I reluctantly joined Rate Your Music. If you’re unfamiliar with the site, the name says it all. RYM is a user-generated database of recorded music, where anyone with an account can rate an album on a five-point scale.
RYM launched in 2000 and the site looks like it. The layout can look clunky, though the site makes prodigious use of blank space, the kind I usually encounter in the back end of a site when I’ve typed out HTML code. This is part of what I find strangely charming about RYM, a site that appears unconcerned with attempting to win over anything but its core fanatics.
I’m disinclined to engage in RYM’s main function: rating. Part of this is out of professional obligations. If I have something to say about an album and want to tell the world about it, I’ll do so through the Reader. Or another outlet I pitch. Or a zine of my own creation. I’m also not keen on assigning an album or EP a star rating, in contributing to the average of a scoring system I am generally uninterested in. This, I realize, is one of RYM’s big draws, and contributes to the site’s character. If you orient your understanding of music around what appears on the Billboard 200, digging into RYM’s top albums charts may feel like visiting a distant planet. Not that I mind spending time in a world whose top album of 2023 (at press time, anyway) is by Swedish composer Kali Malone.
I don’t give RYM’s ever-shifting charts a lot of weight, but I appreciate that they can introduce me to new music. And RYM is big enough that it can change the course of a musical act’s trajectory for the better. Arty Oklahoma City metal act Chat Pile experienced a windfall in 2019 after RYM users flocked to their self-released debut EP, This Dungeon Earth. It currently sits at number 30 on RYM’s top EPs of 2019 chart—the group’s November 2019 EP, Remove Your Skin Please is in the top five—and guitarist Luther Manhole recently told Bandcamp Daily that the band’s “popularity on RYM definitely contributed to us having a career-type-thing.”
Aside from giving unknown bands a popularity boost, RYM users take care in contextualizing and analyzing seemingly esoteric albums. I don’t always care for the reviews I’ve come across, but even the sloppiest mash notes provide some insight into a musical act with a small footprint outside the site. I don’t remember how I found out about acoustic Brazilian black-metal project Kaatayra, but as soon as I fell for Inpariquipê I found myself on the album’s RYM page (it’s currently ranked 17 on the site’s top albums of 2021, a spot above Low’s terrific Hey What). Lately, I’ve been making my way through an RYM list of solo screamo bands put together by a 27-year-old in Serbia and looking up all the itty bitty microgenres of this very second that have inspired at least one RYM user to create a new genre tag.
It can be discombobulating to learn about an entire world of music all at once. That confusion brings a whole subset of emotions. I’ve gotten a lot of joy from being able to experience a subscene that’s so new to me I lack the language to describe what I’m hearing; I also understand that some listeners are less enthusiastic about experiencing something so novel. This is part of why I value music journalism. I love learning about musical phenomena that challenge or perplex me, and being able to contextualize that for readers is a gift. I like to think the RYM users creating their own charts and lists are motivated by some of the same impulses that guide a lot of great music journalism. At the very least, the pieces of RYM that encouraged me to look deeper into the site have given me more reasons to feel excited about music.