Discussions of What Makes a Perfect Album & How to Justify a 10/10 Rating

Ten Out of Ten, 100%, or just a single whole unit are the same, a purely mathematic concept; there is nothing in the physical world that can embody this concept, nothing that we can experience will ever be objectively perfect. Our existences are a subjective mess of emotion and sensation, and music can do much to alter this experience; it can give us insight to unattainable perspectives, group convergence of emotion, escape from our troubled realities, idle entertainment, a tool for productivity and any other infinite number of things. So why the obsession with ranking and scoring music? The rating of music, this ungraspably idiosyncratic contrivance, is a push toward the objective. The 10/10 album only exists in the aether, not literally relatable, so its somehow more tangible to think of it as better than a ‘light 6’, rather than only as its absolute score. It provides a means for conveying music we deem to be ‘better’ or more enjoyable to peers.

Now its not hard to accept that everything is subjective (Though people still insist on using the phrase ‘objectively better’ in regard to music), and that we do use these objective concepts to help share music; so we need to specify that we aren’t always speaking purely literal terms, despite how it may sometimes sound. The 10/10 album can’t be a purely perfect thing, but simply the best that exists, sharing few or no equals. Conversely a 0/10 album is not of literally zero substance, is not an imperceptible amalgam of negativity; but is now the worst, least enjoyable or most hated album, something that is probably even harder to define than the best album. This is the rough basis of most music rating systems, but when we say ‘better’ or ‘worse’, what aspect of the album should we actually be talking about?

Things are not all as graspable and sayable as on the whole we are led to believe; most events are unsayable, occur in a space no word has ever penetrated. – Rainer Maria Rilke

To start, we should probably go for some more standardization, and make some assumptions about the music we are to be rating. Firstly, the culture that has formed around music; certain principles or even rituals surround the releasing of music that are important to consider here. Since about the 1950s the current ‘standard’ way the industry operates has had recording artists (representing one or many people) creating and selling music for artistic expression and profit. These artists primarily sell albums, obviously groups of songs; some songs are released individually as singles usually to promote an album. This has spawned various formats and styles of releasing music, whether it be performed live or recorded in a studio; but any release that we might want to rate forms a part of this institution; even those that exist to intentionally subvert it as many independent artists do. Why is all that important in rating an album? It begins to form the basis of comparison between different instances of music, a standard plane is set, not all music exists in this ethos, but if we expect to produce a meaningful result by giving it a score out of ten, it probably does.

If I were to attempt to rate an album, I tend to compare it in my mind to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, which is commonly rated a 10, or at least the best album ever made; something I can usually agree with. On paper, it is the epitome of what the ‘standard’ album should be, 42 minutes, 10 tracks; not so long that its difficult to sit and listen all the way through, not so short that it can’t be engrossing and fulfilling. If you count ‘Speak to Me’ and ‘Breathe (In the Air)’ as a single track, each song can fully enjoyed individually, but each take on a different meaning and create a greater concept journey when compiled together. This concept can be picked up on the surface, with just a casual listen through, and is written so masterfully that it bears examination to near infinite depth. Proven by its success, it is relatable and enjoyable to just about any person; they could easily pick their own story in the lyrics, which both objectify and subjectify our entire existence: good, bad, life and death. The auditory aesthetic of the album is immaculate; absolutely cutting edge for the time period, with a unique timelessness it still sounds so fresh that most new releases struggle to sound as good. It acknowledges and is built from all established music in composition, and is also suitably experimental to create new sounds and styles that persist over 40 years later. The music and tone ebb and flow perfectly, it can be meditated, slept, studied to, or could soundtrack a party, at times even fill a dance floor; it is suitable in any context for any amount of people. Using various woven threads of sound, tone, modality, peaks, troughs, positive and negative space; Where it relaxes you, it equally excites, when it depresses, it makes sure to uplift the same amount. It is equally ominous and comforting. If this album commits any flaws, I can easily name another that commits that same flaw worse. The album artwork is timeless and obviously iconic; it ties in and can be read into similarly to the music itself, yet is also minimal and remains aesthetically pleasing on a universal & basic level.


I could go on. But plenty has already been given to consider in terms of what I think important to rate an album. Similar arguments may be made for several other Pink Floyd albums, ‘Abbey Road’, ‘Thriller’ or even ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’; all other common examples, but I think each strays too far in one particular direction where ‘TDSotM’ is the most straightforward median.

The problem I have with many contemporary music critics is the dishing out of 10s, whether it was Pitchfork about 20 years ago with alt rock, or Anthony Fantano and his peers favoring the forefront of creative experimentation, deep concept expression, or dare I say: ‘weirdness’. Sure, some of the albums they’ve both given ’10’s I could agree probably are, but we wont know for sure until 20-30 years (roughly a generation) after they were released, and then another generation later they will probably cease to be. ‘OK Computer’, maybe, at least very close; ‘The Money Store’ is also a fantastic album, but will we look back on it in 2057 similarly to how we do ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ in 2018? I doubt it.

Bias obviously takes a big part in how ‘good’ we think music is. Its impossible to predict how anyone’s bias may affect their enjoyment of an album, so its quite important to not only attempt to eliminate bias in a rating, but to be considerate as to what bias may be present for any given listener and try to account for it, which is why it was important to establish a basis for comparison. Its very easy to declare a recording artist ‘cancelled’ on Twitter, however this very clearly shows a pretty strong bias toward whomever happens to rival the so called cancelled artist at the time. Not that there is anything wrong with enjoying music more than its theoretical rating might suggest, its just not conducive to recommending or comparing it to any other music.

This idea of bias brings us right back to the subjective nature of our lives, it’s much more important to our enjoyment of the music than any potential rating may be. Fond memories of having Pink Floyd playing in the house as a child almost certainly direct me into my diatribe of how ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ might be the perfect album; Jeff Buckley created what I consider to be a nearly perfect album, but had he not tragically died young would I still feel the same? I can acknowledge my bias there, but to me, the more important part of listening to his only completed album on vinyl is that I always have to pour out a little wine in his memory.

Vinyl itself is another great example, it’s expensive, fiddly, contrived, and difficult to make it sound good; yet provides a much more visceral, enjoyable experience than queuing up 5 albums on Spotify. The vinyl ritual is a physical, well rounded experience, providing more dimensions than other formats.

Applying an arbitrary and objective rating system to the subjectivity of music enjoyment, I find ultimately pointless. Fantano may specify that they’re only his opinions, and indeed they are, so why try and make it so specific in a quantifiable way? To me, a good review would be an exposition of a potentially unconsidered perspective; a justification of why you might care as an enthusiast of music;  would be something that takes it beyond the known space of three dimensions into the larger cosmos of substance, condition, and experience.

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