Crapple's Album Guides

Rules, regulations, ramblings and...(r)stuff.

By Pope Penguin

There are a lot of reviewers on the web these days.  The internet age has ensured that any harebrain with a keyboard and a dial-up connection can feel free to basically vent anything they want about the terpsichorean muse.  In some cases, entire professional websites have been created solely for the dissection and dissemination of music.

The older I get--and the more hilarious reviews of Mark Prindle's that I read--the more I begin to believe that music criticism and critique is, by its very nature, a futile endeavor at best.    The reason that is so is because music--like most art--is a completely SUBjective experience.  No matter how much you intellectualize it, music conjurs up different emotions in one listener than it does in another.  In fact, a piece of music will most likely never conjur up identical feelings amongst any two listeners.  It's kind of a depressing prospect when you think about it.

And yet, for some reason, there's nothing in the world I like talking about more.

The purpose of the album guides presented on our site is basically threefold: (1) To (eventually) present guides for artists that you will not commonly find on other sites on the web.  (For instance, say, Thomas Dolby, Wall Of Voodoo or Servotron); (2) To offer a divergent opinion from the commonly expressed notions found on other sites on the web.  (For instance, the seemingly predominant idea that all later Devo albums are terrible); (3) To help me suss out my own felings on any given artist.

I won't pretend to be "objective," necessarily.  I'm quite aware of my preferences and hopefully if I make them clear here (or in the introduction of every guide) you'll better understand what you're getting into when you read my reviews.  For instance, I'm a big fan of synthesizers, unlike most of the web reviewing community.  Sure, there are times when I think they're horribly used or unnecessary, but I'm far more lenient on the use of synths than many other people I know.  I also have a very high tolerance for camp and kitsch and in fact seek that out quite a bit.

I am a big believer that some of the best albums of all time are "growers."  In other words, I do not believe in coming to snap judgments about an album upon first hearing it.  I know people who will hear ten seconds of a song and already begin to slag the album off, but I personally feel art needs a little time to sink in.  I think it's essential that one should listen to an album closely a few times before opining about its merits or lack thereof.  Three times generally seems like a good minimum for me.  In the rare case that it's just a hideously bad, insufferable album ("Total Devo," for instance, which I have not been able to completely sit through in the ten years I've owned it), I may fudge a bit on this rule, but by and large, I believe in hearing an album at least a couple of times, usually spaced out within a span of a few weeks or so.

Also, you should know that I look for many different things when I listen to an album.  I notice a lot of other reviewers seem to have one specific thing they look for in everything they listen to.  Many reviewers--Prindle and George Starostin, for instance--seem to crave "strong melodies" when listening, and will harp incessantly when they think an album isn't "melodically strong."  I don't necessarily look at music that way.  I am very influenced by things like textures, feel, polyphony and mood.  Even if an album doesn't necessarily jump out at me with unstoppable melodic hooks, I may be willing to forgive it on the whole if it possesses other qualities I admire.  (The B-52's "Mesopotamia" EP, for instance, which is largely a mood record.)  Many times, I look at the album as a whole and how it fits together.  In other words, does it "work" as an album?  (Take the "white album," for example.)  Lyrics used to mean a great deal to me, but the older I get, the more I focus on the music itself.    In short, there's no one specific thing I look for in an album.  I have to adjudicate it on a case by case basis.

I will not necessarily give an album a high rating just because it was "innovative," "influential" or "the first."  I see reviewers fall into this trap all the time.  "The Velvet Underground & Nico" came first, therefore it is their "best" album?  It certainly may be the most experimental and *influential*, but I cease to see how it's a more solid album than, say, their third album (my personal favorite).  Song for song, it isn't.

I use a standard scale of 1-10 when rating the albums.  Some online reviewers like to award every band a 10, most likely to be able to use that release as a yardstick by which to judge the other albums in their catalogue.  Some reviewers take this further and only award one solitary 10 per band.  I don't really want to go that route, myself.  If I feel that more than one album is essential, I don't see the harm in labelling them as such.  Having said that, most of the time, I do think that any given artist with a huge catalogue has only about two or three titles that stand head and shoulders above the rest.

Furthermore, I won't automatically award every band a 10 because that would ensure that every band's albums would only be assessed amongst themselves.  In other words, an "essential" release for one artist may not be on par with an "essential" release by another. George Starostin has an interesting method of getting past this.  Using a mathematical system--including grades for historical importance, innovation and relevance--he assigns a number ranking to each group he reviews, which is then factored in to each individual album rating.  Thus, a Beatles album that receives a "10" mark is higher than a Beach Boys album that attains the same rating.

Interesting idea, but I don't tend to see music that way.  To me, as ludicrous as it may sound to you--or, say, some pinhead from All Music Guide or Pitchforkmedia--They Might Be Giants' "Lincoln" (which I award a 10) certainly is on the par of, say, the "white album."  Why should I pretend that I feel otherwise?

What I will do, though, is make an effort to space out the ratings of releases a bit within any given artist's catalogue.  It seems a little daft to give one artist nothing but nines and 10's, regardless of what I personally think of them.  That's sycophancy.  Offhand, I can't even think of any artist that would really deserve such an unblemished record anyway.  (Well, maybe The Divine Comedy...)

Here's a general breakdown of what each crapple rating means:

Superb, essential release by the artist in question.  Many times it's because, song for song, it's unstoppable, but occasionally I'll be able to forgive one or two bum tracks if the album as a whole fits together well.
Near essential, but possibly flawed in some minor way.  It could be production problems, or just a few bum tracks.  Still highly recommended, though.
A great release with some flaws.  Recommended.  I'm noticing that I tend to award an eight to an album that is popular, well-regarded and very accomplished, yet fails for me on some level.  ("Abbey Road" comes to mind.)
Here we're getting into slightly more tricky territory.  This is for records that are still good but not quite up to the standards of the rest of the catalogue.  Tread with some caution.
I firmly believe this is for something that's just slightly above average.  Something lifts it out of the realm of just being merely serviceable.  A few key tracks, some cool production, whatever.  An album that is awarded a 6 will often be the "underdog award" winner.
Many people might look at a five rating and immediately think it's a poor release.  Not necessarily so.  To me, a five is a solid "average" grade.  Not great, not poor, just decent.  It may be because it does not live up to the lofty standards exemplified by the rest of the artist's canon, or it could just be because the artist made an album that is decent but nothing terribly special. 
A below average release.  C-/D+ range, if you will.  Here is where the ratings get a little more arbitrary.  Anything here and below is certainly not recommended.
Usually reserved for an album with only one or two good or decent tracks.
Oh dear.  This would have to be an album with about one good track, or at least one small redeeming one neat solo in one song.
I can't imagine any record I review getting this low of a grade, but this would have to be reserved for an album that has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  (I suppose an album like that would truly deserve a 0 grade).

One final thought: NOWHERE on these following pages will you ever find the word "pretentious" used to describe an album or song.  Take a look at music reviews around the web and you'll find this ridiculous, absolutely meaningless buzzword used more than any other term!  Here's the rub: ALL ART IS "PRETENTIOUS" BY ITS VERY NATURE!  THAT'S WHY IT IS ART!  Either find another word to use that actually means what you're trying to say or GET OVER IT!


Now, on with more of my utterly valueless opinions...