Each week, during the Crash Chords Podcast, Matt, Jon, and I task ourselves to an engrossing album review—usually ripe with vehement discourse, a heated exchange of opinions and observations, and a few revelations. Then, once all has been said, a fixed summation is usually warranted to close the book on the matter and call it a day. But the book is never quite closed, is it? That’s the wonderful thing about music (and art in general), that all it really takes for a work to gain someone’s favor is for that person to see it in a personal light. As long as it’s something provocative and close to home, anything has a chance at success. This is why, I believe, once our ratings have been spoken, they often result in a more generalized debate on the grounds with which we make such judgments, and the flexibilities we must grant.
Ultimately, we must ask ourselves the age old question of, “What is art?” (even if our own opinion on the matter is something of a candle in the dark). We must walk the fine line between our own tastes and the general academic consensus of what constitutes “good music,” which is, in many ways, an even vaguer concept. To illustrate this balance, I have outlined a rudimentary summation of my 1-5 rating system:
A “1”, to put it bluntly, is a poorly conceived, poorly executed mockery of art in most respects (with a snowball’s chance of reaching satirical heights). The individual songs, and the album as a whole, show a blatant disregard for the public by insulting us with its presence on the store shelves or, for that matter, anywhere other than the storyboard. While it is possible that a “1” may have some redeeming aspects, they appear scant and arbitrary in context of the greater whole. A “1” might lack a central theme, or express one only to abandon it soon after. A “1” might exhibit some degree of musical prowess, but carry it out in a novice fashion. A “1” has little cultural merit, nor does it boast enough uniqueness to have esoteric appeal. Essentially, a “1” is a drab building with a weak foundation, and the artists would have been wise to curb its release for an extensive revision, had they any awareness of its careless assemblage. But most importantly, regarding a “1”, if I heard it, I’d shut it off.
A “2” is a tad more stable, and basic things like “raw talent” are rarely up for questioning. A theme may even be present (if not of the most groundbreaking caliber). But the key difference between a “1” and a “2” is effort. Amidst all the stodgy clichés and rookie mistakes, I should still be hearing some attempt to form an honest, cohesive final product. Some examples of these mistakes might be: repetitive structures, underdeveloped instrumentation, weak themes, or weak ideas. A “2” has definite purpose, but seems to lose us somewhere along the way. In isolated segments, however, there may appear moments of great inspiration—reason to think the album could have fared much better had such care been taken throughout its development.
In discussing the “3”, it becomes more and more difficult to exclude the “taste” factor. While “1s” and “2s” can be picked apart on many academic grounds, from “3” on up, success very much hinges on what one seeks or expects. In this way, I can only describe my own impressions of a “3” rating. I should preface this by admitting that I count the vast majority of historically recorded music in this range. This is because, despite the negativity surrounding the “1s” and “2s”, it is my personal belief that when an artist gets signed to a contract, it’s a rite of passage for them. This of course implies that the majority of artists on our record store shelves have worked hard, and possess enough talent to compete in the big leagues. They also have a fair shot at developing a fan base and making sales. After all, if they were junk, record labels likely wouldn’t take a chance on them. With that in mind, you could say that a “3” album has just about everything that it takes to make the grade, except one thing… the “it” factor. And with that “it” factor goes a plethora of subtleties, some stemming from the hazier side of academic interpretation, and some from our own personal set of emotional triggers. Either way, a “3” is probably something you could sit back and enjoy, but it’s doubtful that it has sufficient pull to keeping you coming back for more. A “3” is a good album, but comes up just a little short in its originality.
A “4” can be a work with rampant universal appeal, or it can be a true masterpiece. First and foremost, the “4” is something you actively seek. It elevates you to a new plane of musicality, be it its writing, its lyrics, its tone, or its song-structure. There should be a ballet of aspects at play here, each competing for dominance, and raising the bar ever higher as both the track and the album press forward. Finally, since this is my personal criteria, I hold the “4” to be an album with relative complexity in some aspect of their work. This can be achieved with vocals, chord progressions, song-structure, or sheer virtuosity, but as a rule of thumb, the more clear the artist’s vision, the more likely they are to broach such subtleties of the human condition as only music can do. In short, I seek to be moved, and for me, “4s” typically have a heightened threshold for pushing the envelope, which keeps me both interested and hooked.
The elusive “5”: Though we treat it as a fixed 1-5 scale, we’ve been known to make use of decimal points ad nauseam. I myself have made use of the high-range “4s” for my most treasured albums. And yet, something deep inside told me that the “5” was reserved. What for, I cannot say. I suppose in keeping with many of the same definitions as a “4,” a 5 would be a life-changing album—something to really make your neck hair stand up, from the first note of the first track to the last note of the last. While I’ve experienced this in the course of individual tracks, and perhaps even with several on an album, I rarely experience it for its entirety. All too often, we play favorites even among our favorites, which is why I suppose the “5” is a tall order for me. A part of me reserves it as an ode to the continuous search for something greater than ourselves, which may yet come. But I can’t say it’s completely off-limits for the purposes of our reviews. It may just crop up in the unlikeliest of places.
Keep reading for possible “5”s!