Heavy Issues – How Do You Decide Your Album of the Year List?

We here at Heavy Blog like to ponder the big questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What makes one album “better” than another? You know, the big stuff. In order to better address such pressing matters, we bring you Heavy Issues: a semi-regular column by which we plan to get to the bottom of things.

Now that the end-of-year season is over we’re asking : How do you decide your AOTY (list)?

Read our responses below and weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments.

Josh:

My album of the year list for 2019 is a lot more subjective and hedonistic than I’ve tried to be in previous years. Every list is subjective, of course. (That’s kind of the point of these things isn’t it?). However, whereas in previous years I’ve made an effort to weigh my personal enjoyment of a record against its inherent quality and cultural impact, this year’s list more accurately represents the albums that I’ve listened to the most and which have brought me the most joy in 2019.

Looking at my list, it’s the 6–8 range (Tool, Cult of Luna, White Ward) that feel like the truly monumental and definitive records of 2019. Those albums also feel more like a culmination/realisation of an idea, along with Cattle Decapitation at 2, rather than just a really outstanding collection of songs. In other years, these albums might have had the edge, but I just haven’t had the energy for abstraction this year. At the end of the day, it’s my list and, although loftier heights may have been sought and achieved elsewhere, I must have listened to the Hath, Marina, Killswitch Engage, Todrick Hall and SiXforNine records at least once a week each; sometimes multiple times a day. It’s still a balancing act, but this year I decided to go with my gut and recognise the albums that made me feel the best, rather than the ones I think might be.

As far as actually constructing the list itself: I keep an itunes playlist of my favourite throughout the year, which I tinker with and adjust as I go. I make an effort to go back through everything and revisit things that may have dropped off or I may have overlooked, as well as the albums that seem to be getting traction elsewhere in late November/early December. By the time AOTY season rolls around though, it’s usually pretty set in stone already.

Josh’s Top 10:

  1. Hath – Of Rot And Ruin
  2. Cattle Decapitation – Death Atlas
  3. Marina – Love + Hate
  4. Killswitch Engage – Atonement
  5. Todrick Hall – Haus Party, Part 1
  6. Tool – Fear Inoculum
  7. Cult of Luna – A Dawn To Fear
  8. White Ward – Love Exchange Failure
  9. SiXforNinE – Parallel Universe
  10. The Ritual Aura – Velothi

Honourable Mentions: Norma JeanAll Hail. Letting go of #11 is always the hardest part.

 

Karlo:

When I first entered the blogosphere my (naive) AOTY process centred on me trying to be as ‘objective’ as possible. There was a constant tug-of-war between how much I enjoyed an album and how ‘objectively good’ I thought the record was. I felt incredibly burdened with this perceived need to have the perfect list and to ensure genres that weren’t in my usual wheelhouse had some recognition; even if the records I chose from those genres weren’t ones I ever saw myself wanting to relisten to. “Sure, I may not love Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, but I know (or at least I know/have read from enough people that do know) that’s it’s a great jazz record so I’ll throw it in.” Of course I still had to like the record to some extent, but internal thoughts like that were common.

For the past couple of years I’ve thrown away all pretense of objectivity, and the reasons are clear. Firstly, my stated aim of objectivity is simply not possible when it comes to a list. One may plausibly claim music can objectively ‘good’ or ‘not good’, but even at this binary level there is a huge swathe of grey. Scale that up to an ordinal ranking among the ‘good’ group and objectivity is (one might say objectively) out of the window. Secondly, by explicitly referencing other people’s opinions on whether certain records were ‘objectively’ good, the exercise becomes somewhat redundant. Ultimately, it should be my list. Finally, I’ve learned to trust my blogmates more. I don’t need to carry the burden of having the best albums on my list. I can just submit my favourite albums, trusting that my peers will do the same and that whatever rises (near) to the top is undeniably a great record.

So what does my process look like now? Enjoyment is the number one factor, which is why records from Northlane, Fit For An Autopsy and Eye of the Enemy rank a lot higher than perhaps they would have in prior years. Eye of the Enemy embodies my new approach. Sure, it might sound like fairly meat and potatoes melodeath / NWOAHM, but it’s meat and potatoes seasoned just the way I like it. I still run into headaches, like tossing up between something that’s an 8/10 all of the time vs something that’s a 6/10 most of the time, but a 10/10 when the setting is right. I still don’t have an easy answer to that and the answer changes depending on the albums in question. However, if I’m really struggling to split two records I do have a couple of tiebreakers up my sleeve: concept and/or progressive/technical records will (rightly or wrongly) generally get the edge in my book.

Finally, in terms of mechanics I construct my list in real-time throughout the year. Once I’m familiar with a record I place it into one of three broad categories: albums I want to revisit, albums I enjoyed but probably wouldn’t revisit, and albums I didn’t enjoy. The former category is where my final list is drawn from. I keep it roughly ranked as the year goes by, and then in November/December I’ll relisten to everything at least one more time to get my final ranking.

Karlo’s Top 10:

  1. Northlane – Alien
  2. Fit For An Autopsy – The Sea Of Tragic Beasts
  3. Hath – Of Rot And Ruin
  4. Eye of the Enemy – Titan
  5. Schammasch – Hearts of No Light
  6. Leprous – Pitfalls
  7. Unprocessed – Artificial Void
  8. White Ward – Love Exchange Failure
  9. Evergrey – The Atlantic
  10. Fleshgod Apocalypse – Veleno

Honourable Mentions: Since voting for/publishing our original lists Warforged finally clicked with me and, in retrospect, would’ve featured very highly in my top 10.

 

Bill:

We all face our own biases and genre constraints when coming up with these lists but doing so for punk will always be difficult, if not nigh on impossible, because of the increasingly wide range of sounds we, as an audience, will slap that label onto. However, for this year’s list I used a pretty crude methodology. As I listened to new albums throughout the year to recommend or comment on in What’s Up Punks I kept a list of the albums that stuck with me. Even so, I found in assembling this list that there were some that had stuck with me even if they weren’t written down in my “further listening” list.

That said, I did place some constraints on it. I wanted to give some of that “top 10” recognition to the albums I felt both merited it and could use the signal boost the most. It was a bumper year with both PUP and The Menzingers coming out with great new albums while some of my all-time favorites like Tim Barry, The Get Up Kids, Good Riddance, and Strung Out, among others, produced great new material. However, when it came down to brass tacks I had to choose the albums that stuck with me the most whether from a sheer artistry standpoint (La Dispute, Zeta, State Faults, etc.) or the unreasonable number of times I would listen to an album and cajole others in my personal bubble to do so even if they don’t typically listen to “punk” (Dead Bars, Nightmarathons, Cold Wrecks, and so on).

It’s not exactly the most scientific method but in assembling the year end column I wanted to give as much shine to as many albums as I could reasonably do while maintaining what I saw as the integrity of my own list and what I try to accomplish with What’s Up Punks, which is trying to expose our audience to as much (what I think is) good music within the genre that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle. The same way Maximum Rock’n’Roll used to do for me when it was the premier place to discuss obscure (and not) punk rock when zines were a staple of the scene.

Bill’s Top 10:

  1. Dead Bars – Regulars
  2. La Dispute – Panorama
  3. Clowns – Nature/Nurture
  4. Zeta – Mochima
  5. Bars of Gold – Shelters
  6. Petrol Girls – Cut and Stitch
  7. State Faults – Clairvoyant
  8. Nightmarathons – Missing Parts
  9. Cold Wrecks – This Could Be Okay
  10. Makewar – Get It Together

 

Pete:

This year, I really wanted to have a more expansive list for my end of the year lists. I keep track of everything I listened to this year on a spreadsheet. As I’m listening to the record, I mark whether it’s worth a second listen. I go back and review my revists and make a note if something is worth returning to again. It’s a pretty constant process of weeding things out over the course of the year.

More to the point, it’s hard to say exactly what makes the list and what doesn’t and why. There’s no really objective way to rank these things, but I think I’ve figured out what exactly makes me love a record. It’s more than just personal taste. To the extent I can fairly judge the merits of music, I try to keep my personal taste out of it as best I can. I have my personal genres and sounds I automatically love, but that isn’t what makes a good record.

The first question for me is whether the record is interesting. Is it doing something to grab my attention? Is it bringing something new to the table? Maybe it’s expanding something from an established artist. Whatever it is, the record has to be interesting. It has to have some originality and uniqueness about it to make it special. If you don’t have that, no one’s really going to bother with your music. You have to make it worth their time.

Once that’s established, I balance it out with accessibility. Is this something I also actually enjoy? That may seem subjective, but I think you have to be doing something that people also want to listen to. There are a lot of musicians out there making interesting music, but if I don’t actually enjoy the experience then it’s just forgettable. There’s someone out there who has written the most profoundly deep songs you’ve ever heard, but if they’re singing those lyrics while randomly banging trash can lids then you probably aren’t going to check it out.

It’s not the perfect system, but it’s the best system I can come up with. Art’s always going to be subjective anyway, so we’ll all naturally disagree on these lists. Please don’t @ me.

Pete’s Top 10:

  1. Blood Incantation – Hidden History of the Human Race
  2. White Ward – Love Exchange Failure
  3. Immortal Bird – Thrive On Neglect
  4. Shabti – Trembling and Shorn
  5. Dreadnought – Emergence
  6. Mizmor – Cairn
  7. Green Lung – Woodland Rites
  8. Fit for an Autopsy – The Sea of Tragic Beasts
  9. Alcest – Spiritual Instinct
  10. Baroness – Gold & Grey

Scott

Ever since I started treating music consumption as a serious hobby, I’ve maintained a conflicted relationship with year-end lists. Put simply, I love the fact that I’ve compiled an AOTY list for the last several years much more than the process required to create them. This year pushed that task to the limit; with a further refined method of curating and tracking new music, I listened to an all-time high 600 new releases this year. Naturally, whittling that down to my eventual top 50 (let alone a top 10) was quite the endeavor.

I’ve also developed a process for tackling this challenge. The first step is by far the least glamorous; I combed through all 600 releases on my spreadsheet and labeled them all either “Yes” or “No.” In this stage, my decisions are based purely on my personal enjoyment of each release and weighing whether I would regret excluding them. I forget the actual numbers, but I cut my list roughly in half in this stage.

Once that round is completed, I take the first of several breaks from looking at my list. Allowing myself time to think about the albums I cut and kept and to return with a fresh perspective might be the most important part of effectively working through such a large stack of contenders. Additionally, every time I return to my list, I change how the albums are sorted so I’m always looking at a “new” list. Things easily fade into the background after we’ve seen them in the same configuration so many times, which is why I try to create change however I can, whether that’s ordering them by band name, album name, release month, and so on.

The next batch cuts is a bit more nuanced. I add a “Maybe” option to allow for some potential changes down the line after further thought. This again whittles things down by about half and brings us to the truly challenging part. From the lists of “Yes” and “Maybe” albums, I create the first draft of my Top 50. Along with considering my own enjoyment (the most important criterion, obviously), I also think about each album’s potential staying power beyond the current year, as well as the impact the album might have had or will have in its respective genre or music in general.

I repeat this process several times until I find a Top 50 without any room for substitutions. Then, of course, comes the dreaded task of ordering them. As we outlined in our Staff Top 10s post, it’s incredibly difficult and arguably impossible to adequately compare and rank so many albums from across the musical spectrum. So instead of trying to do this with 50 albums, I segment the list in 10-album tiers. I look at the list and ask myself which album did I enjoy and/or listen to most this year, repeating that personal reflection until I compile 10 releases. After comparing that 10 to the remaining albums, I lock it in and use the same rubric to order the specific tier. You can probably see that this approach naturally unlocks my album of the year. Rinse, repeat, and boom, you have an ordered top 50.

That’s pretty much it. The specific trials and tribulations of how I keep or drop an album are a bit too nuanced; obviously, those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. But in developing this process and the means by which I keep track of new music each year, I’ve similarly grown my ability to analyze music effectively. I’m not only better at parsing out what I think is a quality and subpar release, but I’m also open to more genres than I’ve ever been before.

Scott’s Top 10

  1. Lightning Bolt – Sonic Citadel
  2. Orville Peck – Pony
  3. Pound – ••
  4. Exulansis – Sequestered Sympathy
  5. LINGUA IGNOTA – CALIGULA
  6. Dysrhythmia – Terminal Threshold
  7. Toro y Moi – Outer Peace
  8. clipping. – There Existed An Addiction To Blood
  9. Hashshashin – Badahkshan
  10. Xiu Xiu – Girl with Basket of Fruit

Eden

One thing you need to understand about the way I consume music (and, indeed, much of my life) is that anxiety plays a big role within it. I’m always worried that I’ll miss something great and, even worse, that I’ll forget something great even though I’ve heard it and did indeed agree it was great. Therefore, I keep lists and kanban boards to help me stay on top of things; at any given moment, I have about eight different stages that an album can go through. I actually start compiling my AOTY list at the beginning of the year: I create a spreadsheet titled “Albums I Enjoyed This Year” and add any album that makes a big impact on me to the list. What’s a “big impact”? Pretty much anything I decide it is; one of the ideas I did away with pretty early is that your albums of the year have to be albums you’ve listened to a lot.

Albums I’ve heard a scant few times during the year can be in my top 10. Perhaps I don’t listen to them as often because they’re just that effective and loaded. Perhaps they only hit a certain mood but when I’m in that mood, they’re all I want to hear. Regardless, somewhere close to November that list starts to overflow; this year, there were close to two hundred albums on it. Then beings the painful process of narrowing things down. I look at other people’s lists to see if I missed anything, go back to anything on my list that I need more time with and start to cut into the living flesh. I narrow things down to a top fifty. That’s the easy part. Then, depending on the year, I create consecutive steps (40, 35, 25, etc.) These are unranked for now, it’s just binary: are you in or are you out?

Once I have twenty five albums in front of me, I rank them. I start from the top down; I usually know what my top ten albums are. Then beings the agonizing process of placing albums after it, where eleven is usually super meaningful (AKA, this album is just as good as the first ten and numbers are bullshit) and the choice I most agonize over. The rest I slot as I see fit, trusting my gut to figure out the nuances between number nineteen and number twenty for example (hint: there isn’t much of a difference). I then agonize over it for a few more days, share it around close friends and make adjustments based on how vocal they are with their “where the fuck is Album X?” or “why is Album Y so low?” and away we go.

Eden’s Top 10

1. Bent Knee – You Know What They Mean
2. Dreadnought – Emergence
3. Exulansis – Sequestered Sympathy
4. Xoth – Interdimensional Invocations
5. Old Solar – SEE
6. Ashbringer – Absolution
7. Atlantean Kodex – The Course of Empire
8. Green Lung – Woodland Rites
9. Snooze – Familiaris
10. Iapetus – The Body Cosmic

Honorable mentions: please for the love of God listen to The Tea Club‘s If/When. It’s only number eleven on my list because of how crazy 2019 was. It might as well be number one. OK, goodbye.

 

. . .

That’s it for us, but we want to know how do you decide your album of the year lists? Let us know in the comments, and if you have any questions or topics you’d like the Heavy Blog crew to cover, suggest away and we may use it in a future installment!

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My pen halts, though I do not. Reader, you will walk no more with me. It is time we both take up our lives.