrow range between 3-4.5 stars. Language can be imprecise and only tangentially related to music (“hardly lacking in ideas, but they could do with more finessing”). Information about the artist’s background can derail reviews due to their short length.

Wilson and Alroy’s Record Reviews

  • Background: One of the first websites to ever publish album reviews, warr.org still has a Web 1.0 interface. It only reviews albums and live concerts, and sometimes publishes essays.
  • Stylistic hallmarks: Paragraph length; rapid-fire analysis of tracks and musical characteristics, sometimes on the technical side (“goes from massive power chords to a capella nursery rhyme to 50’s doo-wop); occasional humor (“look up ‘wretched excess’ in the dictionary, and you should find a picture of this double album”); no generalizations.
  • Representative sentence: “Sadness and loss permeate this record; spare arrangements and his gripping delivery add up to what is perhaps his most powerful and coherent statement.”
  • Strengths: No-nonsense and uninterested in lifestyle reporting. Gets right to the point. Is not beholden to prevailing critical attitudes or consensus – the reviewers’ destruction of Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Radiohead and others show that they have no sacred cows; incredible scope, with reviews of everything from Latin and jazz to Turkish pop.
  • Weaknesses: Occasionally opaque  – ratings may seem hard to justify with the text supplied. Standards are super-high – they haven’t awarded any album five stars since 2000.

Putting it all together
With some background in reading album reviews (reviewing the reviews, even), writing them isn’t so hard:

  1. Listen to the whole album 3 times. This provides enough exposure to the album’s overall sound to make an informed assessment.
  2. Pick out 3 or 4 tracks to touch upon – the introductory and closing tracks are always good candidates, as are the longest tracks.
  3. Write the track-by-track analysis first and introduction last. That way, the latter will square with what you wrote about the actual music.
  4. Introduce cultural or personal materials only to strengthen the analytical core. Don’t make the entire piece about your experience listening to Dark Side of the Moon at an MtG tournament.

 

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