Explaining the Album Rubric (and a review of Neko Case’s “Middle Cyclone”)

Album Rubric (and a review of Neko Case’s “Middle Cyclone”)

“There is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion.”
Winston Churchhill

Upon launching my new music blog page, I began conjuring up what types of blogs would be featured upon the site.  Of course I will include my yearly “Best Of” lists, my SXSW recaps, and even my random music ramblings (concerts and personal insights). Paul already plans to write reviews of Essential albums, providing readers with a clue towards the best music from master artists (for example, if you’re planning to get into some Neil Young, Paul will guide you down the path of “Zuma” and “On the Beach” and away from “Living with War” and “Trans”). He also looks forward to his “Fuck Andy” lists where he attempts to trash my yearly list (hopefully he’ll be more timely this year). I even expect my yearly “Road Trip” blogs to be featured on BobDylanWrotePropagandaSongs.com since music dominates the majority of the entries.

Despite all these planned features on our brand spanking new website, I still felt like something was missing. Perusing other Music blogs I see things we can maybe feature (posting music videos, tour dates, etc), but there is also things we can’t compete with, at least at this juncture (breaking news, interviews, song downloads).

The more I looked, the more I realized we needed a steady dose of album reviews. We both buy enough music monthly that we won’t run out of material to write about. I knew time might be an issue, with us both busy with our “real life” jobs. I thought that if we limited ourselves to one review a week we could pull it off, yet I wanted to make sure it didn’t become a chore. After all, I created our blog page as a fun avenue of expression, not a means of an income or fame (our dream is to get free CDs from labels someday, but I’m getting ahead of myself).

Last week I began writing my first BobDylanWrotePropagandaSongs.com review of Neko Case’s “Middle Cyclone”.  I wrote the usual stuff about her distinct voice and vivid lyrics but began to quickly feel like I was already writing as a job and not for fun.  What was I basing my opinion on?

I looked at other reviews of her album (“Spin” gave it a 9 while “Under the Radar” gave it a 5).  How could there be such a vast difference between two reviews? And where did they come up with these numbers? Do they pluck them out of their heads like Bruno on “Dancing with the Stars” or is there a system that reviewers base their opinion on? The more I thought about it, the more frustrated I became.  Where was the logic behind the music reviewing business? Where was the science behind the process, the math behind the numbers?

That’s when I made a realization.  For seven years I’ve been evaluating the writing of middle schooler’s, giving each a grade in the gradebook that signifies the quality of their writing.  I don’t just pick a number out of my head. “This paper was funny. I guess it’s a 90.”

No, I have a system, specifically a rubric that I’ve relied my entire carreer. Sure, I can read an essay and decipher right off the bat what is good and bad, but in order to give a grade I have to provide a system that breaks down a piece’s value.

Actual example of a rubric given to a student for their persuasive essay:

After reading a piece, I’ll go through each of the categories and rate the writer within the specific attributes.  When finished, I have a pretty good idea what the grade should be.  To come up with a score to enter in the gradebook, I then give ten points for each rectangle on the rubric that they earned, and then add them all up:


After adding the score up I divide it by two and “BAM!” I have a score (if you can do math you would see that the student above received an 85).

With my essay grading method in mind, I began thinking about how I could come up with a rubric for rating an album.  What could the five categories be?  The more I pondered, the more I began to realize that the answer sat right in front of me.  My WRITING RUBRIC could be used as an ALBUM RUBRIC!

Can an album be considered focused or unfocused? Of course! Beck’s “Sea Change” is a focused masterpiece with a distinct sound flowing from song to song.  The Black Lips “Good Bad Not Evil”, although a great listen, is extremely unfocused with each song sounding like a completely different band.

Can an album have strong voice, a sound that is original and distinct? Radiohead’s “Kid A”, Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation”, and Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” are all examples of voice at its finest.

Mechanics? In terms of writing, mechanics is all about grammar, but with music, mechanics comes down to the recording quality. I love Times New Viking, but the sound is a way too fuzzy for my taste, while we all know (or should know) the affects a strong producer like Steve Albini can have on the quality of a record.  Over-produced music can have the opposite on a mechanics grade (I’m talking to you Britney).

Organization comes into play when discussing song order and the progression of an album. I know that may not seem important, but a truly epic masterpiece requires songs that flow naturally.  Neutral Milk Hotels “In an Airplane Over the Sea” is the epitome of organizational genius with the natural flow from song to song, and the use of  bookends with two versions of “Two-Headed Boy” being placed at the start and finish of the record, the last being a somber anti-thesis to the first version.

Depth in writing is providing the reader with enough details and information to keep them interested. Obviously this pertains to the amount of “good” songs on an album.  Nirvana’s “Nevermind” is the embodiment of depth, great song followed by great song from start to finish.

I’m not sure if Paul will jump on board with my “Album Rubric”, but it will work just fine for me since I’ve become so accustom to using it on the thousands of adolescent papers read over the years. The process has become second nature.  Below is an example of what it may look like if Neko Case were an 8th grader presenting her final draft “Middle Cyclone” (Notice the updates within each category of the rubric):

As you can see, when the squares are added up and divided, Neko received a 6.5 out of 10.  This technique worked well for me because I truly assessed the album through the various lenses.  In the future I won’t write reviews as if they are aimed at students, but I will continue to use this rubric to score each album.  This way, you the reader knows the “why” behind the “what”.

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