I mainly review studio albums. Prior to the mid-1960s, mainstream music was primarily created and consumed in the form of singles, and often, vinyl LPs were simply used to put multiple of these singles together, as well as other potential hits and a variety of odds and ends to fill out the record. Albums such as the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out!, however, started off a period called the Album Era, where many artists inside and outside of the mainstream utilized the LP format to its full potential as a way of artistic expression in of itself; in other words, every song on an album had a purpose and a common link, whether on a sonic, thematic, or conceptual level.
The Album Era persisted until the 2000s, where the capabilities of the Internet led to the appearance of music download and streaming services, which would spark a resurgence in the public’s interest in singles. Today, while the Album Era is technically over, the idea of using the album format as in that period still persists. By mainly reviewing albums, the intent is not to present it as the best format of music expression (as some would accuse “rockists” — people who uphold rock music as inherently superior to other genres of recorded music such as pop, hip hop, or dance music — of doing); the fact of the matter is, however, that a large part of the canon of recorded music, from the 1950s to this very day, revolves around that format, whether in jazz, pop, rock, hip hop, electronic music, or other genres that appeared since then. Since this period of music is the one I’m most familiar with as a listener and critic, it seems obvious in hindsight that I would primarily review studio albums.
That being said, I am not against reviewing music under other formats. The thing is that these other formats present hurdles that make their critical appreciation more difficult, whether for the reviewer (read: me) or for a potential newcomer to an artist’s work. I will go over these multiple formats individually:
Live albums: depending on who releases it, a live album can be a great idea. More than a couple artists and groups, upon taking their studio material to the stage, bring new life and energy to their songs, providing an experience that can serve as an equally effective alternative to the albums they draw upon — groups such as Led Zeppelin, Queen and U2 are famous in part for their live performances, and all three have their share of strong live records. A good live album contains solid renditions of studio tracks that, while not perfectly different from their original versions, remain unique enough so as to prevent the release from looking like a “Greatest Hits Live” package. In a very good live album, these live versions can even be superior to their studio counterparts. An amazing live album, however, paints such a powerful portrait of the artist and their material that it stands up as a touchstone of their work in of itself — see Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison, The Who’s Live at Leeds, or King Crimson’s Absent Lovers: Live in Montreal 1984.
The issue is that, most of the time, live albums are more recommended for people who are already acquainted with the artist’s work, as opposed to newcomers. To review a live album is, most of the time, to evaluate how the record succeeds in adding a new perspective to the material it presents, how expansive the set list is, and in the case of acts that often release live albums, how pertinent it is (see Yes). Not often does a live album contain songs that don’t appear on the artist’s studio efforts, let alone solely consist of new material. As a result, a live album rarely serves as an effective way to start listening to an artist. Exceptions apply, of course, as with Johnny Cash (mentioned above), whose extensive studio catalog warrants a primer in the form of a live record.
As a result, I am willing to do live albums, but it must be understood that reviewing a record of the sort thoroughly while allowing for a reader that has no knowledge of the artist to get an idea of the material within can be a little much to handle, especially when considering I don’t go over entire artist discographies.
Singles: in all fairness, it should be mentioned that there exist groups, even in the Album Era, that are not just known for their albums, but for their singles, some of which have not even appeared on a studio record — see New Order, among others. As a result, I review singles, but only on request, in groups of three to five, for the simple reason that there is generally not as much to say about a singular track as there is an entire album. It’s also worth noting that album singles will be rated more harshly as a single than on the album they come from, as they need to work outside of the context of the record as well; it can also be interesting to see how these tracks represent their albums.
EPs: these get a free pass, since new material can get released on that format just fine (see R.E.M., Alice in Chains, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, etc.).
Compilations: this depends also. If the compilation only consists of an artist’s most popular tracks or “greatest hits”, there is little interest in reviewing this on an album-centric review website, as the quality of such a record is dependent not just on the quality of the songs, but also on how effectively it represents the artist’s entire body of work as of its release. On the other hand, collections of non-album singles, B-sides, or unreleased material are more interesting, simply because the songs in them are unavailable anywhere else.
There could also be question of mixtapes and DJ mixes, but these two formats are specific to particular genres, and they arguably serve the same purpose as an album.