A saying goes that “talking [originally writing] about music is like dancing about architecture“, and this conveys the (seemingly elusive) nature of music criticism very well. Take the time to read reviews from a multitude of people, and you will be able to piece together how each of them envision music: that includes their preferences, their conception of the medium, and what they consider the components to a good song or record. A debate over a release’s quality can easily devolve into a discussion touching upon the foundations of music and its analysis.
Anyone can analyze music in their own way, and I wholeheartedly encourage aspiring critics to find their own unique style, but it would be wrong to say there is no incorrect method to reviewing. Above anything else, it’s imperative to shed any preconceptions that could unfairly influence your judgement, no matter the album, artist, or genre. Time and time again, I see people fall for the same mistakes, sometimes within full-fledged reviews, and this has prompted me to touch upon the very core of my “philosophy” in that regard. When analyzing a release, I attempt to be as impartial as possible, but to describe how I do so, I must discuss how I conceive music, and then how I review it.
What is music?
Simply put, music is the usage and manipulation of sound in relation to time. Some may argue that concepts such as rhythm and pitch are essential to music, but those are only common, not obligatory. The Beatles make music. Whitehouse and Merzbow make music. John Cage’s compositions are music. If a fart is recorded and released as a single, it is music. All it takes for a sonic performance to be music is for the creator to present it as such.
This definition is very general, but that’s because a reviewer should not have a preconception of what music should be. Their role is not exclusively to determine whether a record satisfies their tastes, or to evaluate it based on fixed criteria. Even if the majority of recorded music relies on common characteristics like tonality, tempo, and the such, every album that comes out offers a very specific idea of what music can be, and should be critiqued based on this idea that they present. The Beatles are a cultural and historical touchstone not just because of their musical experimentation (some of which other artists may have done before them), but because they were able to present it well enough to convince an audience at large that it made for a valid approach, and thus pave the way for many other artists to come.
The issue that comes with reviewing music based on a rigid definition of the medium is that you may dismiss albums, if not entire genres, simply because what they attempt does not fall within said definition. This is different from merely disliking something: for instance, there’s nothing wrong with listening to noise and hating it, but one should avoid claiming from the get-go that noise is “not music” and thus not worthy of attention without giving any album in the genre a serious chance. To be fair, however, a detailed review will very rarely exhibit this flaw, considering it takes a certain amount of interest in an album to make a lengthy evaluation of it in the first place. Even then, this is something to keep in mind.
That being said, you can dismiss music for non-musical reasons as well, and that is one of the worst things that a reviewer can do. The most obvious example I can conjure up concerns political themes; without elaborating for too long, suffice to say is that I do my utmost to ignore whether I agree or disagree with the beliefs that a release may express. Not everyone thinks this way, however, and as a result, I have witnessed bewildering instances of “reviews” that quickly veered into needless political commentary. I, myself, have fallen for this problem before. Some time ago, on a different site, I posted a review of The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual (2013), a record with notable political themes. Although I focused mainly on the musical content, I made multiple unnecessary remarks on the ideas behind it. The critical word here is “ideas“: as with any type of musical experimentation, it’s unacceptable to dismiss an album for what it attempts to do or say, as opposed to how it does it. If a political album is good, you’ll remember a lot more about it than just its beliefs.
Now that I have explained my conception of the medium, I can answer the following:
How do I review music?
Multiple times now, I have stressed the need to give any type of album a chance, and ignore as many musical prejudices as possible. As that would imply, my reviewing approach doesn’t rely on rating a release based on arbitrary criteria such as technical skill, arrangement, or production. However, it doesn’t merely rest on my personal appreciation either. At their core, all of my reviews are the result of a three-step process:
- What does the album do? What are its distinguishing features (instrumentation, vocals, production)? How do its components interact? (This step is objective.)
- What is the album’s goal? To what end does it use its multiple elements? (This step is in parts objective, in parts subjective.)
- How well does the album fulfill its goal? Would the album “convince” its potential audience that it has achieved its objective, and does it do so for the reviewer as well? If not, does it still have something to offer? (This step is subjective.)
Music reviewing is not purely subjective. Yes, the idea is to share your opinion on a record, but you also need to explain why you have it at all. What’s more, one could argue that the main purpose of a review is to inform the reader, with the evaluation itself serving as a mere suggestion. Hence, step one is paramount. You must be able to analyze the components of a record, not just to give your critique any sort of legitimacy, but also to give the reader an accurate idea of what the album is and allow them to determine if it’s something that would interest them in the first place. You don’t necessarily need to know that much about music theory either: one can already say a good deal about the general sound and presentation of a record to describe it accurately.
In addition, it’s more than recommended to do some actual reading on the album, especially when it comes to the intent behind it. The term “concept album” is rather closely associated with records such as Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which tell a clearly defined story, but any studio release with a common theme, be it musical or lyrical, can be considered one. This is where the second step comes into play. It’s perfectly possible to review an album without any context, as one could be able to identify a common theme with a cursory listen; sometimes, there is little background to be found as well. Still, if there is a goal behind a record, then it’s preferable to know it so as to have a good idea of where to start in its analysis.
The third step is common to every review: is the album good? This question has two sides, as the reviewer must see how much they like it and if they would recommend it to readers. In the latter case, they should also ask the following: whatever the album tries to do, does it do it better than other similar records? How does it compare to the rest of the artist’s discography, or the genre in which it fits as a whole? This latter aspect demonstrates the comparative nature of music criticism: without any real frame of reference (whether in general or on the genre/artist level), it’s difficult to make a well-informed recommendation. How can you tell if a death metal album is particularly essential if you’ve only listened to three of those?
This distinction, in fact, is the reason why I have a personal rating and a recommendation rating (see the Rating Systems page). When it comes to my own appreciation of an album, all I can do is listen to it, see how much I like it, and piece together all the reasons why. On the recommendation level, I also have to wonder how “essential” the record is. For example, I like David Bowie’s 1987 release Never Let Me Down, but it is perceived as a career low for a reason, as it is highly unrepresentative of the artist’s output. Hence, it would get a good personal rating, but a much lower recommendation rating, as there are many other albums of his that I would recommend first, whether it’s because they are better, more influential, or they better represent his work as a whole.
The main lesson to keep from this page is this: art, music included, is not a hard science. To try and restrict the medium in any way, shape, or form, goes against the very core of artistic expression, and a reviewer should not allow themselves to decide that the works of others are music or not. As a critic, my job is to present an album, offer my opinion on its pros and cons, and give my readers enough information to let them decide if they are interested, and this applies on a case-by-case basis. There’s nothing more to it.