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Pitchfork’s Recipe for the Record Review

Pitchfork’s Recipe for the Record Review
Pitchfork’s Recipe for the Record Review By Angel Zhang
By Andrew K. Choe, Crimson Staff Writer

On Jan. 17, the media company Condé Nast disclosed its plans to merge online music magazine Pitchfork into its men’s lifestyle magazine, GQ. Staff writer layoffs accompanied this announcement, and followers of the music journalism world expressed their dismay at the loss of a distinctive voice in the field.

Condé Nast’s decision demonstrated that music criticism can’t stand by itself. Music’s biggest stars have an undeniable presence in popular culture, making headlines with everything from surprise album drops and red-carpet looks to how and where they travel. Still, relegating music journalism to the realm of celebrity chatter and lifestyle brands ignores the intrinsic value of assessing the art and the artist.

This column, “Songs Without Words,” will explore the shift in how listeners read and think about music. In this first installment, I start by assessing Pitchfork’s distinctive brand of album reviews — the bread and butter of music criticism — as the standard for what is both valuable and frustrating about the genre.

In an X post on the day of the Condé Nast announcement, New Yorker staff writer and Pitchfork alum Amanda Petrusich wrote, “Wouldn’t have a career without Pitchfork. Probably wouldn’t know much about music, either. Feels like a death knell for the record review as a form. Absolutely gutted for my dear, dear friends & colleagues.”

Pitchfork has defined the album review since its first article in 1996. The formula for these pieces is simple enough: Start with an introduction to the artist, feature highlights and lowlights from a few tracks, and conclude with an assessment of what the latest work means in the context of the musician’s career. With most reviews coming in at under 1,000 words, they make for quick reads. Still, the form never feels confined or repetitive, as writers imbue each review with plenty of flair.

“I can’t be sure of this, but I feel fairly confident that Usher Raymond IV has never consumed a drop of milk,” begins a recent Pitchfork review of Usher’s “Coming Home” that marvels at the musician’s longevity.

A disapproving assessment of Ed Sheeran’s 2021 album “=” snarkily remarks, “Life, man. It’s a highway. It’s a trip. It passes you by. Just ask Ed Sheeran” — before diving into a critique of Sheeran’s “heavy-handed” songwriting that feels, well, heavy-handed itself.

Taking a more scholarly approach, Pitchfork’s retrospective on Paul McCartney and Wings’s “Band on the Run” recounts a detailed history of the album’s production, asking readers to revisit the work as a testament to the former Beatle’s underappreciated creativity.

The common thread between the nearly 30,000 reviews on Pitchfork’s website is genuine, unfiltered passion. Technical terms like key signature and tonality rarely appear; instead, articles describe songs in affective terms, using vivid language that puts the emotional impact of an album at the center. This devotion to the experience of enjoying music is at risk of being lost with the decline of dedicated music publications, a loss for listeners everywhere and for up-and-coming artists who aren’t making GQ headlines.

On Feb. 19, for example, the Pitchfork website’s main page featured a retrospective look at pop superstar Mariah Carey’s 2005 album “The Emancipation of Mimi" next to a review of “Imitation of War” from folk singer Itasca, an artist with less than 13,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. This commitment to giving a serious listen to any and all kinds of music is worthwhile and introduces listeners to artists who may serendipitously become new favorites. In an era where algorithm-generated playlists are the standard way to “discover” new songs, traditional journalism preserves the human connection of listening to music. Whether or not you resonate with a review’s take, it’s meaningful to hear about the feelings and thoughts that a record evoked in another person. Reviews also highlight the artistry behind the music by including snippets from the musician’s biography or details about the work’s production. It’s difficult to appreciate the effort and thought that went into producing a piece solely from listening to a Spotify playlist.

That said, it’s important to recognize how Pitchfork’s enthusiasm also reinforces some of the pretentiousness associated with music criticism. Music appreciation can devolve into a competition to see who knows the most obscure bands. As a champion for underground acts, Pitchfork sometimes toes the line between inclusive appreciation and snobbery. Take, for example, the magazine’s review of Ed Sheeran’s “÷”, which gave the album a rating of 2.8 out of 10. Though Sheeran’s upbeat pop album may not have the songwriting complexity of Fiona Apple’s “Fetch The Bolt Cutters,” which received a perfect 10, it’s an undeniably catchy record with over 14 billion Spotify streams to attest to its enduring popularity. What, then, warranted such a low rating? The critical review mainly takes issue with Sheeran’s “generic” lyrics and “lack of honesty” in trying to portray himself as a relatable “everyman.” These points are not unfounded, but some popular appeal doesn’t seem like a reprehensible artistic decision. Further, the review’s harsh numeric rating seems to suggest not only a dislike for the album but also a desire to make a point by tearing apart this poster child of pop music.

Pitchfork album reviews ultimately run into the fundamental challenge of the form: assigning value to works of art. Like many other publications, Pitchfork adopts a numeric rating system. Its use of a 0.0—10.0 decimal system, however, raises some questions. Rating an album four and a half stars instead of five feels like a defendable choice. Maybe the record was phenomenal but lost half a star because it didn’t have the strongest closer. But it’s difficult to try and explain why an album received a 5.6 instead of a 5.7. Even if a review were to be more explicit about a scoring rubric — for instance, half a point off for the guitar solo in the seventh track — the incongruence of representing a personal opinion with the seemingly objective authority of a number, tenths place and all.

In an article published in celebration of its 25th anniversary, the Pitchfork staff recognized that its numeric ratings are “an admittedly absurd and subjective metric that acts as the site’s calling card.” It’s possible, then, that the decimal system is itself a self-aware criticism of the challenge of imposing worth on a work of art. The numeric ratings feel less like grades and more so affirm that in a world that prizes the concrete and numerical, there’s value in the intangible emotional experiences of music. At the end of the day, a music review represents a single opinion at one point in time (Pitchfork regularly updates its past ratings of albums). As such, the number at the top of the article isn’t what matters — it’s the commitment to appreciating and sharing music that counts.

—Staff writer Andrew K. Choe can be reached at andrew.choe@thecrimson.com.

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