On Reviewing Albums

When I was younger, buying a CD was a special thing. They were expensive–sometimes $17 or $18. As I was young, I wasn’t making a whole lot of money–minimum wage or slightly higher. A CD was an investment. At my old restaurant job, the cost of a CD was two-and-a-half hours or so of my sweat, with rent and gas and all of that having to be taken into account.

CDs have come down in price, and cost maybe a little more than half of what they used to when adjusted for inflation. At the same time, technology has made music much more accessible. There’s free downloads everywhere, and piracy is easy if you want to pirate. Also, I finished school, got a real job, went to school again, got a better one, and became comfortably middle class. Blowing twelve or fourteen bucks on a CD wasn’t a big deal anymore.

That’s all great, but there was a downside. When I’d really worked for that album, I really listened to it. I would give it every chance in the world to grow on me. If it didn’t after numerous chances, I would quickly scurry to Wazoo Records and get as much store credit as I could, which was still a net loss of over an hour of labor at my lousy job.

What I came to notice as both my disposable income and my access to music increased is that I would have stacks of CDs that I had barely touched–listened to once, maybe not even all the way through. Because my investment in the album was so much lower, I wasn’t really listening anymore, unless it grabbed me immediately.

The problem with this is that not all worthy music grabs immediately. I didn’t appreciate some of my favorite albums until after ten listens or even more–Entertainment! by Gang of Four and Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones are the two that pop into my head first, but there are many others. I had to ask myself, was I missing something because I was no longer so invested in my purchase? The answer was almost certainly “Yes.”

This is one reason why I started writing album reviews again. Writing a review of each album I buy, old or new, is my way of forcing myself to listen again, to get to know a record intimately, its triumphs and its failures. The time it takes to write as good a review as I can, a review that will convey to a prospective buyer, to the best of my ability, what his experience will be when he puts on those headphones, is my investment.

Parenthetically, it’s also my small way of promoting the album as an art form. I know a lot of people who used to buy CDs, and now just download one or two songs that they like and stick them in the iPod. This is a loss–the exhilaration of listening to a five-star masterpiece front to back, where the whole is significantly greater than the sum of its parts, is one of the great pleasures of life, and I don’t want new technology to cause artists to go to a hits-and-filler format because they think that the hits are all anyone cares about.

All of this is why you will occasionally see rather odd reviews from me. Just because it forces me to listen. Sometimes it will be painful (just for me, I hope!)–I’ll have to put myself through several listens of some real clinkers in order to fulfill this resolution. But I’m certain that, on the whole, the rewards will make it well worth the effort, and I’m happy to be listening again.

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