How I Review Records

The following describes my “quick” method for reviewing a record.

  • I try to listen to a record at least twice before casting judgment.
  • In the course of listening, I try and capture any stray observations that seem pertinent, ie who the band reminds me of, which songs grab me upon initial listen, what the mood of the album is, etc.
  • I try and find out what I can about the incidentals surrounding the album. Wikipedia is a pretty convenient reference for this.
  • Once I feel like I have an informed opinion of a record, I try to read a few other reviews, usually starting with All Music Guide and perhaps Pitchfork. Since these are “professional” music review sites, they have often have interesting bits of insight. If I find something particularly helpful, I might even quote it.

Finally, I score the record based on the following:

(Consequence + Concept + Consistency + Cohesion) x Songs = My Rating (X/100)

Consequence: What is the external significance of the record? How does it fit into the artist’s career/catalog, and how does it fit into the overall cultural landscape? An album like Highway 61 Revisited rates a 5/5 here because it was a pinnacle and a turning point in Dylan’s career and a cultural milestone at the same time. On the other hand, the latest Weird Al record probably isn’t that significant.

Concept: What is being communicated by the record? Does the record have a theme (or themes)? For example, I’d rate U2’s War as a 5/5 in terms of Concept because it communicates a sense of struggle from the instrumentation to the lyrics to the song titles to the mood of the record. So-called “Concept” albums don’t necessarily do the trick either. One of the things that makes War so successful is that it is about so many different kinds of war (civil, international, interpersonal, spiritual). On the low end, that demo tape you recorded on a jam box with your band in eighth grade didn’t have any sort of concept other than “sound like Nirvana.” Probably a 1/5.

Consistency: Is the record ordered well? How strong are the performances? REM’s Murmur is an example of a record that is consistently great from start to finish. There are slow songs and fast songs, sad songs and upbeat songs, but it flows remarkably well and the band’s vigor shines through. Yet sometimes bands frontload the best songs (U2 is pretty bad about this). That makes for an uneven listen, and it’s hard to consider the album as a whole to be a great effort.

Cohesion: How well does the songs hold together? Do they sound like they belong in the same collection? This one is related to the Concept, but the Concept is more of an overall rating in terms of artistic vision, whereas Cohesion is more about the way the songs relate to one another. Since most albums get recorded around the same time, this usually isn’t a problem, but really high ratings go for albums like OK Computer where the songs run through so many different moods and soundscapes and are still able to seamlessly fit together.

Songs: The most important factor of them all. The bottom line is that songs make a record. Without good songs, chances are the ratings of the above factors are going to suffer as well. After all, a grand concept will seem cheesy if it is communicated through weak songwriting. Of course, greatest hits collections by many bands will usually get a high song rating, but will probably suffer in terms of the other four factors. However, an album like Revolver boasts 14 great songs that were meant to go together and unite to form a magnificent whole.

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