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Rethinking the importance of album reviews

by Louis Pavlakos February 2, 2021
Rethinking the importance of album reviews

Album reviews don’t exactly serve the same purpose anymore and that’s okay.

The art of reviewing an album is criminally underrated. For every half-decent score given out to musical projects by outlets like Pitchfork and The Needle Drop, there’s a fountain of thoughts behind the arbitrary number meant to show why it was chosen. A 6.8 might look ugly as a number, but the review itself could very well be flattering and critical where it has to be. Let’s not forget a 6.8 is only mere decimals away from a seven, which most of us would consider to be a good grade.

Before the internet existed, the only way to get someone’s thoughts on an upcoming album was to read a magazine or newspaper’s review since they had received an advance copy of the project. The reviewer’s words mattered more as it gave the reader a unique view with which to approach the music. The score aimed to put this smorgasbord of thoughts on a scale that we could all perceive in our heads.

As we moved towards an era where consuming new music is instantaneous, we don’t need to hear the reviewer’s thoughts before jumping into an album because there’s no cost of entry once you have a subscription to a streaming service. If the newest Guns N’ Roses album came out in the 1990s (I’m looking at you The Spaghetti Incident?), it cost between $15 to $40 to purchase the album’s CD or vinyl and listen to it. There was also a chance that the album might very well suck (it did). Who wants to spend money on an album they might never want to listen to again?

Today, that risk is gone. At midnight on a Friday, hundreds of new albums come out and all it costs to listen to these projects is time. Moreover, as reviewers tend to receive fewer advance copies of albums, the reviews only get published the Monday or Tuesday following its release as to make sure the piece is timely. Yet, as Pitchfork and The Needle Drop continue to give out scores we don’t agree with, the internet seems to completely disregard the actual opinion in favour of the arbitrary score.

When Pitchfork reviewed Taylor Swift’s folklore, they had given the album an eight out of ten, but the review itself was glowing. The lack of inclusion in its famous Best New Music section and what some fans deemed a low score led to the doxxing of the writer, Jillian Mapes. The review was thoughtful and even critical at times, but that’s what constitutes a review – the good and the bad.

Aside from Pitchfork, the only other prominent reviewer is Anthony Fantano, the man behind the immensely popular YouTube channel, The Needle Drop. Fantano’s reviews are fairly straightforward and sometimes absurd as he leans into his love for memes which makes his videos all the more engaging. But his reviews follow a formula that bleeds onto every genre of music he reviews. He mostly engages in a track by track breakdown and reviews the music solely based on what it is and how it sounds like, largely ignoring context leading up to its release.

Fantano is also known for his mostly harsh scores, giving artists like Drake and Future horrible reviews while giving industrial hip hop acts like Death Grips continuously glowing reviews. He’s allowed to score things how he wants, but the problem here is that he’s been deified by his viewers. Every score he gives effectively lives rent free in the minds of whoever watches his content which leads to his followers becoming mini-Fantanos. The 35-year-old YouTuber has long criticized his fans for doing this, though it keeps happening.

Album reviews and general thoughts on a project tend to change as we see someone in a higher position of power share their thoughts, often a week or so after the album has dropped. Many YouTube comments and Twitter replies urge Fantano to review an album so that they can know whether they should defend it or crucify it online.

Over the years, I’ve come to watch Fantano less. Not because he’s necessarily bad at what he does, but because I too found myself becoming influenced by his arbitrary scores and methodical approach to reviewing. I found myself becoming less enthused with albums I previously loved because he came in with harsh criticisms that I couldn’t defend. But that’s where music becomes an infinitely personal experience.

We can love albums for their imperfections. Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III was imperfect to a point where it’s a hell of a ride every time I listen to it, flaws and all. Drake’s Views and More Life are deeply flawed albums but I still enjoy them regardless — people forget the skip button exists and you quite literally ignore the bad tracks much more easily than getting up and moving the needle of a record player onto the next track.

Music reviewing shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s an opportunity as writers, thinkers or vloggers, to put out our thoughts on a body of work that will most likely be flawed. The scores we attribute them are not always a decisive reflection of our thoughts. Most scores will likely change after a few months of listening to an album because there’s always something new to think about.

Reviews are a deeply personal experience that will vary from person to person. The different opinions are what make reviews so intriguing to read. If everyone had the same thoughts on an album, we’d have the Kanye effect where you’d get roasted and berated for thinking My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is anything less than perfect, which would be asinine. Reviews are a gateway into a person’s thoughts and should be viewed as such instead of just looking at the score and thinking every seven out of ten is the same thing.


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