Monday, May 12, 2008

Ratings Creep

Andy Gibb, I salute you.

It’s Monday, it’s raining, and that may be influencing my mood. But here’s the deal. I’m checking out, a wonderful music resource that compiles thousands of reviews of recently released albums and then assigns each album a composite rating based on the average review score for that album. And I’m noticing that every album released and reviewed this year falls somewhere between 50 (Average) and 87 (Very Good). I find reviewer comments like “a great disappointment” and “a major step backward” for albums that are rated “65” and “71” respectively. And I don’t get it.

To the extent that numeric/star ratings are used, they ought to serve as convenient shorthand for prospective music buyers. If I’m reading a review, I want to know whether an album is worth purchasing. And I rely on these ratings to provide at least a handy guide to what might be worthwhile. But if the worst album is “Average,” and if the vast majority of albums are “Good” or “Very Good,” then I wonder what value these ratings actually serve. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I think most albums are average, a small minority of them outright suck, a few more are bad to mediocre, a few of them are very good, and a very rare few are exceptionally good, even masterpieces. In other words, I operate assuming that the Bell Curve is a fairly accurate model of the distribution of musical quality. It’s simply not helpful when 80 percent or more of the albums released are deemed to be “pretty good.”

To that end, let me note the dearth of 1- and 2-star reviews. I don’t know if critics are afraid to say that a given album isn’t very good. I don’t know if critics don’t bother to review the genuinely crappy albums. I don’t know what the reasons are. But I can assure you that I hear my share of 1- and 2-star albums, and that well over half the albums I hear are simply nondescript blahfests, recapitulating lyrical cliches and overcooked musical motifs that have already been done a million times. It’s time to resurrect the 1- and 2-star review and restore it to its rightful place in the critical universe. Maybe too many critics have been reading and believing those PR releases that accompany the albums.


Pilgrim said...

I've liked the Bee Gees (as people) ever since I saw their story on Biography. They had some nice harmony.

Anonymous said...

In my iTunes library, I only rate songs with 3, 4, or 5 stars. If I don't like it enough to give it 3 stars, I don't rate it at all. But then again, if I don't like it that much, why is it in my library? hmmm...