Grade Inflation, Record Collecting, and “Classic Albums”
In the first footnote of Andrew Nosnitsky’s “Classic Material” over on Pitchfork, he rightly counters the commonly advanced “Will you be listening to this years from now?” argument regarding new releases, but with the wrong response: “Why should that matter if we are listening to it today and loving it?” he asks. Fair enough—no need to decry albums we might not necessarily enjoy in the future for superficial shortcomings we can lump under “guilty pleasures.” But there is a reason it matters, though not because an album’s status (in this case, Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city) as classic or not is important. If anyone in the critical game is at all serious about attempting to pen a worthy comment on an album the artist sure as hell believes deserves time and attention, he’d better discern whether what he’s writing about is a piece of pap no more durable than a stick of gum or something that suggests it can provide prolonged stimulation regardless of its potential popularity, now or in the future.
Part of me wants to say it’s the responsibility of music publications to steer music fans in the direction of worthy consumption. A quick glance at Spin, Pitchfork, or Rolling Stone ratings and their associated meanings would leave you with a bevy of music you should buy or at least momentarily entertain. So I’ll bite the bullet and imagine there really are people who find Tame Impala or Real Estate more than a fleeting interest of lo-fi aesthetes. Are their albums really worth purchasing? Should they be recommended to add to any self-respecting popular music aficionado’s library? But the other part of me recognizes that the titans of popular music criticism do themselves no favors by warding off unfamiliar genres, though that’s precisely what they wind up doing: regardless of how diverse Rolling Stone or Pitchfork gets in what they review, often enough their remarks play it on the safe side when it comes to music outside their established canon, dropping three-and-a-half-stars or a comfortable 7.3, grades high enough that no one can accuse them of being blindsided, not so high that they can be accused of overrating overhyped trivialities.
Though I suppose that’s in part the purpose of best-of lists that appear in droves at the end of each year*; to carve out a canon the publication endorses and recommend serious listening time and/or purchasing of the albums mentioned. Only problem is that the grades handed out over the previous months are often in contradiction with what the magazine crowns the best of that year. Rolling Stone awarded Adele’s 21 their number one slot in 2011, a three-and-a-half star album that surpassed the likes of The Low Anthem (as it should) which had been awarded four stars (though it shouldn’t have) and didn’t even wind up making the list. Spin gave a nine out of ten to Alela Diane and featured her in their mid-year recap, but come December she was nowhere to be found. The Guardian is even harder to follow but hints at thinking of itself as more democratic; reviewers are able to write as individuals and given (I assume) free range over how they dole out grades. It’s nice so long as you find a writer whose style you can hop to, though it’s not without its downsides. Multiple writers may cover the same album with wildly varying grades. This kind of cornucopia seems nice at face value but can become frustrating; personally, I like a little bit of consistency in my life, and by the time their year-end comes around, it’s often surprising given the near-impossibility of inferring a consensus by reading their reviews regularly.
Okay, fine, ignore my concerns that it’s too difficult for the average person to maintain a respectable collection. But I don’t think my charge of grade inflation is so easily sidestepped. Spin is especially guilty of handing out innumerable 7’s with accompanying reviews just as long word count wise as 8’s that might find their way onto their year-end roundup. If you’re a typical reader, wouldn’t you, as the rational agent you are, consider said albums to be near equal in quality? So then. Would you really put Frank Ocean’s Nostalgia, Ultra in the same league as Africa Hitech’s 93 Million Miles? Of course you wouldn’t. Hence why I feel like Nosnitsky’s appraisal of the situation is indicative of the ailment pervading modern criticism—meticulous and overgenerous in a way where distinguishing what’s worth it and what isn’t is near impossible given the overwhelming number of releases every year and each publication’s desire to not be on the wrong side of history, and less concerned with what gets them grooving even if it’s totally unhip. “Will good kid, m.A.A.d city be remembered?” ask editors across the country. “Everyone else acts so,” they consider, “and we’d better do the same.”
*I didn’t think anyone would be posting them pre-December, but I was wrong: The Guardian has already listed thirty of their top forty albums.