Was going through my (electronic) catalogue of Judas Priest albums, looking which I had and for which I would have to trouble the net-seller, when this thought hit me.
My way of finding out about albums isn’t the same as with books. For books I use Amazon for details like publisher, page count, format* and, if I’m feeling particularly masochistic, reviews before heading to my considerably more concise (but quicker) pan-Scandic netshop.
Now, for music (and this works for a surprising number of artists) I go to Wikipedia and punch in the artist, then scroll down to discography, say “Ummm” for a while, and then go through the individual albums’ pages and glance at the part of the infobox that says “professional reviews”, especially the Allmusic link and star-graph.
Now, being a suspicious bastard and a natural science buff, I distrust this critic stuff where empiric metrics seem to be very, very scarce and opinions all based on some shared prejudices, but a voice’s a voice, and a professional music reviewer’s as far above the Amazon customer reviews as they in turn are above the teeming cesspool of Youtube comments.
My main problem with this method is that the review is of course a review of the album — and that doesn’t help me very much.
See, my collection of music is an electronic glob in my computer, the best parts of which copy-migrate to my mp3 player. I’m not a person that listens to albums as albums, not after the first time or two after getting them anyway. I simply don’t care if Release-X has three tracks of filler, or seven tracks of derivative guano — I will discard those and count myself happy for having the two (or four, or one) diamonds on the disc to listen to.
That’s not the reviewer’s way — in that job one considers whether the album hangs together or wars against itself, and whether some hackwork ruins the rest. That doesn’t count for anything if the only tracks that you’ll play or copy to your player are the good ones.
Take Judas Priest’s 1988 album Ram It Down: a rating of 2/5 from Allmusic. I concur as far as nine of the ten tracks are concerned, but the tenth is Blood Red Skies, which is 7:51 of pure audio heaven. The rating is accurate (if you ask me), but doesn’t tell me what I want to know: Any tracks worth my money in there? An average doesn’t tell much if you’re interested in single data points.
(Oh, and the words of reviewers can be nasty, too: “adolescent theatrics”? I’d be willing to dispute the “adolescent”, and losing that go on a furious guerilla campaign sloganing that the adolescence and naivity of certain expressions and emotions is what makes them so striking. Losing that, I would pretend I didn’t speak English so the lyrics didn’t matter anyway.)
(I understand the reviewers, too — the most compact way of reviewing a chunk-release is a chunk-review, and there is something disturbingly obsessively fannish in slapping down ten numbers one after another. If only musicians got over the LP/CD fixation and started giving us one track now, two more next June, all digitally, and eventually there might be song-reviews instead of album-reviews, too.)
For me, the idea of an album just doesn’t mean anything, especially not if the band has plenty of them. For an example, the Trooper, Two Minutes to Midnight and Montsegur are among the best songs Iron Maiden has ever made (notice the immense, throbbing flamebait!), but for the first two I have no idea which disc they are from, and the third I remember just because Dance of Death is such an impressive album, with not a single bad track, and at least four tracks that I’d place in my Top 20 of every single Iron Maiden song ever.
(Oh, and: from Piece of Mind and Powerslave. And the four strong ones for me are Montsegur, Dance of Death, Paschendale and Journeyman. And I’m tempted to add No More Lies. And…)
And that’s my high and elevated reason for being wary of the ratings of critics: they tend to measure something that means nothing to me; but as I believe I already said, my base reason is that I don’t trust them filthy humanist-style peeegs.
(And it adds to my irritation that the word “humanist” can be used to either mean “one of the vague man-studying types I, as a matter of pure and dry academic prejudice, don’t like” or “one with the atheistic philosophic leaning I most certainly do”.)
* * *
* “publisher, page count and format” : Well, the publisher tells you a bit about the book. Big publishers don’t tend to publish a certain kind of crud, though some other kinds are a staple: think woo and derivative fiction. Small publishers are a lot more eccentric, and can plop out astonishingly stupid things — if the book’s from the Holy Bleeding Heart of Jesus Armageddon Batman Publishers Inc., that tells it might not be for me. And if it’s from some self-publisher or, heavens fall on me, an outfit like PublishAmerica… well, think of the worst book you’ve ever read. That was not the bottom of the barrel. That was something that an actual book-publisher deemed worth risking their money for, hoping for profits; that had an editor that didn’t die of a brain aneurysm reading it or end up jabbing a red pen in his/her eye or breaking the author’s fingers. Self-published books tend to come without even that slim guarantee. (Then again, sometimes it’s worth the hazard.)
Page count helps you gauge the difference in font size between different editions; the format information tells whether the pricing is just funny or you’re looking at a paperback and a hardcover. (And don’t get me started on the double vision I get from almost every effing book having separate American and British versions on sale. Sometimes under different names. Curses and obfustications!)
Also, it’s a useful trick to track books from seller to seller by ISBN, not author or title; that makes sure you don’t confuse paperbacks, pocket books and hardcovers. Or, (as I remember once almost happening) order the Swedish-language version because the name was the same as for the English version. That would have been a bummer. (For the troubles of that: well, I can count to ten in Swedish, but just now I can’t recall what’s eleven. Maybe if I had some time to think about it…)
(And anyway, if I can, I much rather read without the additional layer of an interpreter (translator) between me and the author’s mind; it’s the old “but it feels better without a condom!” argument, with the part of the unwanted pregnancy being played by, just to given an example, your total inability to talk to anyone who’s read the translated Harry Potter books because you don’t know what the flibbertigibbet the characters are called. How’s this for a tangent in a footnote?)