Reviewing My Reviewing

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I’ve done quite a few reviews on my blog now, so I thought I’d do a rundown on my artistic preferences and how much priority I give them. Though there’s no concrete rule – what may apply to one song may not apply to another – I hope this will give you some idea of how I evaluate if a song is “good”, and give some perspective to my reviews.

Dat Vocal Bias

So, vocals. Important things first. As you’ve probably noticed, I put an enormous emphasis on vocals. Too much? That’s open to debate. And over the past year, I’ve become even more pedantic about them! I’m blaming my sister, who’s way more critical than I am, and is slowly brainwashing me into becoming super-fussy old fart.

liv moon chan
For me, a song stands or falls on its vocals. But how do I decide if the singing is good? First, vocals need to pass some basic requirements. I don’t think well of singers are off-note (like this lovely example from Zwei), strained, nasal, or horribly squeaky anishit which makes me want to burn my ears . Other traits I find important are having a good head voice (or at least average… not like LiSA), being expressive and varying dynamics, making sure the lead and harmony vibrato are in time, not using glottal strokes too much, and hitting notes straight away instead of sliding around. (The last point has more exceptions than the others. While I usually consider sliding as sloppy technique, songs like Yume no Naka no Watashi no Yume effectively use this sliding theme, and slides can also be great for emphasising notes.)

To me, these points encompass rudimentary good vocal technique, which sadly much of J-Pop lacks. While I can tolerate small amounts of wonky singing, a song with too much will get a fail grade, often regardless of the arrangement quality. It’s just too darn painful.

There are also other things which I consider, which are more up to my taste than any general musical standards. I’m perfectly fine with English lines thrown into my J-Pop. I quite like recognising phrases, and I don’t mind the Japanese-ified pronunciation. When a whole song is in English, then my opinion depends on where it sits in my highly scientific graph.

dat maths

A rigorous mathematical model developed over the centuries.

Absolutely horrid English sounds like Japanese anyway, so I’m cool listening to it.

While there’s some kind of framework for assessing normal singing, I don’t know about one for growls, so I judge according to my taste. I usually prefer screams in the mid/high range, not like DIR EN GREY dinosaur growls or death metal vocals. I also don’t mind a sprinkling of grit on a singer. It adds personality to their voice, and is useful for emphasising key notes. ONE OK ROCK’s Taka is someone who I consider to have a good amount of roughness. But I find myself being turned off a little when the vocal distortion starts to obscure the actual notes.

Some singers have an “X-factor”, which I can’t explain. They easily pass my criteria and go way beyond, and I can see the areas in which they excel, but I can’t figure out exactly why I find them excellent as opposed to very good. I’m hoping that in the future, I’ll improve and be able to pin down those reasons.

Musical Styles

As for musical styles, I (would like to) think I’m fairly open in terms of different genres. A lot of my favourites come from to rock/metal side, but I’m also happy with pop, folk, gothic and other styles. There are some genres, such as blues and jazz, which aren’t as much to my tastes, but I still like seeing their influences in pop music, and I can still appreciate them even if I don’t enjoy them.

What I think of the instruments in a song depends a lot on what style of music I’m listening to. In metal, I’d expect tight guitar and bass playing, and the drums to have a heavier, aggressive sound. But if it was a fun pop-rock track, heavy drums might go against the atmosphere, or in a blues piece I’d be happy with rougher guitar-work.

At the moment I’m uncomfortable with reviewing songs outside my “like” range. As music is so diverse, I can’t apply my reviewing techniques to some genres. Take rap for example. Rap music often has the same chord progressions repeated throughout the whole song, and very little singing. Not only do I have no idea about what constitutes a good rap, but the song’s focus is not so much on the musical aspects, but the message through the lyrics. Another example is dubstep/heavy electronic music, where there’s so little in the way of actual notes that I wouldn’t even know where to start.

A decent amount of my critique is on the quality of execution, but then there’s also the enjoyment factor as well. When a song’s in my taste range, enjoyment often depends on execution to some extent, so it’s easy to rate. When it’s not in my taste range, it’s more difficult. I have to ask myself things like “Am I justified in rating this average solely because it doesn’t match my tastes?”… aaaand then I find I don’t care. I never claimed I was fair and unbiased, heeheehee. I hope people actually read the critiques though, not just look at the score! The ratings give a rough value of the importance I place on the strengths and flaws, but it doesn’t tell you much about where the song succeeds or stumbles.

Random Ramblings

And a few miscellaneous things. I have a tendency to nitpick, and give small details more emphasis than they probably deserve. Tiny things, like one note being sung off can affect my enjoyment of the whole song. Usually, I try to put it in context though, and ask myself how much does it really matter. It doesn’t always work.

At time of writing, I don’t care too much about album flow. This stems from my habit of always listening to songs on shuffle. I’m not sure if I’m going to change this any time soon…

Finally, I sometimes neglect to mention flaws by really good/my favourite singers. When they do something that would annoy me in a bad singer, I just gloss over it. This is my worst bias. It’s partly because I don’t find those flaws as important in context of the singer’s awesomeness, and… partly because I feel bad speaking ill of my favourites. Yikes.

Cause I Feeeeeeeeel… (Or Not)

cause i feeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeel
You might’ve noticed that I generally disregard talking about the emotional impact of music, and the reason is simple. I don’t really find songs emotional. I could count on one hand the songs which affect me emotionally. And as I don’t want to make stuff up, I leave it out. This ties in my with lack of attention to lyrics (except if they’re really lame). The lyrics often being in a foreign language doesn’t help either. It bothers me, not being able to glean some enjoyment or meaning from the song through the lyrics, but I’ve always found I appreciate a piece most via the technical elements – how a song’s performed, constructed etc. I suppose that makes my reviews both deeper and shallower. On one hand, I go into more detail than most about the execution and musical aspects of songs (though definitely not nearly as deep as some), and on the other I miss any message or themes the piece is trying to convey.

Conclusion

I’m picky with my music like a little kid with his vegetables. I place the most emphasis on the delivery of a song, especially the vocals. For me, it’s aesthetics over lyrics, meaning you probably won’t find anything sodeep. Question: What do you look for in your music?

Now you will understand why I rated your favourite album as shit. Until next time!

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26 Responses to Reviewing My Reviewing

  1. Arthur Marsh says:

    A good honest post!

  2. kyoycz says:

    It’s funny that you mentioned album flow – while I have yet to actually review an album, I’ve always thought that the album flow is one of the most important things (because I normally listen to everything on album shuffle). Of course, if you were just reviewing a single or something, this wouldn’t matter nearly as much.

    • Alex says:

      Yeah, with singles I pretty much disregard flow.
      When I said “always listening to songs on shuffle” I meant all sings on my music player, I actually hardly listen to albums on their own. I suppose that makes me a little unsuited to evaluating them. If an album flows well, I go “oh that’s nice, consistency” but if the songs have lots of variation, I go “oh I like how they’re using different styles” and end up not caring either way. The exception to this is story-albums (or whatever they’re called), where the songs transition smoothly from one to another. Haha me and my odd habits.

  3. A word of caution: the longer you stick around, the harder it becomes for songs to really impress. At least, for me, it’s been awhile since I’ve really been impressed by anison. Maybe Wareta Ringo or that one meg rock Tempest ED. But what it does do is make the handful of stuff that you do like feel that much more precious!

    • Alex says:

      Arrrrgh I totally know what you mean. When I first started out listening to music, I was impressed by whatever was playing on the radio. Now I’m going “it’s okay, but…” about most things😦 . Still, you’re right, it definitely makes you treasure the good stuff!

  4. rikuo06 says:

    Oh no! How could you not be moved by great music? You cold, heartless music-reviewing machine… jkjk.

    But I really do encourage you to check out lyrics more often. It doesn’t even have to be for the entire song (songs lyrics from major artists still not getting timely translations, in this day and age? I know that feel), just enough to get a feel for the general subject/theme/tone of the song. Sometimes even a single phrase will pop out and make a song feel many times more powerful.

    I’m considering doing some anison reviews/analyses once I get proper free time this summer, with a focus on themes/lyrics, since a huge portion of my enjoyment of anison comes from their connections with the anime it features in. (Probably why I’m a sucker for character songs.) I suspect most people feel the same, but don’t give it enough weight to delve into it. And if I come across songs I like that haven’t been translated, it’s about time I started brushing up on my Japanese skills…

    By the way, that horribly squeaky anishit? Love the stuff, could listen to it all day. (As long as the arrangement is fantastic and/or creative, that is, so K-on! still doesn’t get a pass.)

    • Alex says:

      But I really do encourage you to check out lyrics more often.

      Yeah, I really should. Now that you’ve mentioned it, maybe I will try to look them up a bit more, thanks!

      I’m considering doing some anison reviews/analyses…

      W-what? YOUR BLOG IS GOING TO LIVE ONCE MORE? That sounds cool, I hope you end up doing it ^_^

      Love the stuff, could listen to it all day.

      Any songs in particular?

      • rikuo06 says:

        Last season’s Mikakunin de Shinkoukei and D-frag! OPs and EDs were great. In particular, the composer/arranger for the D-frag! songs is ARM, one of my favorite musicians. He’s a key member of IOSYS, the doujin music group famous for their Touhou Project arrangements. The D-frag! OP is even sung by three IOSYS regulars. Very talented vocalists, but in a somewhat non-traditional way. They’re more like singing voice actors. Superb control over their tones and pitches, but normal musicality is usually not the aim. It’s hard to pin down the genre. I guess some would call it denpa?

        • Alex says:

          I’ve heard of denpa before, but never investigated it. I had a listen to the songs you mentioned. I was really un-fond of one of the singers in the Mikakunin songs, but I liked the D-Frag ones more. I’d be perfectly happy listening to the D-Frag OP every time there was a new episode. Actually, the D-Frag OP was the one I thought was the best. While that type of singing still isn’t really my thing, some of the vocalists’ speed was quite impressive, and I checked some of the notes they were singing, and they were quite high! Plus that song had a great bassline, and guitar-work was good as well. Guess it pays to expand my musical range😛

          • rikuo06 says:

            Yup. Good ear as usual! Besides the D-Frag OP, the rest of the songs were sung by the casts of the anime, so they’re basically character songs. Still, they’re above average arrangement-wise and were accompanied by great OP/ED animations. I watched/listened to them every episode.

  5. Artemis says:

    Usually, the most important thing to me in music, whether it’s Japanese or otherwise, is the energy. I don’t necessarily mean that a song has to be energetic in order for me to enjoy it (although I do often enjoy faster-paced songs more than ballads), but rather that the vibe of the song has to work for me. It’s not quite the same thing as getting emotional over a song, but it’s probably about as subjective, since a song that doesn’t work for me at all can clearly work for somebody else and vice versa. There are a few things I usually really don’t like when it comes to music, e.g. nasal singing, high-pitched squeakiness, and vibrato, just to name the first few that spring to mind, but even these I can sometimes overlook if the energy of the song fits just right.

    • Alex says:

      Energy is definitely important. I understand when you say you can overlook things you don’t like when the energy is right. Sometimes the energy of a song can sweep me away, even if things niggle me a bit. It is subjective too, but there are things people can do to make pieces have more energy. As you mentioned, speed is one, but you can also put deeper tones in the vocals, change the dynamics, stuff like that.

  6. shinitakashi says:

    I love your way of reviewing, and have been taking notes for when I do my own reviews. Haha.
    And I definitely, completely understand what you mean about emotion. I think there are maybe 2 songs that have brought tears to my eyes before. I just don’t understand how people can get so emotional from listening to music.
    I suppose, for me, the most important thing is the music itself. Then comes the vocalist (totally cannot stand those squeaky girl voices).

  7. mk03 says:

    Not liking LiSA

    Well, her voice is an acquired taste. I love her, but I understand why many others don’t. At least she isn’t as hated as much as ClariS.
    (Also posting this for a second time, I think WordPress is not cooperating with my comments for some reason)

    • Alex says:

      Lol, I don’t know about acquired taste. There is definitely nothing wrong with liking her though. Nor ClariS.

      I think it might be because you put a wikipedia page as your website on your first comment. One thing that spambots do is link random pages as their website, so that’s probably one of the triggers. It was in my spam folder.

      • mk03 says:

        Yeah, that was what happened. As a joke, I put Mami’s Wikipedia page as my website. I didn’t know WordPress didn’t like that.

  8. Moira says:

    It’s so interesting that you wrote a post like this because I could probably never pinpoint the things I’m picky with, if any.:\

    I agree, that K-On! OP is total crap, as much as I like the anime. Oh, and, I’m surprised (and equally relieved) that you didn’t explicitly refer to your low opinion of Minorin’s vocals😛

    “Finally, I sometimes neglect to mention flaws by really good/my favourite singers. When they do something that would annoy me in a bad singer, I just gloss over it.”
    AMEN! …’cause I might be guilty of this too. blush

    You picky, picky child😀 (But that’s what makes you a good reviewer!)

    • Alex says:

      Thanks ^_^

      I’m surprised (and equally relieved) that you didn’t explicitly refer to your low opinion of Minorin’s vocals

      Well yeah haha I thought I wouldn’t be too mean cos I’ve banged on about her a reasonable amount here and there. (SHHHHHH I actually was looking through Youtube for a Minorin video that would fit the post, but I couldn’t find one with a high enough degree of crapness to use. That’s good, mebbe?)

  9. jstorming says:

    Good post! I’ve been thinking more about musicality of anime ops and why I like certain ones. I’ve noticed the ones I tend to gravitate towards to more are usually heavily instrumental/orchestrally rich sounding ones or electronic-dance/upbeat ones. I can’t imagine trying to review music other than “this sounds good to me” or “this is catchy” so it’s nice to hear how music reviewers like you think about it.

  10. Pingback: An Interlude: AM’s Top Ten Most Played Anime Openings | Anime Monographia

  11. miharusshi says:

    Since I listen to mostly foreign songs, I tend to care less about the lyrics, except when I really want to sing along. I’m not a musician myself (though I’m a novice drummer, other than that I know almost nothing about other instruments and I’ve forgotten everything I learned from our compulsory music classes in elementary and high school), but I find myself appreciating songs which have an overall nice instrumental. It’s a plus if the accompanying vocals suits these instrumentals, too. Heck, this sounds like I’m only looking at the instrumental aspect.

    But anyway, no matter what the voice quality of the singer is and as long as he/she/they can sing well (not like LiSA, yes) and the instrumentals beneath those voices are beautiful to my ears, these artists will surely have their frequent place in my music player.

    • Alex says:

      Yeah when you’re singing, knowing what particular passages are about really helps you get the right vocal expression for the right line.

      And hey, if you play music, you’re a musician! Even if you don’t consider yourself very experienced at drums, you should still call yourself a musician ^_^

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