Without exception, I read somewhere between three and fifteen music reviews every day. That figure sounds like a lot when I read it back, but it’s more natural for me to read someone’s lukewarm thoughts about the new Lady Gaga album than it is to spend an hour stalking Facebook photos. As someone who spends a large amount of time thinking and writing about his relationship to music, it feels normal to check in with my music “friends” around the Internet and see what they’re up to.
Even stranger? A large portion of the reviews that I read are for records I haven’t even heard, and mostly have no intention of hearing. Sure, sometimes a description will catch me off guard and inspire me to download the new Mutual Benefit album, but mostly I just want to see how other critics are thinking. It helps my writing, it gives me stronger cultural ground to stand on, and it immerses me further in music—even if I’ll never hear a note of what’s being talked about.
I realize that I’m very, very alone in this.
NPR’s Question of the Week: “Do Music Reviews Matter To You?” is a relatively straightforward bottle opener that asks if you will listen to an album based on good reviews and vice versa. It seems like a boring conceit to me, but maybe that’s because I’ve never lived in an era where a positive review in Rolling Stone was the be-all, end-all of one’s musical career trajectory. We’re recommended hundreds of things a day, and the only time I’m going to act on a tip is if it comes from a source that I trust—not some nameless blog or Amazon algorithm, but a living person who cares about what they’re peddling.
NPR ultimately concludes that there’s no such thing as bad press for an album. And yeah, that’s pretty open-and-shut in a P.T. Barnum kind of way, but it doesn’t really say anything about what a music review DOES for you. Will a well-written fragment echo around in your head the next time you listen to Drake? Will you approach 2 Chainz from a slightly new perspective? For me, that’s the goal, but I put more stock in it than most people. It’s worth thinking about, though.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but when I write first impressions and longer reviews I tend to stay away from overly quantitative judgments on the albums. There’s no five mics or five stars or any kind of score whatsoever here, because my opinion on a piece of music changes practically every time I listen to it. Assume that I recommend everything I write about here in one way or another—I’m not interested in ripping a bad record apart just to watch it bleed. I’d rather practice dissection, cut as deeply as possible into some music and splay its guts out semi-neatly on the page. If I’ve said something interesting or insightful about the artist or the culture, I’ve made a good cut. If not, I can always wash off and try again tomorrow. That’s as far as the metaphor will go, though. I’d say it isn’t heart surgery, but I’d be lying.
P.S. If you’re interested in reading some outside-of-the-box reviews, here’s a link to one of my favorite music review websites, The Talkhouse. This site asks popular musicians to post their thoughts on a recently released album in whatever form they’d like, whether it be a wandering ramble, a gonzo listicle, or some good old-fashioned serious thinking. It’s a great site because it mashes together two creatives and forces one to engage with and confront the other. In the last few months, The Talkhouse has featured posts from people like Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend completely ignoring Drake, Annie Clark of St. Vincent Googling through the new Arcade Fire, and (my personal favorite) the late Lou Reed finding a beautiful kinship with Kanye West. Please check out a few pieces if you’re interested.