The Difficulties of Album of the Year

Here we are, at the end of another year. Critics and bloggers internet-wide (including yours truly) are struggling to put together top 20, top 50, top 100, top 10,000 lists of best albums. And it’s kind of a lot of work. It doesn’t seem like it would be; after all, we’re simply talking about listening to a ton of records and choosing your favorite. To reduce the process to its most basic level, there are really only two responses for a listener, blogger or no, to have to an album:

[ ] I liked it

[ ] I didn’t like it

Or maybe something a little more in-depth:

[ ] I would listen to it again

[ ] Get it off my hard drive and/or playlists

Yeah, that’s about it. So, you may be saying, what exactly is hard about this? Choose the ones you liked, slap ‘em on a list. Done.

Life’s Richest Pageant

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Something has always bothered me about the Miss Universe pageant (insert your own Trump joke here, if so inclined). That something is that the contestants seem suspiciously skewed towards Earth humans. No wookies, no xenomorphs (the queen “bitch” from Aliens!), no Vulcans. So it’s a bit presumptuous to call this Miss Universe, right? Maybe Miss Human of the Planet; Miss Earth would work too. The same problem applies in an equally obvious way to the World Series, limited to teams from the United States.

So how hard is it to come up with an album of the year? Well, a site like this one is, um, pretty skewed towards metal, and extreme metal at that. The bloggers here have a preference (reflected in the blog title!), though no one here is opposed to quality pop music, per se. So when we name our album of the year, is really album of the year, or is it a Miss Universe situation, where albums like Lady Gaga’s Joanne don’t stand a chance, despite it maybe/kinda/potentially being the album-of-the-year for me personally? The Miss Universe stuff assumes that the whole universe has been considered, and that is simply outside the scope of most blogs and publication’s staff members. Did Rolling Stone really consider Wormrot’s Voices when making their list?

There’s also a time factor. For me to feel like I really know an album, I need to hear it about ten times or so. So let’s say I’ve got a list of top 50 albums for the year. For the sake of argument and easier math, let’s assume that an album is an hour long. That means each listen to my list will require 50 hours, and the ten listens I’d prefer before really stating a definitive opinion is 500 hours. That’s approximately 21 days of non-stop listening: no sleeping, no bathroom breaks, no nothing but things that can be done while listening. So, you see where I’m going here. Even presuming to name an album of the year is virtually inconceivable from a time perspective, at least for me. My colleagues here at Heavy Blog are much more well-listened on the metal front. The sheer number of releases is still mind-boggling. I can’t keep up, especially as I like to know the little details that take a while to absorb. A repeated melody here, a throwback to an earlier track there. You can’t take that stuff in on the first listen. Or, at least, I can’t. On the other hand, numerous studies have shown that a listener tends to like music the more he/she listens to it, so my opinion of albums I’ve listened to a lot may be biased by that intensive listening process.

The sheer volume of music being produced has changed the way we listen to it. In the past, there were tentpole albums, that might define a year or even an era. Songs from certain albums had been heavily played on MTV, even if it was niche shows such as Headbanger’s Ball. Everyone who listened to rock music knew them. But now, it’s hard to even know what albums the public-at-large is even aware of. It’s not just a question of arguing about which well-known album is the best. For many, it’s about seeing lists of albums and saying “I never even heard of that.” Especially when it comes to rock, when the world has moved on to pop and rap and singing competition TV shows and pre-teen superstars on YouTube. In the past, albums may have captured the zeitgeist, but that time has mostly passed.

There is another side to this dispersal of the listening audience, however. As the tools of recording have become more available, the amount of great music being produced (especially music that is not driven by commercial concerns) has exploded. So what we’ve lost in staples like Dark Side Of The Moon, a record possibly owned by everyone you know, we’ve gained in Virvum’s Illuminance, a great album that might not have been released 20 years ago and, if it had gotten out there, it certainly wouldn’t have sounded so pristine. But it will never be a cultural touchstone. I don’t see this as a better or worse scenario. Just different.

I really enjoyed two albums that might be considered indie, Americana/roots or both, depending on how you hear them: Drive-By TruckersAmerican Band and La Sera’s Music For Listening To Music To. American Band even made it into my top 10, as it has really solid melodies, is somewhat of a departure sonically for the band, and features poignant lyrics that capture the current political climate. But if I struggled to hear all the metal record, I didn’t even try to hear every indie release. I’ve followed DBT for years and check out everything they release. I heard about La Sera because Ryan Adams produced Music, which generated some press for the band and I liked what I read and, subsequently, heard. Are they the best indie albums of this year? I have no idea, but the DBT record is certainly rooted in the events of this year, most notably the Black Lives Matter movement. I stumbled across them and thoroughly enjoyed them.

Also, certain things are much more obvious in retrospect. Rolling Stone “revises” reviews and has for some time. They panned it when it was new, but now it’s canonized. Did the content of the album change? Nope. Just the perspective. Better rewrite history. My favorite example of this is the fact that Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque was album of the year for 1992 in SPIN magazine. I don’t know, I guess it was pretty good, if a bit toothless. But number two, y’all. Nirvana’s Nevermind. Does anyone even remember Bandwagonesque? But SPIN had to eat a bit of crow as they’ve piled accolades on Nevermind ever since. “Sure, it’s the greatest alt-rock album of all time, though strangely it wasn’t even the best album the year of its release.” Wait, what?

 

The Pet Sounds Paradox

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As I recall, every music writer was drooling over Bandwagonesque when it was new. This raises the question of whether critic and blogger tastes really reflect the public-at-large or even their own tastes. I like to call this phenomenon the Pet Sounds Paradox.

If you pick up a list of the best albums of all time, inevitably The Beach BoysPet Sounds is gonna be on there. It’s an enjoyable album, but I’ve never been blown away by it, “God Only Knows” aside. I understand it was a huge influence on The Beatles’ later albums, and I love The Beatles. Their place in rock history is beyond dispute. As is The Beach Boys, really. But if I was making a list of my 50 favorite albums, there is no way in the world Pet Sounds would be on there. I don’t give a shit about it. Now, if I was considering historical relevance, I would absolutely include it, and thus make sure that my list would be taken seriously. Thus, the Pet Sounds Paradox is born. Somehow, an album that seemingly not a lot of people actually listen to becomes one of the “best” of all time. I’ve known a couple of musician friends that like it, but I’ve never been at any sort of social event where someone throws on Pet Sounds.

So, what are albums of the year, really? Our favorite albums or the ones we feel are the best, the most important? I was there and it sure seemed every rock critic loved Bandwagonesque a quarter century ago, but I doubt anyone would argue it has much or any meaning now. So, what was that list? SPIN’s favorite albums or the quantifiable best albums of the year? Or was it simply a matter of being too close and unable to see the magnitude of Nirvana’s impact at the time?

I mentioned Lady Gaga’s Joanne earlier. The album has personal relevance for me. It was released on the exact day that a close family member died, and I listened to it. It has a song about the death of a close family member, which really hit home for me. I like the album a lot. I’d way rather listen to it than Pet Sounds. But is it better? Probably not. I doubt it will be too influential. I’m skeptical how much people will listen to it in, say, 50 years. But right here and now, I fucking loved it.

There is, to me, a sort of groupthink that defines the selection process. If you want your list taken seriously this year, you almost have to include that new Radiohead or David Bowie’s Blackstar. And maybe you should have to. Blackstar, especially, defines 2016 in all its rock star-killing shittiness. One of the most hyped albums of this year, in extreme metal circles, is Car Bomb’s Meta. I was skeptical the first time I queued it up, but holy shit is it good! This is an album that I enjoyed a lot and that brings a new mix of styles to the table; a mix that could be potentially be influential going forward, if enough musicians hear it. I love the post-punk elements that felt fresh, at least to my ears. So, it earned its spot. But is there a certain subliminal pressure to include it, whatever your personal reaction to it? Perhaps. Another similar album this year might be Astronoid’s Air. I was on that album before the hype (“I liked them before they were cool”) so I might have had a more honest reaction, but the album straight up rules as far as I’m concerned.

 

Lists! What Are They Good For? Absolutely Something

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OK, so the two essential questions I’m asking are: how do we listen to all of the music that’s out there to make an even remotely informed decision? And what are these lists, anyway? Our favorite albums or the ones that “matter?” And is it even possible to know, right now, what will matter in a few years, let alone 25 years? Maybe not.

The thing that I find most valuable about lists is that it puts some new albums on my radar, things that I might have missed during the year. Even when there were tentpole albums, there were always a few that slipped through. Now that phenomenon is magnified a hundred-fold. But, critics are no longer gatekeepers. You don’t have to rely on someone else’s opinion before you plunk down your hard-earned cash at the record store. Want to check something out? You’ve got YouTube, Spotify, etc. I see critics and bloggers as putting all of this into some sort of context, though this makes it even more likely that year-end lists will be plagued by numerous Pet Sounds Paradoxes. So, proceed at your own risk.

All that said, I love making lists and I love reading them. I personally have worked on my top 25 for the year for some time—listening, taking things on and off, changing the order. I look forward to site readers taking a look at it and, quite likely, strongly disagreeing. And discussing. The Heavy Blog gang is already discussing and picking apart each other’s lists. That’s the fun. But my list is the albums I really enjoyed, that’s for sure. Joanne is on there. But not Blackstar. I see the historical significance of Blackstar, and I truly believe it will be remembered. But I just didn’t get into it. And that’s not (at all!) to say that every writer who lists it is a poser who felt pressured by the “cool kids.” But as Bandwagonesque shows, the risk of totally and completely fucking it up is always there.

But, if you’re reading this, you’re probably like me and you’re probably also a lot like that John Cusack character in High Fidelity, in which case: lists, it’s what we do.

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“If I am thinking the same as everyone why bother pushing to get it published?”
--Chuck Eddy






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