So here’s what you need to know. First of all, there’s a difference between “volume” and “loudness.” The former you can control with the knob or button on your stereo/radio/computer/iPod/Victrola/whatever. The latter is decided upon before you ever buy the music. “Loudness” is the built-in volume of each element of each track, levels that are usually determined in the mixing or mastering stage of music production. The more “loudness” is applied to a track, the less it has in the way of dynamics—the quiet parts of a song become just as loud as the noisy parts. When “Maintain the Pain” slams into its chorus, for instance, the dramatic impact is lessened because the “quiet” intro isn’t really quiet at all. Continue reading

When Michael Jackson died in June 2009, each person who knew enough about his music and his life to have an opinion on either (that is to say, pretty much everyone all over the world) was forced to decide: Did his personal behavior detract from the value of the music he made? Did the increasingly bizarre plastic surgery make the pulsing beat of “Billie Jean” less danceable? Did the allegations of child abuse make “Man in the Mirror” less true? More than a year later, there is no clear consensus, and likely there never will be. Since the first caveman painted on a wall 32,000 years ago, we have sought and failed to separate our perception of art from our perception of those who create it. “I guess that’s a pretty good picture of a bison hunt,” some Paleolithic wag surely said, “but coming from Ogg, I’m just not sure. Isn’t he a vegetarian? What does he know about hunting?”

Just as there have never been so many opinions at your disposal as a listener, there have never been so many quality opinions at your disposal. There have never been so many well-informed and well-articulated opinions at your disposal, and the barrier to entry is no longer employment at a newspaper or magazine but the bloody-minded determination and audacity required to start a blog. But taking advantage of all those sources to guide your own buying and listening habits requires a degree of effort that audiences of previous generations didn’t have to worry about. You can find critics whose tastes and values mirror your own to a degree that a listener even 20 years ago could not have imagined, but you’ll have to do a lot of clicking and reading to figure out just which ones are for you. Continue reading