GETTING MORE TALE #528: The Ratings System
You like reading music reviews. You read them for information and entertainment. You can’t get enough music reviews!
But what formats do you like? Perhaps you enjoy a meaty, detailed review with all the nitty gritty details. Some get bored with length, and just want a quick n’ dirty summary. This is why we tried the #200wordchallenge, and why Aaron at KeepsMeAlive enjoys the old-fashioned 80 word “hit and run” style from time to time. And others, such as our friends at 1001AlbumsIn10Years, are skilled at metaphors, and have added innovative graphics and charts to album reviews.
All of these techniques are valid, and the more unique and individual reviews certainly deserve praise for breathing fresh life into an ages-old format. But what about a numeric ratings system?
Some kind of rating is pretty standard for music reviews. Rolling Stone magazine uses a five-star system. So does Allmusic and NME, but Spin magazine uses a 10 point system. These allow a reader to very quickly see if a writer thought an album was any good, without having to actually read anything!
Here at mikeladano.com, we use a loose 5 star system. This originated at Amazon, where products must always be rated from 1-5 stars. Most of our earliest reviews here began life at Amazon, before they were expanded and modified for your edification. Because of this, we imported and have continued with an Amazon-like 5 star system.
Even this is limiting, so we have allowed fractions – you will see many 3.5/5 star reviews here. This essentially makes it a 10 point system like Spin’s.
But it’s not an exact science and that’s where we get into trouble.
It’s fairly easy to listen to an album a few times and decide on a number rating that feels right. A 5/5 feels like a near-perfect listening experience. A 4.5/5 might have some perceived flaws. But when you get into seriously comparing and stacking albums up against each other, the differences can be felt. It’s also worth noting that a 5/5 star jazz album and a 5/5 star Kiss album are going to be wildly different from each other. It’s all in the ear of the beholder.
Taken individually, ratings usually hold up. When compared amongst a band’s entire discography, things get dicey. Our series of Iron Maiden reviews was one such example. They have so many great albums – amazing albums, in fact – that it is quite easy to lay down 5/5 stars to much of their discography. But this ignores minor different degrees of rock excellence. Iron Maiden’s Rock In Rio is excellent. It is a rollicking heavy metal journey exploring Maiden’s history up to 2001. But is it as good as Live After Death? No. Very few things are. Both could easily have received a 5/5 rating, but we chose to lower Rock In Rio to 4.5/5 stars to keep everything in perspective.
Down these roads lead madness. We have even done a 4.999/5 star review.
If you review 1000 albums on a scale out of 5, you could quickly build up enough fractional ratings to necessitate three decimal places. But that complicates things needlessly. Wasn’t the numerical rating system supposed to be a quick and easy way to say if it’s good or not? We have done 6/5 star reviews, reviews in negative numbers; we’ve done everything imaginable to try to keep ratings in scale. Ultimately it is simply not possible. Like finding an electron in a cloud, you just cannot pinpoint album ratings to that degree of precision.
A numerical rating can also paint you into a corner. There was some Facebook controversy recently over our assertion that Motley Crue’s self titled 1994 was one of the best albums of the 90’s, killing much of the competition. This led to challenges and comparisons with other albums of the period, all great records. How do you rate something “the best” over a bunch of other 5/5 star albums? And how do you know that you will still feel that something is “the best” when you think about it again next month? Putting a numerical rating on an album is like putting it into stone, and that can be limiting, especially when comparing.
We’ve been utilizing the 5 star system (with fractions) for close to five years now. We could stop, but at this point I don’t think it would help. For better or for worse, our bed is now made. And it’s 5/5 stars.