Ally-Jane Grossan, co-editor of How to Write About Music, shares advice on the art of writing an album review – including tips from the experts and an exercise to help you construct your own.
Music writing is something that cannot be taught, so in a sense editing a book called How to Write About Music is a pointless exercise. Still, while you can’t instruct someone how to write beautiful prose about this melodious art form, you can inspire, shape and structure lessons to prompt the reader to write something about music.
As Rick Moody states in his timely foreword to the book: “Among the many differences between the music writing of the seventies, let’s say, and the music writing of our own time, is the lack of a prevailing format.” He’s right! In the twenty-first century there are hundreds of magazines, thousands of music blogs, YouTube channels, newspapers, etc. all clamoring for well-written reviews, think pieces and musings on popular and not-so-popular music. There are no longer strict word count restrictions when writing for a website; the possibilities are endless and that’s daunting. Yet while so much has changed in the way we listen to and consume music, the basic concept of an album remains the same. Thus, the exercise of describing and critiquing an album is still a very valid and sought after form of music writing.
It’s not an easy task, reviewing an album. The task at hand is to provide others with an informed impression of a piece of art. Marc Woodworth, in his introduction to the chapter on the album, reminds a writer of album reviews to write on their own terms. “The critic both uses and is sometimes blind to his prejudices and ideals – the more you know about yourself and how you process what you’re writing and given that self-knowledge, the better … Don’t write as someone who doesn’t care about what you care about.”
Here’s what the experts have to say about writing an album review:
Try listening ‘in the wild’
“I listen to music as I would ‘in the wild’ before I approach it critically. That means listening to it regularly on headphones to and from work usually.” Matt LeMay, senior contributor, Pitchfork
“One thing I try to do consistently is listen to an album I’m reviewing in a variety of contexts. A lot of people might think of a music critic pensively listening to a record alone in a silent room and through huge, state-of- the-art headphones . . . and true, sometimes I do that. But that’s not the only way people listen to music, and I try to remember that when I’m writing about a record. I want to take it out for a test-drive— to try it out in real life. I try to listen on speakers and on headphones. I try to give it a few spins (pen and notebook in hand, usually) focused specifically on the music and when I’m playing it in the background of doing something else. Sometimes I’ll listen alone and sometimes with other people. Music filters into our lives in a variety of ways, and I try to keep this in mind when I’m evaluating it.” - Lindsay Zoladz, Associate Editor, Pitchfork
Listen often – but don’t overthink!
“A lot of people ask me how many times I try and listen to an album before reviewing it, and the truth is that there is no magic number. It really depends on how far in advance I’m given a record; sometimes I’ll live with a promo copy of a record for months before I have to sit down and organize my thoughts about it, and in other cases—especially with bigger, major label releases—I’ll hear an album for the first time a day or two before I have to file the review. I prefer situations between these two extremes. If you have too long to marinate on an album, you can sometimes overthink your opinion and second-guess your gut reaction—specifically if you see a lot of people arguing about it a lot on the internet. But of course, you don’t want to feel rushed, either. A lot of my favorite albums are “growers” that didn’t immediately grab me on first listen, but I came to appreciate them over many consecutive listens, and I try to consider this when listening and writing.” - Lindsay Zoladz, Associate Editor, Pitchfork
Do your research
“In general, it’s crucial for me to immerse myself in the music first, then, depending on the artist, do as much research as possible by reading interviews and articles. This research is not only for fact-gathering purposes, but also to understand how meaning is created and reinforced throughout the media, how publicity might have affected how people are writing about the music in question, and whether or not any of it aligns with my personal beliefs.” – Martin Lin, Editor-in-Chief, Tiny Mix Tapes
Try constructing a narrative
“I’ve realized that I try to make everything I write, even reviews, into some sort of narrative—there has to be a story or I don’t know what to say. And then I just smooth it all together into a legible story.” - Michael Azerrad, author, journalist and Editor-in-Chief of the Talkhouse
Embrace the editing process
“I wrote a 1500-word review about the Slint boxset (multiple LPs, book, and DVD) in the Wire magazine. I listened to the music, watched the film several times, and started by simply thinking about exactly what struck me as most significant about the band, their reputation, their album Spiderland and the historical gap between the time of its creation and the present. Once I had a lot of sentences more or less worked out in my head, I wrote a preliminary draft. Then I revised it many times, adding and expanding and cutting back and reshuffling certain key points. Then I sent it to the editor and we had several back-and- forth edits and changes. He wanted me to add some things and I thought about how I would do that effectively. It’s not just about “your voice” or “inspiration”—to write is to work with editors, to revise, and to sometimes change your mind and your emphasis.” - Drew Daniel, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Johns Hopkins University
Beware the pressures of reviewing in a digital era…
“With album reviews, there was a time when writers got advance albums two or three months before the general public ever heard it. So you could spend some time crafting a meaningful argument that was really unaffected by the fan reception of a record, or by the promotional campaign of that record. That landscape has changed so dramatically that writers don’t have much of an advantage over anyone else. Everyone has an opinion the moment an album is leaked or released, and editors are going to (understandably) demand that their writers join that chorus as quickly as possible so their outlet’s coverage doesn’t feel stale. When you’re under that kind of deadline pressure, as a writer, I think it’s much harder to write something personal and meaningful and structurally sound, so readers often get something half-cooked or something that pretty much repeats the safe status quo opinion that’s floating around out there.” - Casey Jarman, Managing Editor, the Believer
Try this exercise to begin to formulate your review:
Album reviews should not be limited to music you know you love or know you hate. Challenge yourself to explore the unknown. Write a review of an album that you know absolutely nothing about by an artist you have never even heard of, music that has never crossed your path before. Try looking to genres you are unfamiliar with.
Write an album review of approximately 1000 words that describes your impressions of an album by an artist you are completely unfamiliar with. How to find an album you’ve never heard of? Go outside. Go to a record store, library, Goodwill or garage sale and find something that catches your eye. Maybe it’s the album artwork that draws you in. Maybe it’s a band name. If exploring in the real world isn’t an option, dig on iTunes, Spotify, Pandora or other sites.
First listen to the record from start to finish at least twice and begin to write down your first impressions. How does it feel? What does it sound like? What does it remind you of? Then write up your notes into a short paragraph that just describes the music.
Okay, now you can Google. Use the incredibly vast resources available to you to find out about this artist. Where are they located? What’s their story?
Now revisit the paragraph you wrote about the music and combine what you’ve learned about the artist with your first impressions.
Consider these questions while writing:
1. How will you succinctly introduce this record?
2. How does this record fit within its genre or, more broadly, pop or rock history?
3. Where would you want to listen to this record?
About How to Write About Music
If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, you'd do best to hone your chops and avoid clichés (like the one that begins this sentence) by learning from the prime movers. How to Write About Music offers a selection of the best writers on what is perhaps our most universally beloved art form. Selections from the critically-acclaimed 33 1/3 series appear alongside new interviews and insights from authors like Lester Bangs, Chuck Klosterman, Owen Pallet, Ann Powers and Alex Ross.
How to Write About Music includes primary sources of inspiration from a variety of go-to genres such as the album review, the personal essay, the blog post and the interview along with tips, writing prompts and advice from the writers themselves.
Music critics of the past and the present offer inspiration through their work on artists like Black Sabbath, Daft Punk, J Dilla, Joy Division, Kanye West, Neutral Milk Hotel, Radiohead, Pussy Riot and countless others. How to Write About Music is an invaluable text for all those who have ever dreamed of getting their music writing published and a pleasure for everyone who loves to read about music.