Sunday, June 14, 2009

Album Ratings: Just The Facts

This is my section of disclaimers and assorted information for my album reviews. Any questions, please leave a comment for me and I'll respond within the thread attached to this entry and/or revise this entry itself.

Part One: Format
I aim for a simple format: write a little bit about the album as a whole, then do a song-by-song rating and ranking system, discussed in Part Two of this entry. It's my own pledge to not go into painstakingly researched details about every day of the recording process, etc. Sometimes a bit of background is necessary. Sometimes a bit about the album's inception/creation is essential. Sometimes the album's (at least initial) critical reception is worth knowing.

The main thrust is that an album is the end product of a collection of songs. Is the album itself uneven? Is side A better than side B?^ An album is a whole, an experience. Once home tape recorders were widely available, the mixtape was born. Then came the mix CD. Now there's the iPod playlist...and so on and so on.

With the song-by-song breakdown, I'll have a little bit to say about each song. I won't analyze or go into philosophical depth, just simple aesthetic comments/critiques.

Part One And A Half: What About Singles?
In writing album reviews, there is the sticky issue of non-album tracks released as singles. With some artists, like The Kinks, the singles are now included as bonus tracks on CD reissues. The Beatles' singles were collected into a two-CD compilation called Past Masters. The Rolling Stones have had a few different permutations of this.

The Who gets even messier, as their singles aren't included as bonus tracks - "Substitute," "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere," "I'm A Boy," "The Seeker" - but instead are found only on best of/greatest hits compilations. Shitty business move to make die-hard Who fans shill out 20 bucks for three songs on a Greatest Hits package. In some instances, their b-sides are impossible to track down, some found only on import-only rarities collections from the late 1980's with significantly inferior sonic quality than the digitally remastered stuff.

Bottom line on this one - if a single is contemporaneously adjacent to an album, that is to say it was recorded at the same time, it will be included with it. Example: "Day Tripper" / "We Can Work It Out" being recorded during the Rubber Soul sessions, even sharing the same release date.

If a single is a standalone, that is, the song was recorded exclusively as a single and was not from sessions for an album, it will be included in the review of the studio album proceeding it. Example: "The Seeker" by The Who is in this weird middle ground between Tommy (1969) and Who's Next (1971), a standalone single release. It will be included in the review of Who's Next. In an instance such as this, the songs from the single will not be considered part of the adjacent album, nor will it be counted in the album's final rating.

Part One And Two Thirds: What About Live Albums?
I'm still grappling with this one. On the one hand, there are more than a few live albums boasting all-new material, like Neil Young's Time Fades Away (1973) or any number of Zappa's stuff. But a lot of live albums can be little more than a "Best Of" collection with cheering, applause, and onstage banter between songs, like One For The Road by The Kinks (1980) or any number of Zappa's stuff. I don't hold any sort of grudge against them, but they're just...different.

If it's a great performance and showcases the talents of the musicians in front of an audience, fantastic. But if it's your fourth live album within a single decade (I'm looking at you, Neil...The Rolling Stones, too!) and there's little in the way of new songs, I will probably tear it to shreds. Or if it's extremely obvious there's been some overdubbage on what's marketed as a "live" album. That's almost immediate disqualification.

This is exceptionally irritating with Zappa, where sometimes it can be interesting as well as entertaining to hear how "The Torture Never Stops" sounded in 1975 (on an official live release) and its gradual evolution - rearranging it while on the road (one such night can be heard on yet another official live release) - into what you hear in the studio version on Zoot Allures (1976). Then you can hear how he does it with a wind/brass section on Zappa In New York (1978). But then you hear it again and again throughout the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series and it abounds on the I've heard...

Part One And Three Quarters: Will You Review Any Bootlegs?
No. That's for you to explore on your own. Plenty abounds for all sorts of artists. But do not, repeat, DO NOT ask me for a hook-up! Tape-swapping is cool, but that's only if I know you in person. That's all I have to say about that.

Part One And Four Fifths: What About Bonus Tracks That Aren't Singles?
I will talk about them, but they won't be counted towards the total final grade for the album. For the CD reissue, yes, but not for the original album.

Part Two: Rating Algorithm
Each song is given a rating on a one to ten scale. I allow myself decimal points, but only in multiples of .5, so a song can fall just short of perfection and have a 9.5. No smaller than that, though. Wouldn't want to start messing with a 9.1 here and an 8.4 there.

12 - The best song by a particular artist. (One per artist!*)
11 - The best song on a particular album, essentially a 10 with just a little extra.**
10 - Masterpiece. There is nothing you dislike about this song. It makes you feel better.
9 - Excellent. Not as iconic, but a strong contender for a "Best Of" compilation any day. Also reserved for songs that would be 10's but are just too short. I differentiate this from it being too long; if you feel a song is too short, that means you want to hear more of it. If a song is too long, that indicates it has worn out its welcome.
8 - Great. Missing just that one thing, whether it's too long (though if it's excessively long it could end up a 7) or it needed a guitar solo (didn't need it but had one anyway).
7 - Good. If you had "Best Of" volume II, it might find its way on there. More than a flaw or two in the song.
6 - Fair. Could have been worse, but they've done better. Maybe it sounds better live?
5 - Sub-par. You can think of how the song could have been made into at least a 7. Maybe it just has a top-notch chorus, catchy as Hell, or just melodically strong.
4 - Mediocre. Maybe it's got a really good verse, bridge, or solo, but the rest of it just doesn't hold up.
3 - Bad. Next time you hear the album, you will definitely skip this one. It downright annoys you.
2 - Really, really bad. You can't even define what's wrong with it, other than that it was released and/or conceived by a human being and not a denizen of Hell itself.
1 - Abysmal. Sitting through it even once is torture. This is to be rarely used - a 1 has to be so bad that your entire opinion of the album is swayed by it. Granted, an album that would feature a 1 is either horribly inconsistent or already of less than desirable quality, where 5's and 6's abound.

Once I've got that total, there's additional factors to consider:
1.) Can it be listened to again and again? ("Anytime. Anyplace. Anywhere," add three points; "I can put it on as background music and not feel compelled to skip any songs," add two; "Yes, but in certain moods/situations," add one point. "No," add none.)
2.) Is it good compared to the best of this particular artist? ("It's quintessential [insert name here]!", add three. "Maybe not the first album of [insert name here]'s stuff I'd recommend, but it's near the top of the list," add two. "Get it once you've got the best," add one. "It's really one for the die-hards," add none. "If this had been the first album by [insert name here] I'd heard, I wouldn't have liked them," subtract one.)
3.) Are there external factors that boost or hurt the album overall, like it being too short, over-produced, under-produced, groundbreaking in its production, etc.? (If they are positive, add two. If there's both, add one. If they are negative, subtract one. If there's none, add one.)

With these extra points added to my initial total, I divide the result by the number of tracks on the album - like an average.

If the album is a CD reissue with bonus tracks, I provide a final score for the original album with the above factors included, then one for the complete CD with the above factors intact.

Songs of somewhat inconsequential value (the 12-second long "Miracle Cure" on Tommy, the five "Announcement" tracks throughout Preservation Act Two) are considered null and neither hinder or help the album's overall score.

Part Two And A Half: How Do You Rate A Song?
Aesthetically speaking, I place a lot of value on how a song - or even a whole album - feels, whether it's an end result of excellent lyrics, elegant instrumentation and arrangements, or even its merits as an artistic experiment. I will go on record saying Neil Young and Bob Dylan do not have smooth, pretty voices like Paul McCartney or Robin Zander (of Cheap Trick), but I still like their voices. There's a distinct character, an honesty to it, that makes them just as good of singers - in their own way - as McCartney or whoever.

Using a similar example, McCartney may have a lovely singing voice with a broad range, but Paul McCartney is not exactly known for his lyrical depth. Unless of course you rank his own "Silly Love Songs" with "Like A Rolling Stone." If you do, that's cool...but you honestly won't like my site. But dammit if he can't write a catchy melody. Zappa, when he isn't writing social satire, sometimes serves up lyrics that he himself dismissed as being necessary if only to ensure the sheer chance of getting radio play. However, Zappa is a fine composer, with a great sense of melody, progressions, and tone.

Likewise, The Residents can half both ugly music and nonsensical lyrics. But I still love it.

That's what the music we love the most does to us. Inspire us to think differently, or to just think, period; inspire us to create, or at least be a little more bold; inspire us to be strong when it seems almost impossible. Then there's the stuff that just sounds good. We like the way it makes us feel.

Music is art. Something like Sgt. Pepper might be like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, while Time Fades Away is like Edvard Munch's The Scream, Zappa is like a collage by Hannah Hoch, The Residents are like a Jackson Pollock painting, etc. Whatever you're into, just enjoy it for what it is - your own definition of beauty.

^ Don't worry, I'm not a vinyl purist. Those people need to get over themselves. (I get it, you're rich and can afford a huge record collection and buy a brand-spanking-new record player, too cool for MP3's and whatnot. Some people may dig your attitude, but to the rest of us, you're a pretentious ass.)
If I'm writing about an album that saw its original release in the vinyl era (roughly up until the mid 1980's), I will specify where side A ends and side B begins. Artists and/or producers sequence their albums a certain way, it is not an arbitrary process. They are meant to flow from beginning to end, barring the sixty-second intermission where one would be flipping over the record. But even then, as one of my rock history professors pointed out, when you finish the first side of a record, you're presented with a choice of whether to keep going or not. Anyway, before this turns into a full rant I'll end this here.

* I say "artist" so as to create a loophole within bands with more than one songwriter. For The Beatles, I have a favorite song by each of them. (Ok, so Ringo only wrote two songs...sadly, I don't think either of them merit 12's.) This allows a little breathing room in The Who, too, as I love John Entwistle's songs just as much as I do Pete Townshend's.

** Since, unless it's a single, my favorite song by an artist would logically be my favorite song on an album, my second favorite song on that album would receive the 11.

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