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How to Write an Album Review

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Psychedelic Paul View Drop Down
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    Posted: December 24 2019 at 12:54
I just wanted to share these helpful tips on writing album reviews from Anton Sanatov at Spinditty.com. Anton spent 3 years working at an online music magazine as a writer, interviewer, photographer, editor, and eventually co-editor-in-chief. This is what he had to say:-
 
"Putting music into words can be a rather daunting task. The sounds are like magic, intangible, fleeting, and intrinsically infinite. So, how does one describe such wizardry? How does one transcribe a universe of patterns and emotional contrition into words?"
 

Tips to Writing an Album Review

  1. Keep It Tight
  2. Focus on Structure
  3. Think About Dynamics
  4. Remember, Someone Had to Say It
  5. Develop a Style
  6. Stay Neutral
  7. Think Outside the Box
  8. Listen Beyond the Music

"As I trudged on through piles of notes and rhythms, I developed certain traits and techniques that helped me approach every album with the appropriate set of tools for their dissection—tools that helped me deliver an eloquent, yet concise critique of a particular musical compilation. And, even though I am currently on an indefinite hiatus from the scenes of music journalism, I enjoy spreading wisdom about the workings of this wonderful medium. Therefore, following the publication of a brief guide on interviewing professional musicians (see the link at the bottom of the page), I decided to also offer up some insights on how to put music into words when reviewing a record. So, pop that tape in and let's have at it."

1. Keep It Tight

"No one wants to read a 2000-word socio-philosophical tractate on how a particular record relates to Theodore Adorno’s opinions on popular music. The saturation of the music market means that there is a plethora of albums out there to discuss, and only a select few may be worthy of such cultural dissertations. Thus, keep it sweet, but brief. A solid 450-500 words should do."

"A review can most certainly be overwrought, and if you go through every single song in excruciating detail, you run the risk of loosing track of your reader and the overall discourse. Group songs together when punctuating a particular point and single out those that deserve particular attention."

2. Focus on Structure

"You are to lead your reader, not dump them into a ball pit of scattered information. Just like any comprehensive piece of writing, your review should have an introduction, a main body of discussion, and a conclusion. Sorting it into these blocks will also make it easier to write. When writing about something as mercurial as music, control is paramount."

3. Think About Dynamics

"Regardless of the genre, when describing something as dynamic as music, your writing should compliment the sound. Adjust your tone to fit the types of music that are resonating from your speakers. Remember, you’re not only painting with words, you’re playing an accompaniment with them. Use rhythm, use virtuosity, or whatever is in your skill set. Imagine the listener is reading your review along with the music; make them feel it."

4. Remember, Someone Had to Say It

"On some occasions, you will have to play the bad guy. No one likes to trash talk a work of art (regardless of its aesthetic quality), but there are times when someone has to pull the trigger on an album. While your opinion may be chastised, if it’s justified, it will earn you respect from your peers and turn you from an amateur into a real critic."

"It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it."

5. Develop a Style

"You may already have a writing style of your own (and that’s great), but I’m not employing this point so that people instantly recognize that talented wordsmith who has written the review. No. After all, you must not forget that it is about the music, not you. Yes, your review should compliment it, but it must not overshadow it. The reason I advise you to develop a particular reviewing style is because you’re going to be writing a lot of reviews (if this is indeed something that you’re passionate about) and it will make it much easier to handle the volume if you already have a strategy in place—your modus operandi."

6. Stay Neutral

"This is a very important one. An album review is a place for objective opinions, not indoctrinated bias. Granted, when the music is up to your preference, you’re going to advocate its virtues at every cost. But, when you’re writing for a publication, your editor-in-chief will slip you records that you’re not fanatical about. Nonetheless, you will have to give them the same amount of attention as the others. Of course, if they’re bad, feel free to tear them a new one. But, regardless of the displeasure they may cause to your eardrums, you have to stay professional, keep cool, and grit your teeth through the process. That’s what it’s all about. And, if you don’t like the genre, the message, or the ostentatious frontman, well, tough luck."

7. Think Outside the Box

"There are only so many times you can say things like, “cool riff,” “soaring chorus,” and “rhythmic drumming.” After writing 15 reviews or so of musical platitudes, you may become self-conscious of repeating the same old descriptions—and that’s good."

"This is where your creative-writing side will become indispensable. Listen to the music, assign it a theme, create a world through it, and use the elements of that world to describe what you hear. Not only will this make the whole process more enjoyable and interesting, it will provide you with an opportunity to stand out over your peers."

8. Listen Beyond the Music

"There’s more to it than notes on a page and vibrations in the air. When reviewing an album, you should not only talk about its melodic qualities, but also its overall artistic essence. Pay attention to the concepts, the themes, and the metaphors; peel back the layers. Try to understand what the artist is trying to communicate through their work. Remember, this is their voice, and they want you to hear it. So, pay attention to the details, reach deep into that record, and eviscerate its essence."

"So, there you have it. An album review is a canvas on which you paint your own interpretation of an artist’s work. So, do it justice and truly express how it makes you feel. I can’t tell you how to do that, all I can do is offer these tips—the rest is up to you. Just remember that when reviewing a record, it is important to dive right into it. Music should engulf you like an oncoming wave. So, it's only right to let your words splash onto the page in much the same vein. So, go on, get in that ocean."

- Anton Sanatov
 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Psychedelic Paul Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: December 24 2019 at 13:45
One of the best tips I've ever been given on writing album reviews was from Logan, who said remember to include some humour and try to keep it light, so that's what I try to do with my reviews. Smile
 
I'd just like to give an honourable mention to ExittheLemming, who writes some of the funniest, most entertaining and informative album reviews on ProgArchives, in my humble opinion. Smile


Edited by Psychedelic Paul - December 25 2019 at 08:52
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote wiz_d_kidd Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: December 25 2019 at 08:01
Originally posted by Psychedelic Paul Psychedelic Paul wrote:


"So, there you have it. An album review is a canvas on which you paint your own interpretation of an artist’s work. So, do it justice and truly express how it makes you feel."


Oddly, none of the recommendations actually talks about how to interpret and express how the music makes you "feel". Is it energizing? Laid-back? Sleepy? Joyous? Dreamy? Spaced-out? Nerve-jangling? Confusing? Melancholy? Raging mad? Introspective? Bored?

We all listen to music because of the effect it has on us, and describing that effect can be challenging.

And to the 8 recommendations, I would add:

9. Don't be overly technical. Not many readers or listeners will recognize (or care) that the guitarist struck a G major 7th half-diminished chord, or that the rhythm section was playing 13/4 time with syncopated triplets.

10. Don't be overly literal. Saying that "... the drums start at 1:03, and 27 seconds later, a guitar starts strumming". Such descriptions provide lots of data -- but no information.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote Guldbamsen Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: December 25 2019 at 08:17
It’s been a while since I last wrote a review, but I never managed to chalk up any definable approach other than ‘start pushing keys whilst thinking about the music and how it sounds’. The end results came out very different, which is what I like.
I love it when people tell me completely irrelevant things in reviews that somehow end up making sense. Michael Neumann forgot his middle name whilst listening to Trout Mask Replica and suddenly had an urge to eat raw potatoes...which doesn’t exactly say anything about the music..yet at the same time it says everything!
I’m not entirely sure what my point is other than to say that there are many thrilling hikes up the mountain. I’m just glad we don’t all walk the same path
“The Guide says there is an art to flying or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Psychedelic Paul Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: December 25 2019 at 08:57
Originally posted by wiz_d_kidd wiz_d_kidd wrote:

Originally posted by Psychedelic Paul Psychedelic Paul wrote:


"So, there you have it. An album review is a canvas on which you paint your own interpretation of an artist’s work. So, do it justice and truly express how it makes you feel."


Oddly, none of the recommendations actually talks about how to interpret and express how the music makes you "feel". Is it energizing? Laid-back? Sleepy? Joyous? Dreamy? Spaced-out? Nerve-jangling? Confusing? Melancholy? Raging mad? Introspective? Bored?

We all listen to music because of the effect it has on us, and describing that effect can be challenging.

And to the 8 recommendations, I would add:

9. Don't be overly technical. Not many readers or listeners will recognize (or care) that the guitarist struck a G major 7th half-diminished chord, or that the rhythm section was playing 13/4 time with syncopated triplets.

10. Don't be overly literal. Saying that "... the drums start at 1:03, and 27 seconds later, a guitar starts strumming". Such descriptions provide lots of data -- but no information.
I totally agree with you about Points 9 & 10 because to go into that amount of precise and technical detail just becomes boring and tedious and no one really needs to know that amount of information anyway. Smile


Edited by Psychedelic Paul - December 25 2019 at 09:18
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Psychedelic Paul Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: December 25 2019 at 09:11
Originally posted by Guldbamsen Guldbamsen wrote:

It’s been a while since I last wrote a review, but I never managed to chalk up any definable approach other than ‘start pushing keys whilst thinking about the music and how it sounds’. The end results came out very different, which is what I like.
I love it when people tell me completely irrelevant things in reviews that somehow end up making sense. Michael Neumann forgot his middle name whilst listening to Trout Mask Replica and suddenly had an urge to eat raw potatoes...which doesn’t exactly say anything about the music..yet at the same time it says everything!
I’m not entirely sure what my point is other than to say that there are many thrilling hikes up the mountain. I’m just glad we don’t all walk the same path
 
Most of my reviews contain four paragraphs, because I always structure my album reviews in much the same way now, starting off with the opening intro (or starter course) where I give a few brief details of the artist, including any other albums they may have released. Then I move on to the main course, where I'll go through the album tracks one by one and give a brief description of each track on the album in turn, which I usually split into two paragraphs for Side One & Side Two of the original LP album. Finally, I'll include an overview (or dessert) where I'll give a brief  synopsis of  the album as a whole, although I generally avoid using personal pronouns in my reviews such as "Me, Myself, I" - to quote a well-known song by Joan Armatrading. Smile
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Psychedelic Paul Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: December 25 2019 at 09:16
I just want to mention ExittheLemming again and see that his reviews are a real master-class in how to write humorous, entertaining and informative album reviews. Thumbs Up
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote SteveG Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: December 26 2019 at 08:11
Simple: Describe the music. If you don't do that then all else written is a waste of the reader's time.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote Windhawk Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: December 26 2019 at 09:46
For my sake I stick to a basic formula for my main / longer reviews.

1. Introduction. Concise synopsis detailing core information about artist, album and label when applicable.
2. Analysis. Placing the music in a genre context. Describing how the music has been set up, trademark features and similar. Making some comparisons if natural. Highlighting best songs if natural. Highlighting any detrimental features if present.
3. Conclusion. Repeating or finally specifying stylistic context. Giving my recommendation for a proper audience.
Websites I work with:

http://www.progressor.net
http://www.houseofprog.com
http://framemusic.net/

My profile on Mixcloud:
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote tamijo_II Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 14 2020 at 08:43
Just a thought from someone who do not review albums:

On a site where you review with stars - don't attempt to "manipulate" the result by giving album you think are to high - low rating, or albums you think are to low - high ratings. 
The only fair rating would be the one you "hear" on the album.

Seen to many "official" reviews there it is even "notet" in writing that the review is related to other reviews that came before.    
Same person as this profile:
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Psychedelic Paul Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 14 2020 at 09:32
Originally posted by tamijo_II tamijo_II wrote:

Just a thought from someone who do not review albums:

On a site where you review with stars - don't attempt to "manipulate" the result by giving album you think are to high - low rating, or albums you think are to low - high ratings. 
The only fair rating would be the one you "hear" on the album.

Seen to many "official" reviews there it is even "notet" in writing that the review is related to other reviews that came before.    
That's good advice, but I wouldn't do that anyway. I usually take a look at the other ratings and reviews for an album after I've written my review. Smile
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote SteveG Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 14 2020 at 09:38
Stick to the PA guidelines regarding ratings. In other words, not because it's one of your favorite or most disliked albums:
 

Rating :
Essential: a masterpiece of progressive rock music
Excellent addition to any prog rock music collection
Good, but non-essential
Collectors/fans only
Poor. Only for completionists


Edited by SteveG - February 14 2020 at 09:40
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Psychedelic Paul Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 14 2020 at 09:43
^^
 
These are my guidelines when assigning album ratings:-
 
5 stars :- An absolute must-have album that I'd be prepared to order specially and be willing to pay up to £15 for.
4 stars :- A great album that I'd be more than happy to spend £10 on if it's in stock at my local record store.
3 stars :- A reasonably good album that I'd buy at a bargain price if I happened to see it at a charity shop or car boot sale.
2 stars :- A poor album that I'd only listen to once and wouldn't be inclined to listen to again even if it was given away for free.
1 stars :- An album rating I'd reserve for Hip-Hop/Rap. I very much doubt if there are any prog albums I'd only give a 1-star rating to. Smile
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote SteveG Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: February 14 2020 at 10:27
Originally posted by Psychedelic Paul Psychedelic Paul wrote:

^^ I very much doubt if there are any prog albums I'd only give a 1-star rating to. Smile
yeah, we know.
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