Of Sound Mind | Why I’m no longer rating albums

Of Sound Mind is a biweekly blog about new albums, old albums, forgotten albums, overrated albums and any other type of listening experience from senior staff writer Lucas DiBlasi.

By Lucas DiBlasi, Senior Staff Writer

Creating a list of the best albums of all time is a mammoth task. Rolling Stone releases their list of the top 500, and then critics post stories and videos vehemently disagreeing. The difficulty of rating music objectively can easily devolve into a series of unresolvable arguments, making the project seem impossible.

Many music critics and publications default to rating music on a scale — e.g. four out of five stars, eight out of 10, top 500 — but music is too subjective for these numbers to be universal. While scales can be interesting and useful, in an attempt to be more nuanced in my music criticism, I won’t be using them anymore. 

I’ve been rating albums out of 10 since the first Of Sound Mind, and to be honest, I just did so because it seemed to be how most critics rate albums. Rating albums on a scale is also an easy way to slap a label that communicates your opinion in the smallest amount of characters possible onto a piece of art.

Additionally, rating albums on scales can give a critic’s opinion an illusion of objectivity. When you see a critic give an album four stars out of five, you assume that they must have some sort of important, well-considered criteria that they utilize to come to that conclusion. Unfortunately, they often don’t. 

Even the most thoughtful review of a piece of music is going to be subjective and particular to the critic making the review. Every critic has their own backstory, their own likes and dislikes, and their own idiosyncrasies. As I’ve argued previously, everyone has their own — completely valid — subjective experience of art, and critics are no different. 

For example, I could listen to a piece of math rock music — which is essentially very complicated indie rock mixed with jazz — and, given my enthusiasm for indie music and my background as a drummer and guitarist, find it incredibly cool. If someone else grew up listening to country, folk and pop music and loved story-driven, catchy songs, they might listen to the same piece and hate it.

And both of us would be completely valid in our assessments of the song — there really is no absolute “right” or “wrong” when it comes to art. But I don’t believe we need to fall into music-criticism nihilism here, because it’s exactly this lack of “right” or “wrong” that makes critics so interesting.

What makes music critics a wonderful resource is not that they have some objective viewpoint from which they cast judgments on songs, but that they have a distinctive viewpoint that shines through in their reviews. That’s why there are many different music critics, each with their own fanbases, rather than one all-knowing critic.

When you’ve followed a music critic for a while, you begin to notice what their tastes are, and what they consider when judging an album or song. If you wholeheartedly agree with their tastes and criteria, they’ll be a great resource to discover new music, but even if you disagree, their opinions can be enlightening. A great example of a critic I often disagree with who enriches my life and musical experience is Anthony Fantano.

Any discussion of modern musical criticism would be incomplete without a mention of Fantano. If you’re not familiar, his Youtube channel is such an influential source of musical criticism that the New York Times’ music critics recently wrote a profile on Fantano entitled “The Only Critic Who Matters (if You’re Under 25).”

Fantano’s reviews have resonated with a wide audience, not because they agree with him — a cursory review of his comment sections show that some people hate his opinions — but because he has a well-defined viewpoint. Fantano makes it clear exactly what he likes and dislikes, and eloquently explains why in his videos. That’s exactly what critics are for.

But I digress — the issue at hand here is whether or not to rate music on a scale. Fantano, as well as many major music review publications, use some sort of scale. Given their credentials, I think that’s completely fine, as long as you understand that even the scales are subjective.

Furthermore, if you take an aggregate measure of these scales, as Metacritic does, you’ll often find that critics generally agree with each other, more or less. This aggregation of scales sets up the closest thing we can find to a spectrum of objectively good and bad music. Music that is, on the whole, reviewed favorably, is probably going to give a better subjective experience to listeners than music that is, on the whole, not.

But given these considerations of scales, I don’t believe I can lay claim to the authority of rating music on a scale anymore. Music is too subjective for a 21-year-old novice critic to pin a number on it and claim that it means anything at all. Even my own subjective experience of music changes on a weekly, if not daily basis — I made a Twitter account just to downgrade my review of a Troye Sivan EP.

So, moving forward, if you’re going to read Of Sound Mind, know that I’m writing with a new purpose in mind. I’m writing these reviews to do my best to inform you about a piece of art so that you can make your own decisions about it, whether that decision is to give it a listen at all, or to consider your opinion of an album from a different viewpoint. I hope that, in this way, my voice can add a little more value to your listening experience.

Lucas DiBlasi writes primarily about politics, economics and music. Feel free to email your opinions on Weezer (or whatever else) to him at [email protected].

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