Paste #35 (September 2007) is out now. Kanye West, his humble self, is on the cover, and there are long feature articles on Kanye, K.T. Tunstall, and Rilo Kiley, plus the usual album, film, book, and video game reviews, and a 20+ song CD sampler. I have album reviews of Pentangle and Raul Midon and a meditation/essay on the wonders of a folk/protest singer named Peter Case.
One of the criticisms that Paste Magazine receives on a fairly routine basis is that albums are ranked too highly, that there are too many four-star reviews (although, to their credit, Paste rarely awards a five-star review because, quite frankly, there just aren't that many five-star albums). So I thought about that criticism again when I opened the album reviews section and saw album after album rated as four stars.
Is the criticism justified? Maybe, but only if you think it's unlikely that fifteen or so really good albums could be released every month. Personally, I have no problems with all those stars so liberally festooned over the pages. Paste, like most magazines, is presenting a skewed sample. The magazine covers what it wants to cover, and most people want to write about things they like. Paste receives roughly eight hundred new album releases every month. Is it really that hard to believe that fifteen of them are really good?
For what it's worth, I did my little part to balance out the proceedings by assigning 2.5 stars to Raul Midon's album. But then I blew it by assigning 4.5 stars to Pentangle, and by raving about Peter Case. Sorry. I like them, and I want to tell people about them. The tagline of the magazine is "Signs of life in music, film, books, and culture," and those signs of life are everywhere.
Where do you stand on the idea of having a rating system in the first place? I write for a small arts paper here in Maumee, OH that just got started a couple years ago. We debated for whether to use a rating system and what sort to use (stars, letter grades, etc.). In the end, we decided to go without, which was where I was leaning at the time.
My thinking was that we weren't trying to present it as a "consumer's guide" (to paraphrase Robert Christgau), but more as a handful of short articles, mostly about recent records that we've heard and liked. We hope that the writing will carry the day. The star system is probably a good idea when dozens of discs might be daunting for the reader. But do you feel that it might keep people from actually reading the review?
Eric, I think there are arguments for both sides of this debate. I hope the stars/letters don't keep people from reading the reviews, and I don't think they do. The longest review in Paste is one page, so it's not like people have to invest much in the way of time and energy to slog their way from top to bottom. And I suspect that Paste is, among other things, a "consumer's guide," and that people use it to determine whether they should, in fact, spend their hard-earned $12.99 on a particular album. I don't have a problem with that. I've entered in to the "should art be a competition?" debate more times than I can mention, but I think it's inherent in the nature of the game. When an artist releases an album, a film, or a book to the public, he or she automatically enters in to the competition for the public's limited discretionary income. I hope people don't stop with the star rankings, but they're intended to be a shorthand encapsulation of a work of art. The grade -- whether it's numeric, or a letter, or a certain number of stars -- comes with the territory.
chances are, there are a hell of a lot more than 15 that are decent...maybe just not in the indie genre
When I read an album review, I want a strong viewpoint (pro or con). I listen to a ton of music and I'm always trying to find the next great record, the next great song.
If you can find a handful of writers that share your broad aesthetic, it can be very helpful as you try to winnow your music selections to a chosen few. For example, if a writer has ever given Dave Matthews more than two stars, I know he or she is not to be trusted.
Give me a grade, but be honest.
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