AMA is Heavy Blog’s monthly community Q&A column, where readers ask questions across the gamut, and we are legally required by the universal laws of “AMA” to answer them! These are edited and excerpted transcripts. To see full transcripts and participate in future conversations, join the Heavy Blog Facebook Community Group!
Welcome to the final AMA of 2020! In the spirit of the season – and by that I obviously mean list-making season – we fielded several questions related to end-of-year lists. We always have plenty to say on this topic, but especially this year as we’re finally breaking free of the trappings of end-of-year lists before the end of the year. We’ll have plenty more to say on that topic when the time comes next month. In the meantime enjoy this month’s offerings!
Supratik asks: I wonder whether there would be a ‘Top albums of the decade’ article next year. If so, I am curious as to how are you going to start making that list?
Eden Kupermintz: I’m going to be very honest with you: we’re tired of lists. There’s a few reasons for this:
1) They’re a logistical nightmare. It takes a lot of effort to coordinate them, get everyone to contribute, etc.
2) The attitude behind them, of ranking albums and comparing them on what is an arbitrary spectrum at the end of the die, just takes the fun out of music. If you ask around veteran journalists/bloggers who quit, one of the main things you’ll find is that they left because they got really tired of the ceaseless need to rank music. That’s one of the reason we dropped review scores but lists sort of bring that back. It’s also why, if this list does happen, it will be unranked.
3) As the scales increase (best of decade > best of year), the scope gets even more absurd and the spectrum becomes more broken. This happened with regular lists as well, as we were doing best-ofs for entire genres. It just makes the entire exercise even more pointless because you are 100% guaranteed to miss some fantastic albums when taking such a broad view at something.
Supratik: Wow, you just summarised the cause of most of my hair gone this year haha. Indeed, making lists and ranking albums could take a toll on the curator/s. I’d be down to participating in a user poll kind of system where the audience bears the burden of curating that list. Nevertheless, I would love to read any articles regarding this particular topic ☺️
Nick Cusworth: Basically everything that Eden said. We discussed doing that this year in fact since most people commonly think of years ending in 0 as markers of new decades even if it’s technically not correct. Where we came down is that it would have been too complicated and really not all that enjoyable for us to do in a way that would have been useful beyond clicks. Even if we had gone by genre it would have been a huge slog.
I think maybe what could be interesting and doable would be to create some unranked lists of albums that have stood up well over the past decade and are still very enjoyable/rewarding to listen to now, though it’d make less sense for albums only released within the past few years.
In essence, it’s not out of the realm of possibility, but don’t count on it ha.
Scott Murphy: Besides co-signing what Eden said, I’ll double down on the overwhelming prospect of making a Best of the Decade list. I do a fair amount of re-listening and debating to whittle down my AOTY picks every year, so the idea of having to do that 10 times and then figuring out what should rank where feels impossible. I could just look back at my past AOTY lists, but considering how much my tastes have continued to evolve, I’m not sure how useful that would be. For me, an AOTY list is a snapshot of where my head was at musically for a particular year, and that’s inherently imperfect. There are releases I’ve discovered years later that absolutely would have made my AOTY list, and then there’s albums that fell out of favor over time or offer a style of music I’ve grown away from.
Nate Johnson: A Best of the Decade list gives me so much anxiety. It’s hard to keep track of a year, let alone 10.
Simon Handmaker: I think my answer to this is that neither time nor lists are real in any meaningful sense. I appreciate ratings aggregations sites like letterboxd or rateyourmusic’s rankings of movies/albums/whatever in a year/decade because I think that’s a broad enough consensus to actually have interesting things to say but when we’re talking like, what less than 50 people think, I don’t think it makes any sense. Especially considering the age difference at HB – I was 13 a decade ago and that is going to make my list skew very differently because of what I remember/was paying attention to versus someone on the blog five or ten years my senior [Ed Note: I feel personally attacked by this statement].
Brad asks: How come some sites do their end of year lists so early? I never understood why.
Nick Cusworth: one word: C L I C K S
Any site/publication that generates a large portion of its revenue from ads relies on site clicks to create earnings. Having done this for long enough, we know very well that end of year lists generate an INCREDIBLE amount of impressions and clicks, both native from normal readership and then through social media as they get passed around and shared by people and bands.
The earlier you can get your list out there, the less competition for eyes there will be. That’s it.
Up until this year we’ve played this game, even as we would try to post our lists in late December at least. And there is something to the idea that people want to talk about year-end retrospective stuff at the end of the year rather than the beginning of the next one. But now that we are no longer running ads on the site and will no longer be dependent on clicks for revenue, there are really no excuses for us to continue playing along with this. We trust that our readership and fans will still be eager to read our year-end coverage in January even if it doesn’t catch the same level of hype as it would in Nov or Dec.
Especially in a year like this where release schedules have been totally thrown off by Covid, I think there are going to be a lot more great albums coming out in the final two months than usual, most of which will be completely ignored by most places. It’s really dumb and counter-productive if you actually care about the music and doing justice to all artists.
Eden Kupermintz: I also want to add that there is genuine “physical” reasons behind this:
1) Some digital publications (like Decibel) also have a physical component to them like a magazine. For that, you need to get entries submitted early so you have time to do all of the many things necessary to produce a physical magazine.
2) Even in digital publications like ours, people start to disappear in the second week of December. It’s very hard to get anything out there and, in fact, that has made even our early-ish AOTYs hard to compile. Of course you can say “just do it in January” but then Nick’s argument of clicks comes in. That’s what has guided us in the past: we didn’t post at the end of November or even mid-December but we didn’t wait until January to avoid being completely irrelevant. This year we don’t care so we’re just doing what we want 🙂
Noyan: That being said, I think people make way too much of a big deal of when the list cutoff time is. Lists are dumb and arbitrary and so is the cutoff time. Listen to music you enjoy regardless of when it comes out. You don’t need an album to make it to a list to be good. And if your album released on like December 27, it’s not really fair to put it on a list anyway because of recency bias.
Nick Cusworth: I agree except for the fact that many places also largely neglect albums released in December. By the time January 1 rolls around everyone is only talking about releases from the new year.
Noyan: True but I think that’s a slightly separate problem. The Game Awards for example fix that by having their timeline be November based. Aka dec 2019 releasing games are eligible for TGA 2020.
Milena asks: Do you think there’s gonna be a festival summer of 2021 or not? When do you expect to see your first post-pandemic show?
Eden Kupermintz: That’s a really tough question. Personally, I thought we wouldn’t have a vaccine before 2022 but I was wrong about that. This is really something for experts to talk about. However, all those caveats out of the way, I really don’t think so. Concerts are like a dream scenario for COVID and are just primed to be super-spreader events. You’ve got lots of people in tight spaces with no ventilation. I don’t see how the industry is going to adapt (especially with zero support like here in Israel or the US) to these conditions.
That being said, I do think we’ll start to see more things like TesseracT and their live show, that is the industry reconfiguring in deeper ways what live shows mean. We’ll see more innovative ideas for shows, better technology for pulling them off, and more willingness from fans to spend money on them.
When do I expect to see my first post-pandemic show? I don’t really go to shows anymore but I really hope that ArcTanGent (an open air event) might, maybe, kinda, sorta, I-hope-but-not-really, actually ends up happening in late 2021. But again, not holding my breath.
Nick Cusworth: What I’m seeing from most bands scheduling new tours currently is that none are starting before fall 2021. I don’t think it’s impossible that there will be some summer fests next year, but if they go on they will almost certainly be pared down a bit and transformed somewhat to accommodate for covid. Whether that means there will be requirements about taking vaccines, frequent rapid testing for attendees, forced social distancing in crowds, etc., remains to be seen. Either way there is very little chance things will be back to the pre-pandemic status quo by summer.
As for when I expect to see my first live show again, I’m probably going to be more cautious than most about this for a while, but under the right circumstances (if I can get a vaccine, it’s outdoor, etc.) I could envision seeing live music sometime next summer into fall.
Simon Handmaker: I expect to see a concert probably summer of 2022, unless something really crazy happens. I will be happy if that’s ahead of the curve but I would rather be a little pessimistic and proven wrong than get my hopes up for something that ends up not materializing.
Scott Murphy: I was able to see a concert earlier this fall (shoutout to Suitcase Junket and The Word Barn in Exeter, New Hampshire). However, it’s important to note that 1.) It was in a large field outside, 2.) He’s a smaller artist and the crowd was equally small and spread out, 3.) Masks were required.
All of that worked because it’s a granola crunchy, grassroots venue that attracts people who “get it.” But when you’re talking about much larger festivals with exponentially more people, that introduces a whole slew of variables that I feel make running a safe, socially distanced event impossible. We still don’t know when exactly a vaccine will hit, how effective it will be outside of trials, and how quickly they’ll be able to distribute it worldwide.
I’m assuming most bands and venues will want to have total certainty before booking a large festival considering all the logistics involved, and since we don’t have a firm picture of when things will be normal again, I think most big fests are going to hold tight, probably until 2022.
Josh Bulleid: The Australian Festival season is January–March, so that definitely isn’t happening next year. Having said that, I bought tickets to see Todrick Hall in January the other day, which might be a bit ambitious, but I bought them under the pretence that if it gets delayed I’m locked in. I still have tickets for Backstreet Boys and Parkway Drive from this year that got delayed to next as well, so probably one of those.
Ian asks: How much of an impact does album art have on your likelihood to listen to an album?
I’ve found myself avoiding albums people recommend to me specifically because of the album art being off-putting sometimes only to go back later and realize how great it is
Scott Murphy: It has a huge impact on whether or not I listen to an album. That might sound shallow, but it’s an important differentiator in today’s new release environment. There’s simply too much new music for me to sift through that I have to rely on context clues to see if it’s worth trying out. Covers, band names, and album titles are the fastest, clearest summaries of what an album has to offer. There are exceptions, obviously, where the cover doesn’t fit the music. But by and large, it’s pretty obvious what an album will have to offer based on what the artist chose to represent it.
Even within genres it makes a huge difference; it’s pretty easy to guess the differences between a slam, progressive tech death, and OSDM album just based on the cover alone. And again, while there can be exceptions, an artist that picks a bad album cover pretty often reflects on the music. I’m not saying every album cover has to be a masterpiece, but I can’t say I’ve encountered a lot of great albums with truly awful cover art.
Nick Cusworth: If I’m doing Bandcamp trawling, 100% it affects whether I listen to it or not. 9 times out of 10 if an album looks like amateurish crud or unironic “graphic design is my passion,” then the music is going to be a reflection of that. If you are serious about your music and have a strong idea of what it represents creatively then you will likely go the extra step to produce album art that will catch the eye of your potential audience.
Eden Kupermintz: It depends on what “mode” of music discovery. If it’s something off my list, then a friend probably recommended it to me or I’m listening for a blog thing. In that case, I’m likely to look past album art unless it’s really awful (less quality and more like, violence towards women or really realistic gore, I hate that stuff). If I’m just exploring, like a Bandcamp feed or the inbox, it 100% influences my decision. Musicians might not necessarily like it, but album art is the first thing I see from your creation and it sets the tone. Besides, fewer people are unique than we’d like to think and album art really is a good indicator of what a band will be like. Of course it’s important to pay attention and explore things regardless, but I’ve been using this as a method for years now and it has rarely failed me in both ways: I’ve found some amazing music off of cover art alone, from genres I’d never listen to, and heard music I knew would be bad based on cover art and was proven correct.
Ed Note: When thinking about this question and albums that I listened to specifically because of the art, one example that always comes to mind is We Are Impala‘s Visions. Look at that art and tell me you aren’t at least curious what the music sounds like.
Jordan Jerabek: Tons. As Eden said, it’s part of an artist’s first impression. Whether that’s leaning into a stylistic trope or using something atypical or eye-catching, it’s primarily about piquing someone’s curiosity, but it also says a lot about how the artist envisions their own work. Are they traditionalists, or are they shaking things up? I feel like its easy to get a pretty good read by artwork alone, but the times you get genuinely surprised… that’s hard to forget.
Josh Bulleid: Cool artwork will definitely make me check out an album. Iconic art also helps an album’s staying power. I don’t care about packaging in this digital age, but cover art is a big part of music that often gets overlooked.
Trevor asks: Favorite craft beer?
Eden Kupermintz: I love Sixpoint beer!
Simon Handmaker: Huge fan of Apex Predator, a farmhouse ale from Chicago’s very own Off Color Brewing
Scott Murphy: One of my favorite things about Untappd is it makes me want to always try new beers. I love pretty much every style, but my favorites are sours, stouts, and IPAs, especially if there’s something different about them. My favorite brewery is Branch & Blade here in New Hampshire. They rarely make the same beer twice and always try something new. Probably the most memorable beer I’ve had from the was “Mermaid’s Lemonade,” a gose brewed with roasted lemons and lemon juice, agave, and spirulina.
Nick Cusworth: I’ll also cast a supporting vote for Sixpoint as one of my go-tos for crafts with wide distribution (at least on the east coast). Breckenridge’s Vanilla Porter is also pretty much an automatic get for me when it’s available. My favorite microbrewery is probably Schilling Beer Co. in Littleton, NH though. Always a great selection, AND they make super bomb pizza.
Jordan Jerabek: I’m all about the hops and barrel aged shit.
Oscar Blues – G’Knight (red IPA)
Ale Asylum – Bedlam! (Belgian IPA)
Central Waters – Illumination (DIPA)
Sixpoint – Resin (DIPA)
3 Floyds – Gumballhead (pale wheat)
Toppling Goliath – Pseudo Sue (APA)
The Brewing Projekt – Resist: Blood Orange (milkshake IPA)
Avery Brewing Co. – Tweak (imperial coffee stout)
Lakefront Brewery – Riverwest Stein (amber)
Great Lakes – Edmund Fitzgerald (porter)
Lake Louie – Warped Speed (scotch ale)
Boulder Beer Co. – Shake Chocolate Porter
Josh Bulleid: I generally like dark beers with chocolate/caramel flavours. Although I don’t like chocolate itself, there was a beer going around from Moon Dog brewery this winter that was a Tim Tam-flavoured stout that was pretty great. The White Rabbits dark ale is a standard favourite that I prefer to a lot of fancier options.
Ian asks: Biggest letdowns for this year? Can be music, movies, video games etc.
Nick Cusworth: It pains me to say it, but musically it would probably be the new O’Brother. It’s not a bad album, but definitely a forgettable one, and it’s a big letdown after how amazing Endless Light was.
Eden Kupermintz: The new Open Mike Eagle. I miss the energy he had on earlier albums. The self-deprecation stuff he has on this one is fine but it lacks the luster and the shine his words and musical collaborations used to have.
In books, I was really looking forward to reading The Old Drift. It won a bunch of awards and the premise sounds great but the book is WAY too long and meandering without any real justification.
Jimmy Rowe: The Ocean should have been my album of the year and it didn’t crack my top fifteen.
Josh Bulleid: Doom Eternal was a big one but the biggest has to be N. K. Jemisin’s new book The City We Became. Her celebrated Broken Earth trilogy (2015–17) is one of my all-time favourite fantasy series, but its follow-up is one of the most uninspired and awkwardly-written books I’ve ever read. The writing is terrible and the story, which is meant to be a post-colonialist rewriting of H. P. Lovecraft’s Horror at Red Hook (1927) reads more like an(other) amateur rewriting of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1996) which just draaaaagggss. As for music, probably the new Hatebreed or Dark Tranquililty records.