What Makes a Good or Bad Album Review?
Reviewing albums is inherently difficult. One’s experience with — and articulation of — any kind of art is always going to be subjective. An “objective” review, as naysayers so often clamor for, is completely impossible unless we were to simply stick to mechanical characteristics of the music: “Album X is black metal. In track 1, the guitarist shifts from a major third to a minor third. The drummer is playing blast beats.” And so on and so forth. No one wants to read that, nor is it effective in communicating whether an album is worth your time or not.
Reviews are also just one person’s opinion. Disagree? No sweat! You’re entitled. But that doesn’t stop the hoi polloi from crying out in disbelief any time they don’t have the same feelings about an album as the reviewer. Dissenting opinions are, of course, welcome, but so many of them completely miss the mark with regards to what a review should or shouldn’t be.
Heavy Blog is Heavy writer Scott Murphy has penned a fun editorial in which he highlights some of the most frequent negative comments lobbed against the site’s reviews and reviewers, together with his own responses as to why those criticisms are so misguided. And he’s right on the money. For example:
“You didn’t listen to the album enough.”
Similar to the first comment, this opinion claims to know something that reviewers hardly ever reveal, and for good reason. Because what this comment essentially translates to is “You didn’t listen to the album enough (to enjoy it as much as I do).” And once this claim is made, almost no number offered by the reviewer would be accepted by the commenter as an adequate amount of listens. Personally, I’d argue that 3 to 5 listens is usually enough to compose a well-reasoned review, but this also depends on a number of factors. Anthony Fantano covers this point well on his video about this topic, pointing out that a reviewer’s familiarity with the band, genre or context surrounding the album dictates how many listens are necessary to be able to review the album effectively. Additionally, album length is a huge factor, as it takes less effort and focus to listen to a Nails record multiple times than any of Swans‘ latest albums.
But this also brings up the point of a review’s purpose. We regularly run pieces dedicated to extensive dissection of various albums, namely our *prognotes features. But while there’s nothing wrong with incorporating this into a review, this isn’t its primary function. A review is a formal assessment of an album’s quality and discussion of how the album fits into the genre, modern music landscape and band’s discography. Usually when someone comments that a reviewer “hasn’t listened to an album enough,” they’re talking about a release from one of their favorite bands that they’ve voluntarily spent more time with than they would with most other albums. And that’s an important distinction, because one listener’s deep, magnanimous opus is another’s boring slog of an album. Almost every album has enough depth to warrant several listens, but extensive listening for in-depth analysis takes far longer than figuring out why you do or don’t like something. Reviewers are heavy consumers of music as well, meaning that the handful of albums we have for review are tacked on to our regular rotation of leisure listening. It doesn’t take double-digit listens to figure out where you stand on an album, and forcing or demanding additional listens to “get” an album speaks more to confirmation bias than a lack of understanding.
Nailed it. And that’s just one of the retorts Murphy offers to review naysayers in his editorial, which you should read in full right here.