Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Take Five: Unnaturally Glowing All-Music Guide Reviews

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 29, 2008

“You know when critics say, ‘Oh, I was so gone last night, I shoudln’t have written that review”? WE CAN BE THAT MISTAKE!!

As trivia geeks, nothing makes us giddier than statistical aberrations. Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel” becoming a top five hit in the year 2006. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ presumably being the only plotless, borderline sadomasochistic foreign language film to ever gross in the hundreds of millions. The year Adrian Beltre led the National League in home runs. So inexplicable were these feats that history couldn’t possibly allow them to happen again, and sure enough, they didn’t. (Well, at least not until Buckcherry’s “Sorry,” anyway). But this fact just adds to their allure, wondering what freak occurences made them possible at any point–history seems to try so hard to be linear, that any sort of spike is bound to be worth investigating.

No pop culture institution better exemplifies this principle than the All-Music Guide. For most music fans, the site is a given–before Wikipedia, and sometimes even still after, it was the go-to site for anything you wanted to know about music. Discography info, years, backstories, chart info, similar artists–the AMG had it all. It also had reviews and reccomendations, which I would pore over for hours on end, since back in the day–and I’m sure I’m not the only one here–it was the site I most trusted to give me an unbiased, if not always particularly articulate, picture of music history. Their ratings and prose didn’t always match my opinions, but it was usually a pretty safe bet that what AMG said was at least indicative of the general critical thinking about a certain album, and if they gave a particularly positive review about an album, it was almost always because that album had withstood the test of time in the eyes of most, and was probably at least worth knowing about.

But what the AMG didn’t–couldn’t, really–account for was upcoming reviews. When it originated in book form (I have a copy from about ’95 at home somewhere) it was simply a historical account, but once it went online, it was afforded the possibility (and thus, the obligation) to review music as it came out again. Most of the time, their reviews of new albums weren’t much different than those of the old–safe toeing of the general critical line–and a couple times, they even looked brilliant in their analysis, as when they gave Daft Punk’s Discovery a 4 1/2 star rating a good year or two before American critics started coming around to it. But, since they’re not always able to wait long enough before publishing their reviews to get a reliable critical consensus, every once in a while, maybe once a year if we’re lucky, they make an unequivocally salivating reccomendation that comes across as being downright insane.

Now, I haven’t actually heard any of these five albums, so in the interest of being fair, I’m willing to acknowledge the legitimate possibility that these albums are, in fact, as amazing as the AMG writers seem to think. But I believe they represent enough of a break from the standard thinking about their respective albums (assuming there even is a standard thinking about a couple of these) that they make for shocking, absorbing, and occasionally hilarious reading.

  • Daphne and Celeste – We Didn’t Say That! This one did get a bit of buzz from the UK press, if memory serves, so it’s not quite the 4.5 star rating that’s so surprising here. Rather, it’s just how unbelievably mind-blown AMG writer Dean Carlston seems to find the album conceptually. Now, I’ve actually heard a couple songs from this–“Ooh, Stick You” and “U.G.L.Y.,” and yeah, they’re a little weird, but “The most exquisite, evil, cloying, disturbing, fun, shameless, astonishing, perplexing, stupid, and “what the f*ck?” album you’ll hear in years” seems a little far-fetched to me. Whenever a review starts “Pop, there goes post-modernism,” you should know what kind of ride you’re in for, but this just isn’t the sort of thing you see very often on a normally very level-headed, even-keeled All-Music Guide.
  • David Cross – Shut Up You Fucking Baby The five-star album isn’t an uncommon sight in general on the AMG, but really only retroactively. For 99.9% of modern acts, 4.5 stars is the ceiling for new albums–even acts like Radiohead and Bjork started out with their most acclaimed albums falling a half-star short of classic status, before a few years later, after history had backed up the albums’ reps, that last half-star was added. I’ve only seen the 5 star rating off the bat twice–one for Aphex Twin’s remix collection 26 Mixes for Cash and one for this David Cross comedy album. Now, this may or may not be “one of the greatest albums in recorded comedy history,” but should such status really get it prioritized over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Funeral, Stankonia and any other number of other universally-beloved future classics? I guess those albums should’ve had more songs called “Shaving the Pope’s Pussy” and “Abortion Doctors from Hell”.
  • Joey McIntyre – One Too Many: Live from New York Yes, that Joey McIntyre. Frankly, I’m shocked that anyone at the AMG is on top of the country’s new releases enough to even recognize the existence of this album, much less enough to review it, much less enough to give it four and a half and call it “stunning, bewildering, hilarious, disarming, endearing, and utterly unforgettable.” I will say that of any of these five albums, this review is the one that most makes me want to actually listen to the album, since I just can’t imagine what a vital live album by an ex-NKOTBer (or his supposedly rabid fanbase) could possibly sound like. I wonder how pissed Jordan Knight is that his The Fix didn’t exactly get similar treatment.
  • Avril Lavigne – The Best Damn Thing This one isn’t nearly as ridiculous as the others, but it did the most to unwarrantedly raise my expectations for an album. After “Girlfriend” rocked my world and the AMG gave it this extremely impressed rave, implying the step above her previous LPs that I’d hoped for. Unfortunately, no one else really agreed, and the album ended up with a mediocre MetaCritic score of 66, actually two lower than that of Let Go. Still, it was worth it for the line “If you recognize the chorus of “Girlfriend” as a total lift from The Rubinoos’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” you’re an old guy, even if you’re 20.” Fair enough.
  • Counting Crows – Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings An IITS reader once said of my tribute to Vertical Horizon’s “Everything You Want,” “No offense, but it’s really funny if you read it as satire.” I’m not going to say anything more about Thom Jurek’s review of Counting Crows’ new release, except that it was (as you can probably guess) the inspiration for this piece, and that if you’ve read this far in the article, you really have to read this review. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, or at least a once-in-every-year-or-so, experience.

6 Responses to “Take Five: Unnaturally Glowing All-Music Guide Reviews”

  1. Ken said

    What I dislike most about the AMG is that they’ll often give an album a positive review and then give it a low star rating or vise-versa.

    I much prefer independent review websites such as George Starostin’s (http://starling.rinet.ru/music/index.htm) or Mark Prindle’s (http://www.markprindle.com) or Scott Flomans (http://www.geocities.com/sfloman/homepage.html). these pages can often be very biased but at least they admit it.

  2. danfrohlich said

    I think the main problem with AMG is that they have reviewers separated by genre (or at least last I heard they did). So when albums do a bit of cross breading it’s like they don’t know what to make of it. I use AMG merely as a historical reference and to compare albums of the same artist these days.

  3. Al1 said

    AMG’s ratings always seemed to represent a composite of the consensus, kind of like metacritc, but over the last few years, AMG seemingly has decided to let reviewers have their own voice. Head honco Stephen Thomas Erlewine has wandered off the reservation quite a bit, as seen by his review of Lavigne and his fellating reviews of all things solo Malkmus. I kind of wish they went back to representing the general reception to an album and concentrating on factual backgrounds.

  4. Mitchell Stirling said

    The Cross and the D&C are both good in different ways. I still haven’t seen any music albums from 2000- bar Rooty and The Blueprint on 5* on AMG.

  5. Josh Love said

    companion “unnaturally harsh all-music guide reviews” to follow? Operation Doomsday is perhaps the benchmark, but my own personal bugaboo will always be the one-star dump STE dropped on Keith Anderson’s excellent solo debut (a top 5 record for me that year).

  6. […] (the internet’s premier musical encyclopedia) that significantly deviate from the norm is well-documented on this blog. The AMG tries so very, very hard to toe the critical line on all counts (which, to be fair, is […]

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