What “good” looks like – how do I rate?

What “Good” Looks Like

I’ve been asked by a reader what my criteria are for a recording to be great. This one is interesting.

There is an easy and a difficult answer.

The easy one is: If I know a piece well, I have an idea in my head how it “should” sound. By listening to several version of the same piece, I just have an intuitive idea which one is “right”; or at least close, and which one is way off. For this, I’m not following the score or doing a lot of rational analytics.

Now comes the hard part: How can I judge whether my idea of the “right” sound is actually good? Here comes the honest truth: I don’t. I’ve seen quite some correlation between what I seem to prefer and what renowned critics at Gramophone, Classica, Diapason, FonoForum (to just name a few) or any of the more trustworthy online reviewers (i.e. those that don’t just like everything they review) seem to like.

Essentially, the much more fundamental question remains, how do you judge a work of art? And what you’ll see is that why there is often at least some consensus on the great classics (you won’t find many saying Furtwängler was clueless), on contemporary recordings the variety of opinions is much larger. I’ve seen the same recording hailed as reference by some and given 2 out of 5 stars by somebody else. And here is where we get subjective.

Personal Opinion – Purely Subjective

Like all forms of review, nobody can reasonably claim an objective opinion. So the only thing one can do is find a reviewer who has a similar taste to your own. I’ve seen the same happening with wine, when I was doing several winery visits in the Barolo area, the same bottle was rated from 90 (i.e just nice) in some guide to the equivalent of 96 (i.e. great) in some other. So here again, I picked the guide (the Italian “Espresso” wine guide if you’re interested) that was most closely matching my own experience.

A good case in point is the recent Mahler 9 by Adam Fischer, see my article here that discusses the two extremes of a classical music review here.

What get’s even trickier, and is a question I haven’t even properly thought about, is how does this idea of how a work should be performed actually get into my head? Seriously, I have no idea. I suppose listening to a lot (and I really mean A LOT) of music, probably helps. Beyond that, I really don’t know.


The above was more talking about classical recordings, but for Jazz it becomes even more subjective. If you want “objective” reviews, you need to go somewhere else. But if you happen to like what I like, you’re probably in the right place.

How to read my rating system for this blog when I talk about recordings?

I usually use the well-known 5 star system.

However, let me quickly clarify what the stars mean to me:

1*: unlistenable – you won’t see this on this blog, I probably cannot be bothered talking about albums I clearly don’t like

2*: not my cup of tea – I acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with the music, I just don’t like it

3*: OK – but I don’t need to have a second listen

4*: This is stuff I like, would purchase, and listen to repeatedly. This is most likely going to be the rating you see from me most often, as I usually cannot be bothered to review 1-3 stars albums in detail, and 5 stars, well they are exceptional and rare!

5*: The rare bird – exceptional albums that are a must have IMHO. I try to be rather selective about giving 5 stars, less than 10% of my personal album collection fall in this category.

UPDATE 18 month into the blog (December 2016): Checking my stats at this point shows I’ve written 57 five star reviews, 68 four star, 14 three star, and only 2 two stars, with no one star review ever making it to my blog. In summary, so far the rare bird is less rare than I thought, but obviously there is a strong bias as it is just so much more fun writing about outstanding albums than it is about poor ones. And my time is simply to precious to probably ever write about a one star album.

My independence & transparency

You’ll find links where you can buy the recordings I’m talking about at the end of each blog post. Note that I don’t get any money from those links, they are just there for your convenience.

As a matter of fact, I’m not making any money at all of this blog, unfortunately I have only costs (luckily very minor) and no revenues associated with this blog (I have a day job for that).

I’ve also turned down requests for publishing ads on my site. The only ads you may see on my site are there by WordPress.com, as I’m on the “free” model. I have no influence over them and don’t make any money of them.

And I really like to keep it this way, as I want to make sure whatever I’m writing here is not influenced by any financial incentives.

For full transparency, I sometimes get offered records to review for free. Should I write about them, I’ll mention this specifically in the article.

However, my main source for listening to music I write about are actually my own album purchases, usually downloads (I like to support the industry and artists), and a streaming subscription to Qobuz (that I fully pay for), to help discover new stuff.

Same goes for concerts, I pay my ticket just like everyone else, again the musicians I typically write about really need your money to make a living!

E-mail me at musicophile1 (at) gmail.com if you have questions.

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