In my years as features editor of Melody Maker, and then deputy editor of Uncut, more steady even than the free CDs, gratis gig tickets and offers of trips abroad was the stream of work experience, erm, what do you call them – kids? Students?
Every week, there’d be another one of these exotically coiffured creatures in the office, and they’d all want to know the same thing: how do I get a review published in your magazine? And so I’d give them a record to review, to see what they’d been learning on their journalism or media studies course, and each time they handed me back their effort I’d be forced to switch into ‘earnest teacher mode”, with the red pen and the tutting and the air of weary concern.
So how do you write a good album review? Well, of course, first you have to decide what constitutes a good album review. Historically, there have been several types: There’s the opinionated approach of budding Julie Burchills, the mix of facts and attitude beloved of the Nick Kent school of reviewing, the impressionistic approach of a Paul Morley, the close reading of the text employed by American rock writers such as Greil Marcus, and the forensic scrutiny of the actual music by the likes of Simon Reynolds. These days, such techniques would be considered too extreme for most mainstream publications. Instead, I would encourage my, erm, protÃ©gÃ©s to tell the reader what the record sounded like and put it into context as simply as possible. There are hard and fast rules, as well as some definite no-no’s, such as ‘never use the first person singular”, because that kind of self-referential music journalism went out with the ark.
Mainly I would emphasise the importance of information and context, which are inextricably linked. A cold list of details is no use – what you want is the well-deployed fact that resonates and offers an insight into what the artist does. Who are this band? Are they new or old? Is this their debut, second or third album? Where are they from and how does that impact on their sound?
Since there’s nothing worse than failed attempts at pretentious rock journalism, your best bet is to provide a service to the reader and offer reviews that answer the question: Should I buy this record? This is harder to do than it sounds.
You should always, of course, go some way to attempting a description of the music. But be careful: Don’t just use random fancy words, unless you can back them up. Is the bass line really slippery and squelchy? Avoid cliches, non sequiturs and mixed metaphors. Make sure you mean what you say. And always say what you mean.