Thursday, July 19, 2007

How to get a 5-star review

Well, today is my lucky day, for I am the proud author of a Review of the Day. In honor of this glorious occasion, I've decided to update my shiny blog toy. No, Mommy, it is my favorite toy, and you may not sell my blog at our garage sale. I love my blog. See, I'm playing with it right now. Right now, Mommy.

Some general guidelines on how to get a favorable review from me on

Don't worry about style: I try to use Roger Ebert's famous philosophy (paraphrased poorly here) and judge the overall work in the context of what it set out to achieve. Nothing worse than a reviewer who says "I don't like [STYLE], so this didn't really work for me. Everything was too [HALLMARK TRAIT OF STYLE] for my liking."

Everyone starts with a three: I start off with the assumption that the song will be a three-star review. The artist can improve or wither from there.

Singers: I expect singers to hit their notes. Extra credit for emotion. Extra credit for technique. Points off for rhythmic difficulties, particularly for being the weak link in the groove. Most points off for sour pitch.

Groove: I expect the song to be more or less in time. I won't sit there with a metronome checking it, but I shouldn't feel the pulse drag or rush except where by clear design. Extra credit for tightness (everything lines up). Extra credit for nuances of feel (laying back, etc). Extra credit for keeping it tight, but getting creative with it. Points off for misbangs (notes that miss the cue). Points off for rushing and dragging. Maximum points off for dropped beats.

Instruments: I expect everyone to be in tune and have a basic command of their instrument. Extra credit for creativity. Extra credit for interacting well with other instruments. Extra credit for virtuosity. Extra points for building momentum over the arc of the song. Points off for flubs. Points off for noticeably poor technique. Points off for flatline performances that are the same from start to finish.

Writing: This is the most subjective aspect of my review, but I try to be fair and not rely purely on my own preferences. I expect the design to be evident. It doesn't have to fit a template, but I need to sense the mastery of decision-making. Extra points for taking care. Extra points for catchy melodies. Extra points for interesting chord changes. Extra points for perceptive or compelling words. Extra points for surprises. Super extra points if the lyrics, melody, and chords are all clicking. Points off for lyrics that draw attention to their awkwardness. Points off for melodies that cling to one note for lack of trying. Points off for melodies that don't fit the scale of the chords in songs that are otherwise very conventional --those that are likely mistakes or failures to write a typically-tonal melody rather than a band that clearly experiments with polytonality. Points off for songs where neither the lyric nor the music remains interesting for the duration of the song (in my view, at least one thing has to compel the listener to finish the song).

Recording Quality: Although I write about it extensively in my reviews, this aspect matters the least to actual scoring for me. It is, after all, Nonetheless, I expect that every song will be listenable. Points off for terrible noise issues. Points off for key elements which are literally inaudible (e.g., the recording is a handheld tape recorder in someone's bedroom, and all I can make out is the guitar because it's right next to the mic and the singer is eight feet away, getting his Norah Jones on....) I don't really give extra credit in this category, except for especially creative recording techniques. I'll give a good review to a terrible recording of a good song and performance. However, I would never give a great-sounding recording of a ho-hum song five stars.

One Star (6% of my reviews): Nothing important is working or something is failing so spectacularly that it doesn't matter what the status of anything else is. Or plagiarism. I give one star for plagiarism. It's one of my kooky rules.

Two Stars (17% of my reviews): One or more big problems or lots of little ones without enough extra credit to offset.

Three Stars (28% of my reviews): The default. An equal mix of small strengths and weaknesses with nothing great enough to elevate it to a four and nothing terrible enough to sink it to a two.

Four Stars (30% of my reviews): I'm very enthusiastic about the song, but there are a couple problems that stand out. Typically, you can't break my four-star barrier on performance alone --the song has to have some merit. But a great song with noticeable performance problems will not get more than four stars from me.

Five Stars (19% of my reviews): Great performance of a great song. Recording quality may be in any tolerable ballpark, by which I mean that home studio efforts qualify so long as they emulate the typical standards and practices of professional recordings (basic stuff). I would accept a live recording, and in theory I would accept a scratch demo, if the artist had positioned everything just right so that the song was clearly audible and the recording didn't get in the way. I have to feel like it has tremendous potential right away to get somebody signed or licensed.

Five of my favorite five-star reviews:

  • A little grit on something great
  • Rousing and feral
  • Tight, tight, aaaaaaaaannnd tight
  • Interesting to the last
  • Laying way back

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