Why I Review “Bad” Music and Why I Use Grades

f letter grade

There are four things we need to address before going forth with this post:

  • I’m going to show you why I review “bad” music, but that is NOT the same thing as telling you why I write negative reviews. I will explain the difference in this post.
  • Overall I only mean this to be a statement I want to set forth for the upcoming year, so it’s not a response to anything. It’s just a personal post I’m writing for me.
  • I am in no way, shape, or form trying to tell other bloggers the “correct” way to blog, mostly because that’s impossible to do. Again, this is just my reasoning for why I do what I do and should be seen as nothing except for that.
  • To give the short version of an answer, one person’s trash could potentially be another person’s treasure.

Anyway…

As the new year shines upon us, I realize that I’m hungry. I’m hungry to go through another year of listening to music and hoping I find something to love. I’m hungry to discover even more new artists along the way. I’m hungry to see how 2018 is for music. I’m just hungry to write most of all. I preferred 2015 and 2016 when it comes to a “year of music”, but 2017 had its gems as well. Many other writers and I had a lot in common including our picks for acts such as Sunny Sweeney, Turnpike Troubadours, Jason Isbell, Dori Freeman, as well as others. There were also many others that personally connected with me way more than others such as The Yawpers, The Steel Woods, Charlie Worsham, The Whiskey Gentry and again, many more. I also covered a lot of bad music though, something most bloggers tend to avoid. As the year rolls around, I want to address two questions: Why would I ever want to waste time listening to and writing about bad music when there’s better options out there? Also, why do I use grades to determine how much I like something? Many people don’t use them and see them as demeaning. Others think they’re pointless.

Let’s start out by answering the “grade” question then. I use (and have always used) the common ten-point system. It’s the one that gives me the most flexibility and the one I’m most comfortable with. For me, 10’s are obviously masterpieces to me (or at the very least, pretty damn close) while 9’s and 8’s are also symbolic of music I really love. Even music that earns a grade of 7 is symbolic of something I really like. 6’s are by no means something I love or will probably ever go back to, but they still have more good moments than bad ones, even if it’s a tight race. 5’s are what you expect – music that’s just stuck in the middle and won’t inspire you either way. In many ways this is the worst grade to have. 4’s and 3’s are obviously symbolic of music I don’t like, and 2’s are symbols of disasters. I’ve only ever given two 1’s, and they belong to Old Dominion and Dustin Lynch, while the only 0 belongs to Walker Hayes thus far.

Now that I’m done nerding out, does any of what I said matter? Heck no. Grades really are meaningless at the end of the day. I myself have gone back and changed grades I don’t know how many times at this point (a bad practice by the way). So why do I use them? Honestly I still like them as a reader. If any website or blog uses a grading scale, chances are I’m going to immediately skip down to see what grade the music received. Of course, it’s always important to READ AS WELL. It’s just the spoiler loving geek in me I guess. Grades are pretty much the cliff notes version of reviews, and I always liked seeing what something got before I read about it. So naturally when I started my own blog, I included grades to appease the spoiler loving geek in me. I didn’t include them because I thought the best outlets had them. Many outlets I enjoy reading actually don’t use any kind of system.

Again though, they’re not the end all be all when it comes to reviews or spotlights or whatever it is you want to call them. Still, like any rational being, I’m sure we all only check out the music that either a.) gets a really high grade from someone or (for those who don’t use grades) b.) obviously connected with someone in a way that’s different from their other writing pieces. Is this the only music worth checking out though? After all, while good and bad music surely exists, taste is highly subjective (even though it doesn’t feel that way in Country but that’s an argument for another day). Don’t look at a number to help you decide what you should be listening to. Don’t think option “b” is off the hook either. Instead of listening to something based on how much it connected to someone, read the words used to describe the project and see if it might appeal to you. I like darker, sadder material, so even though someone may not have liked that particular music in question in a review of his/hers, I’m likely going to check it out for myself anyway.

For my reviews I also choose to post Youtube clips of the songs on the album in question if I can find them. I don’t do this just “because” though. My hope is always that you all will listen to a track or two and decide for yourself what you think of it. Don’t give me that crap about needing to listen to an album in order in its entirety either. One song won’t kill you. If it appeals to you, who cares what the writer thought? Check it out for yourself and form your own opinion. Don’t be a strict follower.

To recap, I’m open to admitting that grades are useless and pointless even if I have my reasoning for which grade I dole out for every project I cover. They shouldn’t determine what you listen to. Just because you hear something is a masterpiece or just really dang great doesn’t mean you have to check it out and like it. By that same notion, just because something sucks doesn’t mean you have to feel the same way or are free to ignore it. Read the actual descriptors being used and decide for yourself how you feel about something or whether or not you want to check it out further (and by that I mean check out the album or better yet, check out the artist’s discography).

This brings us to the second part of my piece, and that’s discussing why I review “bad” music. I think it would be easier to break this down into smaller sub-parts, so the argument will proceed like that. First of all, we need to establish a very important point.


Me reviewing bad music is not the same as me writing a negative review

The latter is a cause of the former most of the time, but they are not the same thing. I don’t set out to be negative when I write about something. Like most people, I want to find good music and I want to focus mostly on the good when I write about something. Of course, before moving on we have to find out what “bad” music even is. For many people the negative stereotype for bad music is that it’s essentially all mainstream music. I’ve gone on and on about this issue, so I won’t comment any further. I will just say it’s a stance I don’t subscribe to in any way. When I decide to listen to a new Luke Bryan or Thomas Rhett (or whoever you want to insert here) album, sure, I always have a strong feeling it will suck, but for the most part I hope to be pleasantly surprised. I subscribe to the philosophy that you won’t know until you try. I’m not too proud to admit that Thomas Rhett’s latest album was shockingly decent, and yes, I still go back to songs like “Marry Me”, “Sixteen”, and “Drink A Little Beer”. As for Luke Bryan, his album was more or less what I expected. However, even that had a few good cuts with “Land Of A Million Songs” and “Most People Are Good”.

On the other hand, you also have albums and songs that end up being major disappointments. For me, those songs and albums came from the likes of Tony Jackson, Jon Wolfe, The Cadillac Three, Blake Shelton, Chris Young, and Will Hoge just to name a few. At that point, it is what it is. For me personally, because I invested time listening to those albums, I’m going to write about them because I’ve obviously got a strong opinion about them now. 99% of the time though, I don’t know if something will be good or bad before I hear it. I can only make my assumptions, do my best to push my biases aside and charge forth hoping to like it. To listen to something hoping to hate it is hate listening, but that’s not the same as actively covering what you perceive to be a bad album.

Of course, when I do stumble upon music I don’t like, as I said before, a negative review naturally ensues. I know I’m not perfect at this, and I’m not trying to say this happens with everything I write (because I know it doesn’t), but I try to be as balanced as I can with everything I write unless it leans heavily towards one extreme (loving or hating it). I like to explore albums in depth and really pull out every little detail (to help others see if they might like it as expressed before). With the exception of say, Walker Hayes and Dustin Lynch (and those were poorly written reviews, I apologize), I don’t like being negative for the entire duration of the piece – hopefully nobody does. I always aspire to be balanced. I’m not looking for laughs; I’m looking to be fair. If I like something you’ll know for sure that I like it.  On that note…


There’s no passion that comes with only writing about good music for me + Writing about bad music helps me to understand why I like what I like

In approximately June or July of 2016, I published a piece where I essentially was sick of covering bad music and promised to only cover the good stuff. Ironic, right? Granted, while I don’t know where that piece is now, I do think there is something to be said for only covering good music. Many outlets I follow focus on good music, and I’m thankful for that. I need people to point me towards what’s good since I’m devoting my time to this outlet. However, after trying it out for myself, I lost the passion for writing instantly.

Sure, I was writing about good music, but it felt like everything I was writing eventually became the same post. The only differences I noticed were the albums in question I was talking about. It got boring very quickly, and I wasn’t writing nearly as much as I wanted to. I’ve always got to write something, folks. It’s a disease I’m happy to have. Therefore, that eventually meant going back to covering both good and bad music. For me, listening to both helps me to figure out why I do like what I like. I mean, if everything I hear is good, eventually nothing actually is good. However, if I have other music to compare it to and find something truly great after a long dry spell, that helps me to love what I’m hearing even more, and surely that can be counted as a net positive, right? At the time I reviewed the latest album from The Whiskey Gentry (which came out in March even though I didn’t hear about it then) in September, I hadn’t found something really great since Tyler Childers’ album (which I still don’t love as much as everyone else does) or The Yawpers’ album even though that’s not Country. Before that, yikes, we’d have to go back to June with Jason Isbell! That’s a mighty long time. Upon first listen I loved it even more because it had been so long since I heard something great. Me hearing a lot of decent to good albums helped prep me for what hearing a truly great album is like. I think that’s also reflected in my writing too. I’m more excited to write when I find something truly great that stands out, and hopefully that’s apparent to you all. If not, I definitely need to do a better job.

Beyond all of that, for me, the fact of the matter is…


How many great albums do we get each year anyway?

Speaking as a (primarily) Country blogger, I’m talking about a genre that traditionally isn’t known as an “album” genre. It arguably wasn’t made that way until the Outlaw movement when you had artists such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings pumping out creative work after creative work. Therefore, we’re essentially in a golden age of music, folks. We have access to more than ever before, and each year we do seem to receive a large number of quality projects. When you have that unlimited access though, you have to ask yourself, how many great albums do we actually get each year? I’m not talking about albums you like or even really like. I’m not talking about albums you thought were pleasant but wouldn’t really return to. I’m talking about truly great albums that made your day, week, year, or life better. I’m talking about albums that moved you and truly brought pure utter unexplainable joy to you. For me, I received nineteen albums in that vein. If you’re curious about them, they’re #1-19 on my year end list. Now, some may find that number too low. Others may find it too high. For me it’s usually the amount I get each year. Still, as someone who always has to write about something, if I only wrote about nineteen albums this year I’d go crazy. The reviews probably wouldn’t be as passionate for me and I probably wouldn’t love them as much as a result.

On a more important note, what constitutes as “great” for me or you will surely not always be what constitutes as great for others. Of those nineteen artists and albums mentioned, Zephaniah OHora, Tyler Childers, Margo Price, and many others were not among them. They are popular names though who have made many other year end lists and have released albums that will go down as “great” for many. Like I said in another piece of mine, we’re going to discover more and more new artists every year, meaning that our tastes will (hopefully) become more diverse and individualistic as we decide what for us is great or not. If I only reviewed what I personally liked, I doubt as many people would visit the site because they’d see names like Aaron Watson next to Yelawolf and think I was off my rocker. If I can lecture for just one moment here, I will say that only liking what everyone likes and disliking what everyone else dislikes doesn’t make you a great writer or listener – it makes you someone who’s content with following the crowd instead of leading by throwing out your own opinion for everyone to see. It may bring you “likes” and followers, but in the long run nobody will care. Yes, I’m speaking from experience here. My point is, even though I consider myself to be a harsh critic, that doesn’t mean I want everyone to think the same way I do. I don’t think we got as many great albums this year as we usually do, but maybe you did. Maybe you’d be more open to something I cover on the site that I didn’t care for as much. Whatever you do, just be an actual music listener – not a follower.


Despite everything I said though, discovering good music and cool new bands should always be the focus of what a writer/blogger does.

Sadly enough outside of my “best albums of 2017” post, most of my “popular” posts come when I’m talking about an artist many perceive to be as “bad”. I wish we didn’t live in that universe. I wish we all had the time to discover an endless treasure trove of good music and slice out the bad, but we don’t. I wish more people paid attention to the Whiskey Gentrys, Midnight Norths, Infamous Stringdusters, Whiskey Shivers, and Rod Melancons of the world, but we’re not at that point yet. There is hope though. It’s no wonder that I started reading Country music blogs during the peak of the bro-country era. I was initially looking for something to echo my thoughts, but eventually I found a community of new friends who showed me loads of cool new music, and I know that’s a common story for many fans. Perhaps one of my “negative” reviews of a “bad” album will draw a new follower who then in turn checks out some of this music. Even checking out one song would make me feel better about what I do here. Regardless, I’ll paraphrase a quote I read on Twitter the other day to drive my point home. Music criticism is largely a search for joy, so if you lack the capacity to feel joy or at least want to feel joy, then don’t be a critic – not even for fun.


At the end of the day though…

Again, I’m only trying to describe why I do what I do. I get that most people don’t have time to endlessly sort through new music. They don’t want to waste time with a bad album, whereas I like to go all in with a project and stay with it until that final review. I get that many people are content not writing a whole lot. Furthermore, I also get that those same people are happy about writing only about what connects with them. I hope this isn’t seen as me saying how writers and bloggers “should” operate or that I think my way is superior to anyone else’s (it’s not). As we arrive at a new year though, I wanted to have somewhat of a mission statement before truly getting into this year. I plan to review even more music than I did in 2017 if I can afford it, and not everything I talk about will be utterly amazing. Out of 115 albums I covered last year, nineteen were considered great in my eyes. While at least over half of that album pile consisted of stuff I did like and considered good, don’t let that ultimate letter grade determine whether or not you listen to it. Decide for yourself. Be your own self and think for yourself. Only then can we continue to let our wonderful music culture thrive.

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