Perfect 10

The “perfect 10” ratings given to Kanye West’s new album have given many pause for reflection on the inherent ridiculousness of numerical review scores. When Metacritic lists a score of 93 on an album, it does suggest that it must be uncommonly good. I mean, that many people giving it 10/10? Really? For something to be that good, it really has to be as good as albums ever get. What worried me in this case was how few people seemed willing to really mention the music – what made it such a “perfect” album?

No album will ever be perfect, but I would expect a “perfect ten” to be strong all the way through. It would have to be more innovative than Radiohead’s The Bends, and stronger than My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, which was certainly inventive but was ultimately forgettable as a collection of songs. There’s plenty of great albums I just never got round to buying. You might be surprised that I’ve never bought Sgt Pepper, and I don’t really know why I didn’t, but I can’t miss what I don’t know. Many more, I’ve not owned long enough to know I’ll still love them many years down the line, or they have too many weak moments among the strong.

Pitchfork gave The Stone Roses a perfect 10, and that’s the opposite of what I’d call an “ideal” album – they were really only good for one single, and the album was ultimately quite weak and patchy, didn’t break any new ground and was – at least by me – quickly forgotten. A perfect 10 needs to do better – much better, at least, than the brief snippets of Kanye’s new record, which didn’t entice me to hear more. If I’m thinking of a “perfect 10”, it has to be something like

Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral

Primarily influenced by David Bowie’s Low with the thematic influence of The Wall, it’s not really surprising that I would love it this much. As a varied and consistent album, The Downward Spiral is stronger than anything NIN produced before or since. Over 15 years later, Trent Reznor’s breakdown album is still an absolute pleasure to hear.

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Radiohead – OK Computer

From the first few bars of the first song, it’s clear that OK Computer is extraordinary. If The Bends took indie guitar rock to its pinnacle, OK Computer shifts sideways to move beyond that, weaving together strands of different genres to create something genuinely different from anything else out there at the time. It worked on a cerebral level, with its shifting time signatures and intriguing production, but most of all it’s a collection of emotionally raw, very catchy and memorable songs.

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Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon

Dark Side is one of the best-selling albums of all time, and they helpfully remaster it about every other year, so it still sounds daisy-fresh and lovely. There’s everything here: chunky rock anthems such as Time and Money, fledgling electronica like Any Colour You Like and On the Run, mellow fare like Us and Them, and the outright bizarre like The Great Gig in the Sky. Dark Side of the Moon is everything that a great album should be: boundary-pushing, varied, cohesive, moving, compelling, and – above all – fun to hear.

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Killing Joke – Pandemonium
Foetus – NAIL

I gave my colleague a tape of Killing Joke’s Pandemonium – an album I loved so much that it inspired the stylised “chaos” butterfly tattoo on my arm – and told him, “Hear this and weep”. In return, he handed me Foetus’s NAIL. I heard it and wept.

Pandemonium is the crushing riffs of The Black Album mixed with the Middle Eastern intrigue of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir. Even on the more gentle tracks like Jana, the album excels, and on Labyrinth and Mathematics of Chaos, it’s incendiary. It’s dance-metal that’s neither “industrial rock” or “nu metal”, but a hybrid of both. Instead of the raw aggression of Korn or Slipknot, it squirms with psychotic paranoia and wild-eyed confusion – it seems permanently on the verge of total collapse. I loved this enough to brand it onto my arm for life, but is it really better than, say, Nevermind?

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NAIL is a concept album about oppression made by a visionary eccentric who played all the instruments himself. The lyrics are dark, often horrific – the literal stuff of his nightmares – and frequently hilarious as JG Thirlwell employs his characteristic love of awful puns. The music pairs Danny Elfman-style orchestral twinkles with pots-n-pans industrial, rockabilly and electropunk, while manic Elvis impersonator Thirlwell croons and wails over the top. It’s surprisingly good, even the 3000th time you hear it.

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Primal Scream – Screamadelica

Producer Andrew Weatherall took a middling, unremarkable bunch of Rolling Stones impressionists and wrought out of them something that seemed to have floated to Earth from some other dimension. It made noises I’d never heard before, blending gurgling, wheezing electronica with freeform jazz and trippy psychedelia.

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After that, it starts to get a little difficult. I’d love to include Levitation’s Need for Not but I’m not sure that it fulfils 100% of its potential. Is KMFDM’s Nihil really the best album it could have been? I must have played that album ten thousand times, but it’s not going to change anybody’s life.

I think that’s what brings us back full circle: what arbitrary demands can we make of a record before we deem it an ideal example of its kind? Do we have to insist it’s unlike anything that went before, or is a cookie-cutter release like Disturbed’s Indestructible “perfect” just because it’s flawless?

There’s an album that I own that has been with me through many of the highs and lows in my life. It’s been a great comfort to me when I’ve been at my saddest, and an enjoyable listen when I’m happy. It has at least three of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard in my life … and several of the worst. Parts of it are just screeching noise, and some songs just aren’t up to the standard of the others. It’s far from a “10” in such mechanical terms, but it’s had more impact on me emotionally and inspirationally than almost any other record.

That’s the problem with “10s” and aggregate scores – you miss out on all the flawed diamonds that might really mean something to you. We look at review scores because we want to know immediately the answer to a “yes” or “no” question: is it any good? Since most of us don’t buy albums we know we’ll hate, we tend to skip past the low-scoring reviews and pay attention to the ones heaped with praise, which might not necessarily include all the ones most worthy of our attention. There are tens of thousands of albums released every year and most of them suck. I won’t clog up this blog by talking about the ones that you don’t need to hear, because I’m sure you have better things to be doing with your time.

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2 comments on “Perfect 10

  1. Pingback: #musicmonday: One year of Reinspiration « Reinspired

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