But if you must, here’s some advice I once gave a friend (here‘s some generally terrific advice about writing for magazines, btw, from my old (though much younger, and more experienced) colleague Noah Callahan-Bever, current E-i-C of Complex):
Here are a few of what I feel are the essential elements to writing a good music review (specifically a recorded music review — live performance and genre surveys are a wholly different kettle of fish):
1) Bear in mind from the beginning that it doesn’t matter what you, or anyone else, thinks about music. Of course you’ve got great taste, etc., but everyone who bothers to read a music review thinks they do, also. If you trash the latest Phish record, Phish-heads will still buy it in their millions. And if you declare the new Clay Aiken record a sublime work of art which earns a place alongside the timeless compositions of Mozart and Bob Dylan, this praise can’t save that record from obscurity. I think some people — DJs like Alan Freed and John Peel, and critics like Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, Nat Hentoff, and Jon Landau, critics from the 1960s and ’70s who held a Clement Greenburg-level sway over the pop and jazz worlds — once had this power to get ears listening to specific records on a national level, but this was in a pre-Long Tail era of big media companies and big labels, with information sources, distribution systems, and recording technology at once scarce and physically-bound. Contrast this with the ease of global access to information and its distribution we currently enjoy, not to mention how dramatically the barriers to entry in music-creation and production have fallen.
Humbling, or depressing, as this realization may be, it should also liberate you — you have nothing to lose! But the reader must never, ever feel that way about your subject. If they do, they won’t bother to read another syllable beyond the moment they reach that realization. So you’ll need to make a case for why your perspective on this work is important, and the best place to begin is with the record’s context.
2) If your opinion about a record is going to matter, you have something to say besides “This is a good record” or “This is a bad record”. (Or worse, “This would be a good record if it had better songs on it” — advice from my least favorite editor of all time which, I grudgingly admit, was excellent counsel). In fact, I’m not even sure it is useful to describe the way the record sounds. If it is useful to describe the sound, it sure isn’t useful to do so in isolation, without reference to something larger about the band (and also, of course it’s fun trying, but fundamentally impossible, to use language to replicate the experience of hearing music).
So where it might be interesting to mention that Mos Def uses a sample of the Doors’ “5 to 1” on his song “The Rapeover” because that is, arguably, a considerable stretch of the pop music spectrum to traverse within one song, it’s much more interesting to note that it not only employs the same sample used on Jay-Z’s “The Takeover”, but that both songs were produced by Kanye West. And for West of course, Jay-Z is an important mentor while Mos Def surely represents a road not taken. Similarly, the UK version of the Strokes’ debut record included a song called “New York City Cops”. It’s a catchy power-pop-punk-ish tune; so is every other song on that record. However, “New York City Cops”, whose refrain goes “New York City cops, you know they’re not too smart”, was not included on the US version. Why? Probably because it was released in 2001, two weeks after September 11. The latter observation gives the reader much, much more to work with, and insight into the process of the record’s creation. Some critics like to say certain works are timeless, especially if they use older styles or idioms (a kinder way of saying they’re derivative). Nothing is timeless, everything is a product of its era. So include more era.
3) What I’m trying to say above is that it’s not worth taking the music on its own terms (of course it is, actually, but that’s a slightly different discussion), not if you want what you’re saying to matter in a broader way, or to be rewarding to the reader for some reason beyond conveying that a given record is good or bad. Again, as above, it doesn’t matter what you say about quality — people are going to listen to what they’re going to listen to. When I read record reviews, it’s to learn facts, not opinion — who produced the record, who else appears on it, are there any cover songs on it (I adore cover songs), what are some of the song titles, subjects, themes, unexpected instruments. I’m basically reading them like liner notes, not for an assessment of quality).
So while it’s true that “Billie Jean” is a terrifically atmospheric dance song which uses Michael Jackson’s vocal flourishes to exquisite effect, fused to a great synth hook and subtle reverb, it’s more interesting to consider the story Jackson is asking us to believe; that he was hanging out at a nightclub, and that a woman approached him and accused him of fathering her child. Within the song’s narrative, only Jackson’s anxiety over sexual temptation, and his internal conflict over succumbing to it, is plausible (Michael Jackson hanging out in a nightclub? Maybe Studio 54, when he was a teenager, but after that?). But the song works spectacularly nevertheless, perhaps entirely on the strength of his palpably tormented sexual yearning and guilt (this is surely way more interesting than simply noting what it sounds like; that is, suspiciously similar to Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”). It’s slightly interesting that Miley Cyrus kind of raps on her song “Liberty Walk”; it’s mind-blowingly weird that she’s dedicated it to the Occupy Wall Street movement. And so on.
And context doesn’t have to be very broad. It’s more than possible that Young Jeezy’s “The Recession” dropped just as the mortgage collapse began and caused the Great Recession, but that he wasn’t thinking about that at all — if so, definitely make it clear what exactly he was thinking about, because most readers who are aware of what is happening in the world right now will wonder if there’s any connection.
But one must also contextualize a record with the artist’s (or band’s, etc) previous work — that’s one rule worth following (for debuts, something about the band’s cultural or geographic roots, former careers, etc., should do for context). New personnel, new producer, the return of an old one, a return to themes, sounds, instrumentation, cultural touchstones, etc., are also important aspects to cover.
If you ask me, in terms of a given artist’s sound, there is nothing interesting about record labels. Not when artists leave or return to them, not the formation of new ones, not the revival of old ones, nothing. If there is ever anything to say about label movements, editors always seem to want to include it, but that’s because they’re the kind of music nerds that pay attention to that appallingly boring nonsense. No one else cares, and I advise you to skip that stuff entirely.
4) Of course, Essay Writing 101: Take a strong stance and defend it vigorously. In each and every other respect, and profoundly so, I counsel exactly the opposite, but with review-writing I say; drop the even-keeled reflection and Zen equanimity. If your publication uses a 5-star rating system and you allow reviewers to use half-stars in their reviews, I guarantee you that over time the vast majority of your reviewers will give records 2.5 stars. This is bullshit. Also, statistically impossible. I advise you to excise the word “middling” (and associated symbols and synonyms) from your review vocabulary.
Inevitably, most art is bad, or at least not good. If one is employing an honest and appropriately broad scale, most art simply cannot reach the middle range of quality because at one end of that scale is the worst crap ever foisted upon the human race (for argument’s sake, let’s say that’s Rebecca Black) and at the other end is — well, whatever happens to be your very favorite work of art. Probability forbids the natural occurrence of a majority of music falling exactly halfway between Rebecca Black and, for instance, “Kind of Blue”. Most stuff isn’t even close to “Kind of Blue”, it’s closer to Nickelback.
So giving out 2.5-star reviews is tempting, but essentially over-charitable (if I were to use an uncharitable term, I’d say it’s cowardly, but as one who’s doled out plenty of 2.5 star reviews, I perfectly understand the temptation). So make a firm, forthright declaration, and stick with it.
5) Never make a comparison like this; “This artist is like Ethel Merman meets Emerson Lake & Palmer!”, or similar. It’s tired, old, hackneyed, and moreover, a perfect example of an insular, lifeless metaphor. This is because (again) the context is all within the pop music universe (and worse, within the sonic arena alone); comparisons like that don’t reach further out to the larger world. It may help the reader to understand what the music sounds like (possibly, but certainly not inevitably — to take just one well-worn example, describing a song as “Bowie-esque” could mean it sounds like “Let’s Dance”, “Young Americans”, “Diamond Dogs”, or “Space Oddity”), but as I’ve said, I think you want to place the work within its time and the artist’s own life and oeuvre, more than you want to edify your readers by attempting to describe a record’s sound.
6) I think the hardest part of criticizing is determining what criteria you can use, and what you ultimately must use.
For myself, having not a lick of musical ability makes this a ticklish issue, even an ethical one. This total absence of musical skill is one of the reasons music has fascinated me for so long — it’s still basically sorcery, as far as I’m concerned.
Again, catchy-ness can’t be the spectrum on which value and crappiness are found; neither can complexity, novelty, cultural reverence, avant-garde-ness, lyrical sophistication, dance-ability, holiness, diabolicalness, nor of course such impossibly slippery notions as authenticity, or even simplicity or sophistication.
For me, the quality whose presence or absence determines the greatest part of how I judge a record is this: effort. I feel that lazy records are bad records. It’s isolating the qualities wherein lazy lives that’s tricky.
Even records which are lazy in that the artist is doing something which they already know they are good at, and are following tropes and techniques and legacies which they’ve steeped themselves in and have come to be identified with (thinking Keith Richards here, or even Jay-Z, or Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) can be great via the artists’ investment in the material, their commitment and total devotion to it. And of course, they can also thrill by practicing a mode of art which they have refined to its highest degree — which by definition isn’t easy, and therefore is not lazy. Records which are sloppy are not necessarily lazy and can indeed be brilliant (many, many live records fall into this category, plus the Sex Pistols, the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, Exile on Main Street, and anything by the Fugs).
But when an artist is lazy and produces lazy work it not only makes them look bad but it insults the listener — after all, they thought we would be dumb enough to fall for it. And they couldn’t be bothered to do their best, in which case they fail to honor their own gifts and my enthusiasm for their work at the same time.
Lastly, writing with verve, pizzaz, etc. helps a lot. I recommend Robert Christgau and Lester Bangs to start with, esp. Christgau. Chuck Klosterman is supposed to be good, too. But also check out Vice magazine’s reviews, which are often quite funny. And yeah, so do your thing.