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 metacritic.com. 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.