#528: The Ratings System

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.

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35 comments

  1. Fascinating topic, Mike. Like you, I’ve thought about the value of the millisecond rating. A while back I developed a system, but haven’t applied it widely.
    For the sake of the conversation, here it is:

    Vision and Innovation: a /30

    Playing and Composition: b /30

    Listener Enjoyment: c /30

    X-Factor [eg: cover, design, reviewer bias] x /10

    Total: a+b+c+x /100

    There’s an example in a piece on Billy Cobham’s first three albums:

    https://vinylconnection.com.au/2014/08/08/stitching-together-jazz-rock-and-funk/

    Liked by 3 people

        1. I think that’s great, talk about a finely-nuanced rating system! Ramones- Ramones 1537/1537, Tom Waits – Bone Machine 1536/1537 … sorry Tom.

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  2. Love the electron in a cloud simile!
    Really interesting post – and one without a clear answer for me.
    I think with artists that are ‘new to me,’ the star rating really helps as a starting point. But even then, the text is still most useful, such as when the reviewer puts the recording in a context I can relate to (if you like _____, try _____).

    That being said, when it’s an artist I already know & adore, it’s nice to read plenty of words, to compare notes. And I suppose the same is true for one I know but we disagree about, as it’s interesting to hear what resonated with one of us but not the other.

    Cheers for the tip of the hat!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I prefer not to give a score. I think the article in and of itself describes complexities of feelings that simple numbers cannot. If its amazon or something, I give anything good a 4 and anything great a 5, because people will just downvote anything else. A good review with a 3 score gets lots of unhelpful votes for some reason.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I use the 1-10 system when I review albums, but never take it very seriously. It’s sort of like a preview to the actual review, to see where the author stands. Somebody once commented over at YouTube reviewer Needledrop’s videos that if he stopped giving stars to albums and instead just reviewed them, nearly all of the angry “how could you give that a 4???” comments would disappear. Because the arguments in the reviews themselves are always fair. Makes you think.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think I said at the time you started that I thought a numerical rating system was crazy. What if you give an album 5/5, then a different record a 5/5 a year later but you definitely like one more than the other? Are they both still 5/5? You’ll set yourself to gibbering in the corner in a straight jacket if you try to get it precise to decimal places.

    The only way I could see it going forward is just doing it from the gut as you review without looking at other posts and comparing. Just “I like this album this much at this time.” And then done.

    I thought of a rating system for the KMA one time, but quickly abandoned the idea. You’re a brave soul for attempting it, in my book.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re not stuck with the rating system. Easy enough to just stop. You’re not keeping record of your ratings, are you, for some sort of master list of ratings? Do you care if it just stops? Food for thought!

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        1. I set out to have internal consistency. You’ll notice all reviews have the album cover photo on the top left, right next to the title. All reviews have a sort of uniform appearance, some longer than others, but all more or less the same. Score at the bottom, followed by track list, either via a scan or typed in. I like the uniform style and will not be changing it. Maybe if I burned it all down and started over but that’s not happening.

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        2. And fair play to you, that level of integrity is only one part of what we love about your site. But it is your blog, Dude. If you think it’s dragging you down, or getting out of hand, or causing to much confusion and comparisons to be doing the ratings, well then there’s nothing simpler in the world than saying I’m not gonna do it anymore and them just stop doing ratings. No need to burn down the whole site.

          Hell man, look at the shit I;ve flung at the walls on the KMA. Compared to you, I have almost zero internal (or external) consistency, changing site themes and post formats more than some people change their socks. It just is what it is. Has it mattered? Probably not! :)

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      1. I notice those kinda tricks. Popoff changed a couple his between his 97 ‘big book of’ and re-releasing them as the decade books.

        I notice that stuff.

        Gave him .5 for that effort at being clever :)

        Like

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