Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Conversation: Perfect Scores - Rare, If They Exist

*Note: Every so often, D:M and I like to pool our collective experience, and discuss issues in the world of music from our differing perspectives. We enjoy hearing how the other sees the world. We hope you do as well*

Chris C - As a reviewer, I have explained in an essay why I don't use any sort of numerical rating system. That being said, I can't stop the rest of the world from using some sort of grading scale for albums, nor can I seem to avoid being sucked into such discussions. Recently, I was engaged in a conversation about album ratings, and the very idea of what a five star album is came up. There was massive disagreement over whether a five star rating means an album is truly flawless, or whether it means a record is just fantastic above the norm.

My own feelings on the subject are simple; a five star album should be one that does more than merely rise above the rest. It should be reserved for records that stand out and hit you hard, the ones that you know with certainty will endure with you as some of your absolute favorites. To me, if you give out more than a handful of these ratings in a single year, your standards are too low.

This got me to thinking about which records I would actually give the full five stars to. Back when I was grading albums with stars, I can't recall actually giving a perfect score to a single album. Since I considered anything over four stars to be fantastic, that last remaining quarter of a star was reserved for those albums that weren't just great, but were special. Over the course of the many years I've been writing about music in various places, I only have two records that I would feel comfortable bestowing the full five stars on.

Dilana - Beautiful Monster

This may be a biased pick, because Dilana is my favorite singer in the world, but this album hit me like little else ever has. It was, and still is, a devastating gut-punch of emotional heft. It is a raw, honest reflection of who Dilana is, and feels like she is literally baring her soul through her voice. The songs are great, but there's something more than just music on display here, and that is the reason I can award it a perfect score. There is something indescribable about the album that can only be captured in five little stars when I'm done thinking about the record.

Transatlantic - Kaleidoscope

This is one of those records that was able to transport me to another place. When I think of prog, and all the complaints I have with how it doesn't live up to its potential, this album is the reason I can have those complaints. In these seventy-five minutes, I'm able to hear the masterful playing, and the musical odysseys that prog is known for, but it's anchored with a brilliant set of pop melodies. It's challenging music that can be appreciated on multiple levels, depending on how you want to enjoy it. It takes a lot for an album to make me shut off my mind and forget that I'm supposed to be listening critically. This album did that.

And there are countless others that I love dearly, but that I think are missing a tiny element that would keep them from that level. I can go on and on with examples, but the main point remains that giving out a perfect grade should be something special. It shouldn't be handed out to just any record that you love, but should be the final piece of the puzzle that separates the best of the best. It's all an opinion anyway, but what does praise really mean if we lavish it on anything and everything?

In order for five stars to be an honor, it has to be used sparingly. Perhaps I use it too sparingly, but I would rather err on the side of giving my favorites too much respect.

That being said, I'm not about to start using stars again, so this is merely an academic exercise.

D:M - You know me, I’ve always hated the idea of a numeric or symbolic rating system anyway, for a variety of reasons.  Art is the most subjective medium of all, so to attempt to quantify it with a rigid Arabic numeral seems like a fool’s errand.  I’ve always detested the idea that two albums can reach the same arbitrary score for completely different reasons, or be completely inequivalent experiences.

That’s not solely what we’re talking about though, is it?  The concept of perfection is an interesting one for an album, because like most music interpretations, perfect can mean different things to different individuals.  It’s probably fair to say that the common definition of album perfection involves a record excellent tracks from beginning to end, but that may not be universal.  There are plenty of records where I enjoy every track, Led Zeppelin II just to name an example, that aren’t in my, I don’t know, top fifteen or whatever the arbitrary listing of the day is (side note: let me take that back – I really don’t like “Whole Lotta Love.”  There, I said it.  Robert Plants orgasms, real or imagined, aren’t something I need to know about.  (double side note – I’m really tired of those feaux-shocked internet articles: “33 foods you should stop eating!  Number 7 will blow you away!” I bet it won’t.  Shut up.))  At the same time, I have described “Astrocreep 2000” as a perfect album for years and that record has some real tangible holes in it.  No one is listening to “Grease Paint and Monkey Brains,” I promise.  Slayer’s “Seasons in the Abyss” is a perfect record, but contrary to public opinion, “Dead Skin Mask” is an awful song.  To me, an album doesn’t need to have all great songs to be perfect, particularly in the digital age when a bad spot can be skipped with nary a concern.

Of course, this only makes the perfection conversation more complicated – from a philosophical standpoint, is it preferable to have an album full of good songs with no filler, or an album of three or four incredible singles but not as much consistency?  Naturally, the smartasses among us will say they want a full album of incredible singles, but I challenge you to find that album.

We’re not even addressing the concept that albums can be perfect for certain situations.  I’m not someone who typically engages in a lot of situational listening, but even I know that Barry White works when you’re trying to make love to your lady by the fire, but works less well (for the most part,) when driving to the tractor pull.

Lastly, from just a pragmatic standpoint, let’s say you give an album ten out of ten, or five stars or skulls or umbrellas or whatever the symbol is.  What happens when somebody makes a better album six months later?  Where do you go up from there?  Does this become one of those Bugs Bunny cartoons where he beats Yosemite Sam in five-card stud with six aces?

So to sum up – numbered rating systems are bad (I can even see a situation where an album that I would rate a 6.5 is actually better than an album that’s a 7,) and perfection is too subjective to be constrained to single definitions.

I probably haven’t helped this conversation at all.  I’m sure I’ve just made it more confusing.  But the subject, for me, is sort of metaphysical.

Chris C - There is certainly some insight in what you're saying. The word 'perfect' brings in connotations that are not necessary. A 'perfect' album does not exist. There is not a single record in existence where they is not something I would change. Even my favorite record of all time has places where, if I was the artist, I would have made different decisions. But that doesn't stop the record from being a perfect listening experience.

For the sake of our own sanity, we have to allow for slight digressions from absolute perfection. As in all things dealing with art, if we spend our lives searching for objective perfection, we will have wasted what little time we have. What we need to do is understand that when we use words like 'perfect', we are merely using a shorthand to indicate that something has achieved a level of greatness that our usual praise doesn't quite cover.

To sum it up, the discussion about perfection is itself imperfect, because there is no consensus on what it entails, if such a goal was even possible. Ultimately, the perfect record is one that speaks to you in a way that few others do, one that imprints itself on you and establishes memories that you'll never forget. Those are perfect records, and putting five little stars after the review says far less than a well-reasoned piece of writing can convey.

Oh, and you're absolutely right. "Dead Skin Mask" is probably the worst song Slayer wrote through through the end of "Seasons In the Abyss". That's a good note to end on.

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