You Shall Be Known By Your Stars

A while ago, I had read a post online by a music collector where he had just completed a goal of listening to and rating every song in his library.  It only took him five years to do it.  Bravo for that level of effort.  The consideration of doing something similar for myself led me to attempt to define what a rating system would look like for me.

The “for me” thing is the most important part.  Ratings are entirely subjective, and still at the same time, they must be well-defined and rigid.  That feels weird to me, “this is precisely how it must be… for me.”  But weird or not, in order to begin rating my albums (and/or songs), I need to have a stick to measure with.

In my consideration of rating my music, I determined that there’s two levels of ratings, at the song level and at the higher album level.  These two ratings more or less correspond with the way I would listen to the music, either absorbing an entire album at a time, for example, playing a CD while driving, or, listening to a playlist while sitting at a computer or through the Plex server.  So, having the two different types of ratings is moderately important.

A 5-star rating applied to a song is pretty straightforward.  How much do I like the song?  That’s an important question because the question is not, how good is the song? That open-ended question carries with it every sub-question imaginable, summed up as, how good is it by what metric?  So, every song would start at 3 stars, being neutral, and the likelihood I’d want to hear it again adds or subtracts one or two stars.  But, I don’t plan on rating every one of my songs in any near future, so I don’t feel concerned with this scheme.

Albums, though, would get rated on a totally different scale and I thought hard on this.  The answer lies in the composition of the songs on the album.  My scale is as such:

5 – A top-notch album.  Any song could be played individually in a playlist and the album would be enjoyed played beginning to end.

4 – An excellent album. Most songs could be included in playlists, but the album is stronger than the individual tracks.

3 – A good album.  Some songs could be included in playlists, and the album could be played beginning to end without feeling the need to skip any tracks.

2 – An album with some good songs.  A few songs could be included in playlists and some songs would be skipped when playing as an album.

1 – Few to no good songs.  Very unlikely the album would be played except to hear the good songs (if any).  It might be a curiosity or kept for completist reasons.

Here’s the problem with rating things.  People want to love things more than they really do.  They tend to ignore the flaws and focus on the good.  That’s great in the world of human relations (although it’s just as unsustainable as in any other application).  So, in rating my music, it was important to have a clearly-defined way to avoid excessive 5-star ratings.  Once it was absolutely clear that 5 stars was highly-rarified territory, and that it wasn’t through any fault of the artist, the pressure of saying an album is “the best of the best” subsides.

To explain, consider an album that has some segue between songs, presented as another track.  It’s unlikely you would include the short 30 second clip in a playlist, thus – excluded.  4-star max.  Or you have an album like Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick, which has two 20-some minute tracks.  It’s not likely you want your playlist to be stalled for 20 minutes.  Same for Rush’s 2112.  Alternately, maybe a long song is chopped up into multiple tracks.  The song would make no sense played on shuffle in a playlist.  These examples explain the emphasis on “album” for the 4-star rating.  The album is designed as a linear experience, and there should be no shame that it is capped at 4 stars.

The interesting aspect about that rating system is that mediocre albums can be 5-star.  If there’s an album – I can think of a couple of jazzy instrumental albums – where every song stands on its own and could be played individually, but it’s not an album that particularly excites me.  So all the songs would be rated as 3 stars, but the album itself would be 5 stars.  These would be cases where I would add an entire album to a playlist instead of individual songs.

Along with the stress of wanting to rate albums higher than they belong is the admission that an album is not strong as you want it to be.  Tastes change, so that shouldn’t be an issue, but you know, I used to play that album all the time!  I am curious to see how many low-rated albums I really have.  I would guess it’s probably higher than I would expect, because I have been branching out into lots of different artists simply because it’s so cheap to buy CDs.

But the bottom line is, the baseline rating is 3 stars.  Would I put the CD in the car and listen to it all the way through?  If I would skip tracks, it drops to 2 stars.  I probably wouldn’t even take a 1-star album in the car. *cough* Spin Doctors *cough*

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