How do you assess music?
Jacob Geller’s video essay “The Future of Writing About Games” posits an alternative method of critiquing video games. Spitting in the face of the slowly creeping presupposition that games (and art) are products, Geller proclaims that games should be assessed by the hour count a game lives in your memory, a notion that can be extended to music.
Algorithms now vomit recommendations onto our laps and the accessibility of tumbling down rabbit holes of subgenre guides, related artists, ranking lists, and career retrospectives courtesy of most music sites sizzles panic into what should be an innocent question; what should I listen to? Our attention is split between appreciating an album and loading up another in our queue, muddying the process of recognizing quality. While Geller’s aim is to stress the function of good criticism I want to reframe his hypothesis. An album’s worth is determined by how long it lives inside your mind.
First thing, I am not talking about inescapable hooks. Music strives to loop itself endlessly in your mind, forcing you to squeeze in that sweet serotonin hit by pumping that earworm chorus back into your audial cavities. I am not talking about catchiness. I am talking about active thoughts. How does a work’s sounds, lyrics, and/or usage of the medium change you?
Good, transcendental art should impact you enough to occupy a tiny fibre of the brain we would regularly reserve for, I don’t know, remembering to water your plants. A great album should change the way you consider other albums or make you question why you enjoy them. They can loom over your thoughts like the grim reaper coming to annex a previous worldview or they may flutter about, coming and going with the patience of a butterfly on a windless autumn afternoon yet persistently returning.
One metric of music’s quality is its replay value. As all art strives for different end goals we cannot rely on aggregate numbers from scrobbling applications to tell us what we love the most. Veteran by JPEGMAFIA has accrued more plays than any other album on my Spotify, but when I think about it my mind returns to its undercooked middle. Conversely, Nattens Madrigal – Aatte Hymne Til Ulven I Manden by Ulver isn’t even one of my top fifty most-listened-to albums according to last.fm. Ulver perfected the black metal aesthetic with Nattens Madrigal – Aatte Hymne Til Ulven I Manden because it portrays the connection to nature the genre’s forebearers had been striving for years to put to audio. Without Nattens Madrigal – Aatte Hymne Til Ulven I Manden I may still feel like black metal is missing its gold standard; its essential piece that defines its endgame. This prestige came without a high replay count. The album has stayed in my head long enough that I know what it means to me. It will stay in my thoughts as a guide, a reference, until the next great piece of work comes in and forces me to think again.
Turnstile’s Time & Space also rakes in a high play count, yet outside of a specific context (hypertrophy work in the gym) I nary give it a thought. It’s a solid piece of hardcore but it hasn’t spent a fraction of as much time occupying my thoughts as something I’ve never even listened to on Spotify, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada. GY!BE’s long, heavily atmospheric pieces require specific circumstances to fully immerse oneself in. What type of animal puts on a Godspeed song for their five minute work commute then picks up later where they left off? Even going years without listening to the EP I recognize how instrumental it was in developing my tastes for layered mixes, measured patience, and breathing room in music. The questions Slow Riot… poses by framing ‘Blaise Bailey Finnegan III’ as a voice for the working man in a nearly farcical interview forced me to contemplate my views on authority. By contrast, Time & Space only ever made me think “I wish this album didn’t end right before my second set of squats.”
Some albums are so emotionally affecting that they forcibly imprint themselves into your brain. I have only listened to Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me once because one time was enough to feel trauma that heavy. That first listen has not left me in three years. Björk mines similar heart-wrenching territory on Vulnicura, where she excavates her heart to find meaning in her recent divorce. Once again, scant few listens yet deep recesses formed in my brain.
More than either of those I think about Björk’s tamer follow-up Utopia, and not just because I don’t feel like I’m getting hit by a freight train of feels every time it comes on. Nothing sticks out upon first or tenth listen because it lacks the gut-punching brutality of its predecessor nor are there any hooks worth mentioning. Admitting that, it’s still one of my favourite releases of the decade. Utopia is a meditation on Björk’s life years post-divorce, less exciting than exhuming the flames of anger but more mature. It’s Björk pieced back together in a stranger kintsugi than before radiating confidence and patience. This album is the comfort of knowing you can survive, you will survive, and you will thrive in your own way.
None of this is to dismiss the purpose of contemporary reviews. Art can and should be assessed rapidly in order to stimulate conversation. But for this conversation to move into realms deeper than “does it slap?” we must ask “how long will this slapping rattle my brain?”