There are a lot of records. The number of albums ever made is more than I can count. But how many of those ever see the light of day? How many of those are actually purchased? How many of those will you label as a favourite, something you’ll be playing for years to come? What makes an album a classic, and what makes an album an average collection of tunes?
This question is possibly the most subjective question one can ask about music. What may be a five star record for me, could be a four, or three, or even a one star album for someone else. So why do we even attempt to give a record a numerical rating? Even further, why do we even give reasons for our rating when there are those who may think the opposite? An album I label five stars doesn’t make it a solid fact that it’s an amazing album. There may be a larger chance people will agree, but there will always be someone who thinks differently.
There’s a reason The Violet Burning’s The Story of Our Lives is my favourite album of all time, and most of those reasons come out of personal taste and experience. A five star record often has a mixture of the following factors: Originality, Lyrics, Album Flow, Musicality, Emotional/Spiritual Impact, Replay Value, and Diversity. A five star album doesn’t have to include all of them, but the more factors it holds the more chance it has to remain strong over time. The Story of Our Lives is one of the very few records I’ve heard that I can say holds on to every factor. It’s unlike anything I’ve heard in Christian music, the lyrics continue to touch me and reveal new things each listen, the songs flow with the concept effortlessly, each part has its own distinct sound and feel, and so on.
As I said before, an album doesn’t have to hold every factor to be amazing. The most recent example of this is Into the Sea, by Attalus. It’s not the most diverse record I’ve ever heard, nor is it the most original, and it’s size does hinder replay value, but it does everything else so well. It takes the listener on an unforgettable journey, and it hits me every time. And then there’s Copeland’s Ixora, which is incredibly strong when it comes to musicality, album flow, and emotional impact, but falters on the lyrical side of things. For someone who loves good, soul stirring music more so than challenging lyrics, this would be the first I’d recommend.
And then there’s another factor which comes closely behind replay value: tone. Each record comes boxed in its own tone, it’s own feel, and this can either hinder a record’s replay value, or increase it. An example of the tone holding back its replay value would be Sufjan Stevens Carrie and Lowell. It hits most of the factors, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call it one of my very favourite records, but as it’s so dark, I’ve listened to it only a small handful of times this year. On the opposite end, Toby Mac’s This is Not a Test, bares such an enjoyable, uplifting tone that it’s replay value for me has risen above most albums this year. However, this again all comes down to my personal preferences as some may prefer a darker tone or theme than others.
So is there even such a thing as a five star record? I suppose that’s why we reviewers are here. We’re always listening to new music, some we love, some we don’t; but a review is more than a numerical rating. A review is a guide to an album you’re interested in, not us only. We may not like pop for example, but if what we’re describing attests to your taste and your desires for an album, then we’ve potentially helped you find your own five star record, even though our ratings may say otherwise. It’s one of the reasons we shouldn’t completely run down an album. We may be insulting someone else’s taste.
In the end, there’s an undeniable mystery when it comes to music. A true five star record is something only God knows (it could be something only He holds?). Maybe the mystery is a testament to the power of music itself. God can use anything to speak His glory to the listener.
I believe the band Showbread says it best on their song, “Dear Music,” when talking directly to the music they don’t like. Still we have our common ground which can never be annulled, to sing of the one who made us both, for He is wonderful.