What's in a number?
That's a question often raised by readers in connection with PopMeter, The Times' monthly feature that asks critics to rate new albums on a scale of 1 to 100.
The concerns: Is there really a difference between an album that receives 60 points and one that is given 61? Isn't this whole number business arbitrary?
Yes and no, respectively.
The scores are approximations that suggest a critic's judgment on the relative merits of records. I could have given Phil Collins' sedate new "No Jacket Required" album a 52 instead of a 50 this month (see adjoining page) and would have felt comfortable dropping Tom Petty's "Southern Accents" three points to 80.
There's no way, however, that I could justify giving Collins 80 and Petty 52. "Southern Accents" is a far more noteworthy achievement.
Similarly, I might have moved Mick Jagger's "She's the Boss" and Husker Du's "New Day Rising" up or down a few points each, but the relative distance between them would remain the same. Husker Du, the Minneapolis trio that serves up thinking-man's punk, has a significantly fresher and more original work than Jagger.
The rating is really no different from what all pop fans go through, only they don't have to articulate their reasons for liking or rejecting an album. They only have to ask themselves: Do I like the record? By contrast, a critic has a responsibility to explain the reasons for his reaction and bring a sense of historical perspective to the discussion.
Any individual factor--a great vocal, a terrific song, exquisite musicianship, seductive production--can make a record compelling. In most cases, however, each of the forces come into play.
Here are the factors that I generally consider when evaluating a record:
Vocal character. Great singers--Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Aretha Franklin--can be so overwhelming, especially early in a career, that they can get along nicely with only marginal material because we get so caught up in the sheer loveliness and/or power of their vocals. Eventually, however, that impact is lessened, and the artists need strong material to maintain a hold on us.
We're not just talking now about people with what music schools would consider technically outstanding voices, though Streisand's control and range certainly qualify her on that scale. Great singers in pop are measured most by how convincing they are: Matters like passion and phrasing allow "non-voices" like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and John Lydon to be prized figures.
Another reason those artists are so effective is that they are writers who come up with revealing or provocative songs. The Streisands and Cockers, who write little if any of their material, have to look elsewhere for songs, and that presents two problems: They must find not just "good" songs, but songs that are appropriate for them.
"What's Love Got to Do With It"--a tense, sensual statement of romantic disillusionment which won a Grammy as the best song of 1984--was perfect for Tina Turner, but it would have been totally out of character for the melodramatic Streisand, who tends to overpower songs.
Song. Though attitude was the most liberating aspect of early rock--and still is in fringe areas like punk--the most important element in most of contemporary pop, rock, country or soul music is the song. It's what defines the purpose of the record.
While I love some singles that are simply fun (whether by Abba or Cyndi Lauper), the best records reflect an originality and purpose that separate them from the routine, recycled sounds that clutter up the pop marketplace. The best records stimulate, inspire or comfort by expressing emotions and insights with the same ambition and craft of a gifted novelist or film maker. They are works of art that touch us in a real and personal way.
The most important commercial element in a song is the melody. Motown founder Berry Gordy has defined a hit song as something you can remember well enough to hum. But the most important artistic element is the song's lyrics or themes.
What's the relative importance of vocal performance and song?
While this varies drastically depending on the record, the average importance of these factors is: the song itself, 50% of the total impact of the record, and vocal, about 20%. That leaves 30% to be divided among production, accessibility and musicianship.
Production, accessibility and musicianship (the PAM factor). The biggest difference between the records that end up on the top of the sales charts and the top of critics' lists is in accessibility. Most listeners want records that are immediately appealing and understandable . They don't want to devote a lot of time trying to figure out what the artist is trying to say. Critics and more active listeners are willing to "work" at a record.