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A Critique of Music Critique

Hunter Burkard, Staff Writer

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The late Wayne Dyer once said that “if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” I would argue that the same applies towards music: the way that you listen to music affects the way you interpret it. For instance last March Drake dropped More Life, a project which he called a “playlist,” stressing that it wasn’t a full-fledged album, but rather “a collection of songs that become the soundtrack to your life.” While many music critics dismissed Drake’s categorization of the project, or even went as far to berate him for it, it got me thinking. Is the way that contemporary music critics review albums outdated?
Music journalism as we know it can be traced back to the 1950’s when magazines dedicated to art and music began to spring up and give popular music adequate coverage. This period saw the genesis of the “music rating” as critics from publications such as the Village Voice and New Musical Express (NME) began to give albums a numerical value for their merit. Becauses vinyl —a medium that encourages the listener to listen to every song, consecutively by the tracklist — was the predominant medium for music, music criticism focused almost entirely on the holistic appeal of the album. In order for an album to get a good rating, track after track must consistently deliver and be “more than the sum of its parts,” as notable Youtube music critic Anthony Fantano commonly says.
According to technology magazine Recode, as of September 2017, streaming services have over 30 million U.S. subscribers and streaming revenue is up 48 percent. In the age of streaming services and top charting singles, this holistic review that music critics unyieldingly follow is outdated. Critics persist to review albums as if vinyl and cassettes were still the widespread music players. An album can still be great without being “more than the sum of its parts.” That is where the playlist comes in: the projects aimed at scoring larger singles and more diverse sounds and themes.
Take Drake’s More Life. Although the Toronto rapper’s 8th project is subjectively a lukewarm “album,” it is a spectacular hip-hop “playlist” as it draws influences from a wide range of genres such as grime, dancehall and Afrobeat. Moreover, it topped charts with songs as dissimilar and eclectic as the poppy and rhythmic “Passionfruit” to the trap influenced and braggadocious “Portland.”
A more classical example is Michael Jackson’s Thriller. In describing his thoughts on the legendary pop album, renowned music critic Robert Christgau said “this is virtually a hits-plus-filler job, but at such a high level it’s almost classic anyway.” Thriller was not an astronomical critical and commercial success because it was “more than the sum of its parts” but rather because every single individually and uniquely demonstrated Jackson’s strengths as the King of Pop; it was the foremost “playlist.”
Nowadays, almost every mainstream artist dropping single-oriented projects gets decimated by music critics for following in Jackson’s footsteps. Of the top 20 albums on the Billboard 200 for 2017, the average Metacritic score (an aggregate score of music ratings) was a 73. That’s a C- for WHS standards. Why should the typical gap between critical and commercial acclaim for mainstream music be so high? Although some may say mainstream music is simply too generic to reach critical acclaim, mainstream music is mainstream because it is popular. They shouldn’t be attacked for following music trends because they are the trendsetters.
I think music should be assessed on both standards: as playlists and as LPs. If we choose to solely assess albums on either end of the spectrum then we narrow the scope of how we interpret music. An album should be valued for its overall cohesiveness but also for its ability to top the singles charts. Some of the albums that are widely considered the best of all time, such as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Led Zeppelin’s Led Zeppelin IV, are both good playlists and good LP’s.
In light of all this, I propose a two score system. Each project should have a “vinyl score,” which assesses an album for its merits as an integrated collection of commendable songs, and a “playlist score,” which assesses an album for its merits as a diverse collection of songs aimed at reaching mass appeal. Then, add them up and what results is a “net score.”

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