How to Write an Album Review Part. 2

This is a continuation from a tutorial last week where I wrote about the kinds of preparation that goes into writing an album review. Part two was supposed to be about my process and the some other processes I’ve observed other critics using in their review writing but I realized that explaining my writing process will be long winded enough so I decided to cut-down from there.

Prepare your review by writing an outline and a thesis.

Write a thesis statement of your opinion.

Condense your thoughts into a succinct, one-sentence thesis explaining your thoughts, the album’s strengths or weaknesses, or the context of the record. The thesis does not have to be your lead but should be apart of your introduction.

Create an outline of your review.

Strategize how the review will look through an outline. Doing this will help you jump into the writing process and keep your thoughts in order. No outline should be the same as the last. Here are three outlines I sometimes use interchangeably based on my opinion of the quality of the album:

Good album:

  1. Context.
  2. Sum up the record and it’s place within the context. Explain your reasoning and touch on the major arts of the album i.e. Tone, Theme, instrumentals, lyrics, features, song structure.
  3. Go into the tracks- standout stories/lyrics/controversy, beats/music, any criticisms. Weak tracks.
  4. Recap.

In-between album:

  1. Context.
  2. Sum up the record or your opinion with an in-depth explanation of your reasoning. Reinforce your own tastes and stress that other people’s opinions are just as valid.
  3. Tracks that illustrate your gripes with album.
  4. Tracks you may have enjoyed.
  5. Propose what could’ve been done better with your own reasoning.
  6. Recap.

Bad album:

  1. Let the reader know it sucks and why right away.
  2. Context.
  3. Find a critical voice demonstrating what good may have been in the record.
  4. Explain your views and opinions with reason.
  5. Recap.

Begin writing the review by constructing a narrative and an argument.

Introduce the artist and the context of the record by making a narrative.

Creating a narrative for an album is not easy and requires you have done your homework i.e. spending time reading up on the artist’s history, interviews and listening to their discography. Understanding the circumstances of the artist and the world around them during the creation of the album will help you develop and bolster your opinion with an informed impression of the artist’s narrative. If the reader believes you have the wrong idea about the artist than why should they continue reading? Having a legible and accurate story will help make the review be more readable while demonstrating your knowledge of the subject.  

Propose your opinion and argue by demonstration.

This should be the largest chunk of review and will require the most work. A good way to begin is by checking your notes to remember what you thought of the album initially. A recording of your gut-instinct may help you decide what direction to take with the review or understand why your opinion may have changed. For example, some albums take several listens before you really start to enjoy and understand it. Telling your reader about how long it took for the album to grow on you and why it did will make the review more personal and give the reader an understanding of what to expect from the album.  

a.) Creating the argument.

The most important part of writing a well-written argument is backing up your claims with examples. If you decide the lyrics are what makes an album powerful than quoting lyrics that moved you will help illustrate this point. Even if the lyrics are great and the reader knows that it’s great, an example should be given in order for you and the reader to understand why it’s great. Knowing why something is will give you deeper understanding of your own tastes as well as inform your reader of your personal biases or tastes.

b.) Write about the music in way that your reader can “hear” it.

Writing about music is one of the hardest skills to learn and is often the skill most neglected by music critics. As previously mentioned, examples are important to establishing a strong argument but not all examples can be done by quoting or paraphrasing. You want to review the music as well the message and lyrics (I know this may seem obvious but many “music” reviews don’t have anything about the music at all). Because most music reviews will be done via blog or print, literal examples of the music can’t be played for the reader. The goal of illustrating the music through words is to give the reader that “sound-bite” example without the sound. The reader must “hear” something through your writing in order for them to understand the argument you are proposing. This is challenging because everyone experiences music differently. Your goal as the writer should be finding the “gist” or meaning of your interpretation of the sound and not the actual sound itself. Many writers will try and be too literal, writing every detail verbatim and trying to explain every little sound. It’s too much. Nails scratching slowly across a chalkboard is a illustration that everyone will understand as a literal, horrible shrieking noise but because of the imagery it’s much more interesting and compelling than the verbatim and literal description, “horrible shrieking noise.”

Recap the album and your thoughts.

Our goal as a music critic is to act as curators to this niche of information for those without the time or means to do it themselves. Now that a critic can be anybody with a blog and a critic likely won’t have access to an album before their target audience, many people don’t need critics to tell them what is good or bad anymore before they go to the record store and buy a copy. People now can just go listen for themselves or even check social media and forums for people’s opinions the moment something is leaked or released. Editor’s will push you to write quickly and put your voice into the choir of opinions before the conversation isn’t relevant anymore. Your goal should be to add to that conversation some understanding and critical thinking. Your conclusion will help you measure yourself and whether or not you achieved that goal. Ask yourself this: Does the reader now know why you think the album is amazing or terrible? Does the reader know the context of the album and it’s creation? Does the reader know why you think something is wrong or why the beat sounds like a broken washing machine? Anyone can give their opinion but as critics we must wrap-our-heads-around that opinion.

That’s how I do it! I’m deciding on when to continue this chain or maybe start something new entirely. For now, I plan on writing about some other processes and why those don’t work for me.

How to Write an Album Review Part. 1

How to Review an Album Part. 1

If you have a serious commitment to music and like to listen with awareness and analysis of what you are hearing, than you have the potential to be a music critic. In this day and age, published critique has transformed from a privilege to a few to an opportunity for any intelligent and motivated listener. These instructions will explain how to write an album review and begin competing in the industry.

Pick an Album and Research: When deciding on what album you’d like to review, the most important factor to consider is how much you know about the artist(s) who made the album and the genre of music the album falls under. An expert in a particular genre or artist will have a very different opinion than someone who’s unfamiliar with the genre or artist. How much knowledge you have about the topic will limit your writing. To become an expert, you must do the research. Listen to artists and genres you aren’t familiar with and gain deep understandings of as many artists as you can, not just your favorites. Here are two steps that will engross you in the music and give you the insight to begin writing. 

  1. Listen, Re-listen and Listen Again. Sounds simple enough but listening to an album is something that should not be taken lightly as it is the most important part of the making of the review. Listen to the album as much as you can and as often as you can and in as many circumstances as possible. Music is a fluid that runs through every part of our lives and an album should be experienced the same way. Listen alone and take notes, listen on the daily commute, listen to it as background music, and listen to it with other people too. Ask a person who you respect what they think about the album and understand their opinion. Music is a social medium and your readers may not have the same opinion as you. Understanding other points of view will help you engage with those readers of differing opinions. 
  2. Take Notes and Ask Questions. Be sure to write down your initial thoughts to the album when you first start listening. A large majority of publications want reviews the moment an album comes out so you may have to rely on gut instinct to get you by. If you do have the time to really sit down and digest a record, a recording of your gut instinct will help you stay on track to your true opinion without being swayed by outside forces like other reviews or popularity. Ask questions like “What do I like or dislike?” and “What stands out to me?” to understand your own opinion. Don’t stop asking questions. Ask things like: “How does this album compare and contrast to the artist’s last album?”, “What is the album’s influences?” and “How does this album fit in it’s larger genres and subgenres?.” One method is taking notes track-by-track, recording all the different elements you notice throughout. This is a good strategy but don’t forget to look at the album as whole and not as just a collection of tracks you are reviewing individually.

Note: A common mistake many new critics make is being too negative or too positive. Above everything, an album review is meant to be critical so either completely shutting down an artist or blowing smoke in the artist’s face won’t accomplish anything. If you can’t find anything to like or there are just a few small problems in an amazing record, make suggestions on how the album or a part could have been done differently.

A lot of writing a review requires work before the actual act of pen meeting paper.. or fingers hitting keys. Next Monday, I will have a detailed instructional on this process and some of the other processes out there and why some work for me while others don’t. Stay tuned and start listening to an album you want to review today!

My System

Here is a look at how I “grade” albums. I don’t always use the rubric and I have changed it a couple of times since I started using it a year and a half ago. It’s definitely not anything scientific or completely universal but it sorta helps me organize my work for readers. 

A. 80 percent or above.

B. 80 to 70 percent.

C. 70 to 60 percent.

D. 60 to 50 percent.

F. 50 percent or below.

What I’m looking for. Score (0 to 10) Examples of Scoring.
Innovation 4 10- Creates entire genre.

8- Creates a new niche or sub-genre.

6- Pushes current genres limits.

4- Pushes their own limits.

2- Little change.

Uniqueness (of either artist or album) 8 10- Never before seen (has influences still).

8- More than three unique qualities including sound, person, story, ect.

6- Two unique qualities.

4- One unique quality.

2- Lowest possible score because everyone is unique. :^)

Songwriting 8
Lyrics 9
Production 8 10- Perfect Balance.

5- Over-produced more than not (or even under produced).

0- Sounds unexplainable in how horrible it is.

Theme 9 10- Powerful theme throughout.

5- Theme exists but kinda sucks.

0- No theme or organization what-so-ever.

Length/Flow 9 10- Songs reinforce each other, the album isn’t hard to listen to, and the transitions are smooth/appropriate.

5- Two of the things listed before.

0- None of these things.

Talent 6
Personal Enjoyment 10 10- Peak enjoyment.

5- Indifferent.

1- Couldn’t hate the album more.

78 percent 71 90 max