In Defense of End-of-Year Lists

It’s the week following Thanksgiving in America, which means two things: one, everyone is being inundated with the sights, sounds, and manic anxieties of peak-holiday season, and two, music fans are similarly being flooded with waves of end-of-year lists from major publications and friends alike. More than any other artistic medium – perhaps due to the overwhelming scope of options out there and relative ease of accessibility – list-making has become a well-trodden tradition in music journalism, one that has only proliferated further in the age of social media, listicles, and clickbait.

With that proliferation though has come an equally long and ever-growing tradition of complaining about said lists. There seems to be an unofficial Law of Internet Lists that for every comment that is overall positive and either overall agrees with the selections made or simply adds their own personal selections there must be at least half a dozen ones that either criticize the list outright or nitpick the inclusion or exclusion of a certain album. Even more noticeable is the mounting backlash against many industry lists in recent years as they seemingly are coming out earlier and earlier in the year. This has led many a person to question or completely disavow the concept of ranked end-of-year lists as a whole.

But for all of the legitimate faults that these kinds of ranked lists possess – my colleague Mike McMahan just put out his own case on the difficulties they present, and I will be touching upon plenty of critiques when we release our second annual industry “meta-aggregate” list in a few weeks – there are real, substantive reasons why lists like these are a force of good and not just arbitrary, self-indulgent pieces of clickbait. They’re good for bands, they’re good for readers/listeners, they’re good for sites like ours, and they’re just good for music as a social and public artform.

The Best Promotion Money Can’t Buy

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If you’re an independent or relatively small band with a very limited budget for promotion, your options for getting noticed quickly and effectively are fairly limited. You mostly just send your album to the right places, hope that someone decides to write something good about it, and then hope even more that their readers pick up on it and spread the gospel. That’s about it. In many ways it’s a roll of the dice, and some bands break through this way while many others don’t as much, if at all. Even then, reviews, interviews, and other types of standard promotional content rarely make a significant dent in terms of social media coverage and more.

You know what does though? Lists. End-of-year lists in particular are huge for pretty much any publication or site of note. For an unsigned or smaller-profile band, an inclusion on a notable music site’s year-end list can offer the kind of exposure and free promotion no amount of money could buy. It’s certainly true that most people who read these lists don’t automatically check out every band and album they’re not already familiar with, but many do use lists as a way to either catch up on releases from the past year or find some that they missed. It only requires a small percentage of the people reading, sharing, or even complaining about a certain list to make a significant difference for a band. This, of course, isn’t to say that a website like ours including the likes of A Sense of GravityNative ConstructDreadnought, and more prominently on our lists the past couple of years can be directly attributed to them receiving increased exposure and success since then. Few publications, let alone ours, have the power to do that. But it does mean something.

At this point you might argue that that’s all well and good, except that most prominent year-end lists feature almost solely bands who are already very well-known and signed to big labels. And yes, by-and-large this is true. Particularly when it comes to metal, the more established and large the site is, the more conventional and mainstream their picks tend to be. But even the most mainstream and established sites and publications will almost always have at least one or two albums thrown in there that aren’t the expected major label heavy hitters. They might be a bit hidden somewhere in the middle of the list, but they’re there, and they do mean something even if the more cynical of us might argue that the publication only included them because they wanted to give the smallest appearance of still being “with it.” They may be ranked, but ultimately lists are in many ways the great equalizer, and for a small or independent band an inclusion of their album alongside much bigger and well-established acts is a pretty big deal, not just symbolically, but in a meaningful way that no amount of promotion could purchase.

Lists Are Objects Of Taste, And Taste Is Branding, But That’s Not Necessarily A Bad Thing

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Let’s get one thing out of the way. There is no such thing as “album of the year.” There is no objective measure of determining the value and goodness of a piece of music and comparing it against others, especially when they share very little in common sonically. And the instances when people or places attempt to use more “objective” metrics to determine the value of an album – such as sales or the incredibly nebulous “cultural impact” – you start to move further away from what most of us probably feel actually matters the most, which is, you know, the actual music. At the end of the day, lists like these, whether they’re ranked or not, are an act of branding and identity. Eden and I wrote about this topic pretty extensively in a post around this time last year, but this passage pretty well sums it up on that topic:

Lists are nothing if not expressions of self. Sure, they’re about the music and highlighting the bands and artists you feel deserve recognition for their hard work and for the pleasure they brought you. But ultimately it’s an entirely selfish affair. It’s a quick summary of your musical ID, and with it, your own self.

This goes for individual lists as well as publication lists, even if they’re done in aggregate with a group of people like we do. Every music website or publication you read has a “brand” and identity that flows through their content. It affects the kind of content they put out, what bands or genres they cover more heavily, how they review albums within certain genres (or choose not to review others), and everything else. It also ultimately affects the year-end lists they put out, both due to self-selection bias in the people they have as staff and the sometimes conscious but usually subconscious decisions they make about what they want their site’s list to look like and reflect about themselves.

Take us, for example. It’s no secret that as a site we tend to favor progressive music more heavily than many other websites do. In turn, we tend to attract writers who also very much enjoy progressive rock and metal. This is something we don’t try to hide and is in fact a significant part of our brand and identity. Thus, it is not surprise that our year-end lists tend to feature more progressive albums than most other lists from metal sites do. We also pride ourselves on being generally eclectic though and try to bring in people who listen to a wide variety of music both within and outside of metal. So, once again, our lists tend to reflect that as it is not unusual for us to include smaller but significant selections of post-rock, hip-hop, r&b, electronic, jazz, and more.

Some might argue that this is just further proof of bias in music journalism and further proof that year-end lists as a whole are bunk. But I would argue the opposite actually! This kind of “bias” and intentional coding is actually what makes institutional lists far more interesting in my mind. There is honestly nothing more boring than a bunch of sites and publications posting about nearly the same exact group of albums in slightly different orders. It not only becomes predictable, but it means that there becomes only one dominant way of thinking about what makes for a “great” album, which I think is far more biased and pernicious than the alternative.

The good news is that even though many of the more mainstream sites and publications do end up sharing many of the same selections in slightly different orders for their lists, there almost always are pretty substantive differences to be found between them, and much of that comes down to their house brand and identity. And with all of the music blogs, websites, zines, and more out there, those differences can be really important in helping fans and readers decide which sites and brands to follow. If you want to get a good sense of what a music site is about and what kind of music they’re more likely to cover and favor, read one of their aggregate lists.

If you tend to gravitate towards the filthier end of black or death metal, for instance, you might find that Stereogum is actually a great place to follow, as their monthly Black Market column and annual best-of metal lists tend to lean more heavily towards that (also, Doug Moore is a total mensch and someone a bunch of us look to as one of the better metal writers out there currently). My opinion is that music journalism is at its best when it’s at its most diverse, which is why I personally follow several metal blogs and sites closely who cover some of the things I already like and listen to but a lot of things I don’t. But with there being such an overabundance of options out there, it’s also important to be able to filter out sites and content that simply are not where you are musically and find ones that are. If nothing else, lists are one of the best ways out there to do just that.

Music Is Great, And Talking About Great Music Is Great

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We live in an age when it’s easier than ever to be cynical, jaded, or worse towards just about every aspect of our being, especially when it comes to how we interact with each other online. Noyan and Eden just wrote up a great piece tackling this very issue, so I won’t rehash too much of it, but in essence they talk about how that kind of cynical, “edgy” attitude towards certain albums, bands, and more turns into an all-encompassing cycle of shitposting within a community. The same is absolutely true with how we discuss and share lists, especially industry lists. It is the easiest thing to look at a list of 10, 25, or 50 albums and find at least one thing to complain about because it doesn’t line up with your personal opinions. It is so exceedingly easy to just write off an entire list as invalid because the website’s and writers’ perspectives don’t match your own exactly. I say this because I and the rest of us at Heavy Blog have absolutely been guilty of this! And, once again, there are legitimate, rational criticisms to be made about how many of these kinds of lists are put together and put out. But just because a list doesn’t include the music you think is actually the greatest doesn’t automatically mean that all the music included on that list isn’t great. The world is a vast, deep expanse of ideas and perspectives, and there is room for all sorts of good and interesting music out there for us to acknowledge and discuss.

All of this is to say that, with all the legitimate shit we have to deal with in our daily lives, this time of year offers us all an opportunity to not think about those things for a moment and simply celebrate the actual good things that occurred this past year. Because, let’s be honest, 2016 for many of us was just a terrible, not good, very bad year, and 2017 is unlikely to be an improvement. But 2016 was a great year for music regardless of what kind of music you prefer. Posting year-end lists, sharing others’, and discussing them allows us to focus on the things we love and bring us pleasure, emotional release, and more, and that is sincerely important! It’s something that’s good for our emotional health, can help strengthen bonds between friends and strangers, and is vital to keeping alive the vitality and relevance of this artform we spend so much time obsessing over.

Believe it or not, it’s also a really great way to get closer to and connect with the artists and bands you care about. Most bands, especially the ones who actually monitor their own social media, really do appreciate seeing listeners and fans post about them and include them in their own lists. If you decide to put out your own list on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or elsewhere this year, you should absolutely tag the bands. Not all of them will see it, obviously, but some likely will, and they will appreciate it. They may show that appreciation through liking the post or even commenting on it, opening up a direct line of communication between yourself and them. These kind of healthy, positive interactions in the music community are necessary to keeping it alive and vibrant. Especially for those of us who tend to follow and support a lot of less mainstream and underground acts, it’s the strength of the community and the connections we can form with the artists we support that largely keep the scene alive.

So, yes, ranked lists are far from perfect. They can be annoying, especially when they’re released as early as so many places have been this year. But don’t let that take away from the incredible year in music that 2016 has been. I ask of you (and myself) to resist the temptation to be snarky and cynical about every list you see. Instead, lean into it. Point out your favorites and points where you disagree, but don’t make it all about the latter. Share people or places’ lists you do overall like. Share your own. Keep the discussion going. And have fun. Lord knows most of us don’t get to have enough of it.

"We're all fools, all the time. It's just we're a different kind each day. We think, I'm not a fool today. I've learned my lesson. I was a fool yesterday but not this morning. Then tomorrow we find out that, yes, we were a fool today too. I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact we're not perfect and live accordingly." - Ray Bradbury