It is very true that Steve has a fine ear for hearing music on an artistic scale, so he tries to rate it that way. Matt, on the other hand, has professed on numerous occasions that his ratings are based on his own musical preferences. I try to follow the fine line between both ideas. My first response is usually a like/dislike gut reaction, but I always try to nit-pick and pull out the positives and negatives as I go, especially if they contradict my initial idea.
My actual star-rating system is very simple in concept:
“0” Star: The makers of this “music” deserve to be shot—not dead, just in agonizing pain.
“1” Star: Detracts from society as a whole. Individuals who enjoy this music, I feel, are being done a great disservice. Artists who create music of this type should be barred from participating in the propagation of our species.
“2” Star: Not utterly bad music, just not nearly good enough. The lyrics or chords are extremely simplistic and nothing can be pointed out as adding to society (yet nothing is directly subtracting either). There is a general “bland” feeling left over after hearing a song, with no emotional connections created.
“3” Star: Take it or leave it. This is the vaguest of ratings. There are two main categories at this level. Either the album is a perfect example of generic sounds (which means the band had a goal and completed it without creating any waves), or there is a combination of positive elements, such as lyrical complexity, balanced against a series of negative ones, such as predictable progressions or repetitive melodies. Regardless, I feel that an album of this rating will appeal to the general constituents of its genre.
“4” Star: This is something that offers a new sound. Whether it shows off an incredible guitar progression, poetic lyrics with power and meaning, or just a general understanding of how instruments interact, this album is definitely a step above the masses. While not every element has come together properly, there are distinct, positive ideas to be learned from this music.
“5” Star: This is a paradigm shift. Every single aspect is beautiful, well-crafted, and integral to the whole. Whatever the musicians did to create such an experience will be difficult, if not impossible, to recreate. This is music to be venerated and built upon.
As this is merely a general outline, I will say that there are certain aspects that can raise or lower a rating. Complexity, for instance, can put the edge on an album (when properly used), while improper use can lead to chaos. Enticing lyrics, unusual instruments (that compliment the whole), a solid arc, a central theme—ALL of this can be counted favorably. Meanwhile, simplistic and generic beats, poorly constructed melodies or vocals, and a general lack of direction and emotional investment will certainly hurt an album. Heart and love for music can go a long way towards making up for flaws, but they cannot completely erase a lack of talent.