Album rating theory

22nd Sep 2004

At what stage do you stop listening to an album? Why do you stop? Boredom? Consciously not overplaying it just to savour it that little bit more? It's crap? Not enough time in the day to listen to all the music you want to? Short attention span?

Here's a formula you can think about when you listen to a new album; it's not rigid, accurate, strict or even appropriate for all albums but, from my experience, it can be a good indicator of an album's longevity. Here's the theory: if you're still playing an album after 25 listens, it's probably very good. Sounds obvious, eh?

Let's break it down into four stages... the likely merits of an album according to the number of listens:

  1. 0 - 5 listens
    To be honest if you're giving up in the first five listens you've probably not given the album enough opportunity to develop and grow on you... unless of course it's actually just crap
  2. 5 - 15 listens
    This stage can make or break an album. It has decent, melodious content but you've stopped listening to it because the songs were too catchy and boredom's now setting in
  3. 15 - 25 listens
    You like this album a lot, you haven't grown too wearisome, you recognise good songwriting and/or musicianship but perhaps it's time to give it a rest. You'll dig it out again in the future and see if you still rate it then.
  4. more than 25 listens
    Wow, more than 25 listens and you still can't get enough? It's truly a very good album. The song structures, time signatures and key changes are crafted with care and attention to detail. Your familiartity with the album means you can list most the tracks by heart as well as sing along to most of the lyrics. The number of listens is proportional to the level of appreciation.

Album rating theory

So, somewhere between 5 and 15 listens is the critical period when an album can either blossom and mature like an early springtime flower or it begins to turn brown and wither like autumn leaves.

With this notion in mind, ask yourself this: how often have you read an old review of an album that you absolutely LOVE, and the reviewer gave it something like 5 or 6 out of 10. Do you think: WTF? Well, I think, HMTDTFRLTTA? (How Many Times Did That Fucking Reviewer Listen To That Album?) I'm guessing but I reckon most album reviewers don't listen to the music enough before reviewing it. Yes yes, I know, brush... tarring but I'm probably not too far off the mark!

So, for the last fortnight I've been listening intently to Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned by The Prodigy from a slightly different standpoint than usual. I've put my theory to the test to see how it stands up. Trying to be objective and subjective at the same time... it ain't easy!

The Prodigy - Always Outnumbered Never Outgunned0 - 5 listens
With the first 5 listens came these first few thoughts: it's a very heavy, raw sound with ferocious, unrelenting beats. It's not ideal listening when concentration is required. Standout tracks in the beginning were (understandably) the poppier moments like future single Hotride, Spitfire and current single Girls. It reminds me of other hybrid (a combination of guitars and electro in this case) acts like The Faint, Two Lone Swordsmen, DJ Hell, Bloc Party amongst others. Closing track Shoot Down is crap; Liam Gallagher's a twat!

5 - 15 listens
At 15 listens I'm still very much interested. The poppy tracks haven't worn thin, and interestingly a handful of other tracks have come to the fore, notably Action Radar, Spitfire and The Way It. And hands up, I admit it, the closing track Shoot Down isn't quite as annoying as at first... yes it's a grower!

15 - 25 listens
With some appropriate listening under my belt I fell suitably qualified to share with you details about what I like. Spitfire has a feature I like a lot; when a sound or beat or guitar or even silence is used in place of a word or refrain from a chorus. An example of this can be heard when [the singer] is repeating the line If I was in World War Two they'd call me spitfire and, at 4.20, the word spit is replaced with a spitting/firing noise... great!

Action Radar balances a delicious eighties synth riff reminiscent of prime Human League with a very contemporary sounding vocal (contribution from Paul Jackson from unsigned Essex punk band Dirt Candy) a bit like Jack White from The White Stripes.

Here's another point worth mentioning. I particularly like Action Radar and have repeatedly listened to it outwith my regulated listens... perhaps 50 or 60 times so far. With each listen I became very familiar with the first few bars of the following track Medusa's Path; and often I just listened to the whole of that song too. Because of this the stature of Medusa's Path was elevated. Of course placed in any other position in the running order Medusa's Path could have been just another track on the album.

Get Up Get Off could have been lifted from their previous album, The Fat of the Land. Incidentally, there's not much I don't like at this stage.

more than 25 listens
The all-important 25-listens stage came and went without any effort. It's a defintely a very good album in my book, maybe not a classic yet... give it some time to season.

Can I name the tracks by heart? I'll try: Spitfire, Girls, Hotride, Action Radar, Medusas Path, The Way it, Shoot Down... eh no, I can't. I've basically named the ones I talked about... hmmm!

Ok, how did this experiment go? Well, luckily for me I liked the album, because this report could have failed miserably otherwise. My recommendations: always try to give an album at least five listens... what happens after that is down to the quality of the music. Don't review an album unless you have actually listened to it properly: between 15 and 25 listens should be enough for a balanced opionion. Further, the best rating an album should possibly receive after 25 listens is "very good". To suggest it's a classic within the first two weeks of it's release is preposterous. If the album still sounds good in six weeks or six months time that's great! Only after years can it be described more generously than "very good"; it's got to stand the test of time.

NB. One factor I didn't develop was the time scale involved with your listens: e.g. 25 listens in a week compared with 25 listens in 3 months. I suggest you'll get a better overview if the timescale is shorter, like two to three weeks.