Monday, May 18, 2009


I listen to a lot of music. Every day four or five new CDs show up in my mailbox. Music publicists send me hyperventilating email messages inviting me to download the latest creations from their clients. And I usually do. Let it be noted that it is impossible to absorb seven or eight new albums per day. The brain (or at least my brain) rebels at the concept. So I'll readily admit that part of what I experience is simple mental fatigue and overexposure.

But here's a fact: the world does not need, and you do not need, 95% of the music released in 2009. Some of it is horrible. But more often than not, it is neither wondrous nor hideous. It is mediocre. Furthermore, the mediocrity crosses all genres and sub-genres. Sure, I have my own likes and dislikes, and some genres approach the 100% mediocre-to-hideous threshold for me. Are you listening, American Idol fans? But even my most beloved genres -- good, old-fashioned power pop, Americana, blues, jazz, folkie singer/songwriters with raspy voices -- offer their share of utterly disposable swill. I love Americana, but I never, ever want to hear another songwriter in a beat-up John Deere cap rhyme "pickup truck" and "out of luck." Get unstuck. Discover new rhymes. Even my heroes are not immune. Bob Dylan, who has written more great songs than any other three great songwriters who have ever lived, offers up this gem on his latest album:

I cross the old schoolyard
Admitting life is hard

What? This is such a headscratcher that I'm not sure I even want to know the connection between Bob's elementary school memories and his creeping depression and ennui. And since the connection is never explored in the song, it seems fair to conclude that Bob was just looking for a lazy rhyme. Apparently "spikenard" and "lifeguard" were already taken. Both would have made as much sense, which is to say that they would have made no sense at all.

Mediocre, mediocre, mediocre. It's everywhere I turn. So why, let me ask you, must album reviews insist on inflating the worth of every album? Take a look at Scroll down through those album rankings of several hundred albums released this year. Notice anything? How about the fact that lowest rated album released this year has an overall score of 51 out of 100. If you'd like it spelled out differently, that's 2.5 stars out of 5. For the worst album of the year?

I don't believe it. To me, a score of 50 out of 100 means that half the albums released have been worse than the album under consideration, and half the albums released have been better. But clearly, when 51 represents the bottom of the barrel, the results mean something different. There is something amiss when well over half the albums reviewed have received a score of 70 (three-and-a-half stars) or better. Surely there must be a way to say, in polite but firm tones, that this album really isn't worth anyone's time. Right? Life is short. And reviewers do a disservice to their readers if they insist on ranking everything from "pretty good" to "great." "Take a pass" is still a perfectly valid response some of the time. Perhaps even most of the time.


Ian said...

I'm a fan of the Sound Opinions buy it/burn it/trash it rating system.

Natsthename said...

Amen, brother!

What set it over the top?

Chris Slaten said...

Amen. Though I don't review albums or listen to nearly as many new artists as you do, I do read a lot of reviews and listen to new music every day. I am really tired of salesmen critics that want me to think that every new independent artist is going to be the next vital piece in the American music puzzle.
Though, sometimes I have to wonder if I am just jealous.

Do you think that maybe people are doing this out of guilt as a way of hyper-supporting independent artists?

Andy Whitman said...

Nat, the particular album that pushed me over the edge this time was by one Mat Kearney, who sings perfectly pleasant, utterly innocuous ditties that could be about God, could be about the girlfriend, or could be about pretty much anything or nothing, they're so vague and forgettable. But I don't mean to pick on Mat. He's in good company. Or at least okay company.

Andy Whitman said...

Chris, I think it's a combination of factors. I think part of it is critics reading the over-the-top press releases. I don't blame the publicists. They have a job to do, and they're trying to help their clients stand out from the masses. So they hype new albums as much as they can. And believe me, these are massive masses. I probably receive two hundred fifty to three hundred music press releases per week. In the four hours since I climbed out of bed this morning I've probably received thirty.

I suspect that another, probably small, part of it is that most music critics honestly take no pleasure in slamming an album. Even an album that has no redeeming qualities was produced by musicians who, presumably, worked hard to produce the best album they could. There's heart and soul in this business, although it's not necessarily found in the business side of the house. Nobody, at least outside of Pitchfork, takes any real satisfaction in telling someone how much they suck.

And a huge part of it: peer pressure. No, I'm not kidding. When everybody else artificially inflates their reviews, there is significant pressure to do the same. An example: I reviewed the new Southeast Engine album for Paste, and awarded it a score of 74 (out of 100). It turns out that that's the lowest score the album received in any review. I want to protest: wait a minute. I like the album. Really. I think it's good, almost a four-star album. But in the music press world, I look like a grump.

So all those factors play into it, I think. I'd like to see reviewers come back to reality and simply admit that much of what they hear and review simply isn't that special. I'm not holding my breath.

Chris Slaten said...

It sounds like it would be very hard to be an effective critic without first being extremely secure in knowing that you are deeply loved outside of work.

Perhaps the quality of music would increase if more musicians were exposed to that many press releases of other artists a week. A good dose of the "drop in the bucket" mentality might help weed out some of the less noble motives behind commercializing your own music.
Thanks for your response.

Natsthename said...

THanks, Mr. Whitman. I find Mr. Kearney's music a tad yawn-provoking, but not in the same league as, say, Jack Johnson.