Is it time to end the year-end music list?

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Pop quiz: what do the following albums have in common?

  • The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law
  • Tegan & Sara – Heartthrob
  • Local Natives – Hummingbird
  • My Bloody Valentine – mbv
  • Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
  • Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away
  • Atoms for Peace – Amok
  • David Bowie – The Next Day
  • Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience
  • Marnie Stern – The Chronicles of Marnia
  • Wavves – Afraid of Heights

Answer one: All of these were reasonably well-received records released during the first quarter (January-to-March) of 2013.

Answer two: All of them feel like they came out a long, long time ago.

* * * * *

It’s year-end list season, and if you’re at all familiar with some of my writings here on the blog, you know I’m a fan: if done right, lists are wonderful conversation starters that can help both writer and readers better understand and appreciate what makes great records so great (or, conversely, what makes weaker records not-so-great.). Year-end lists are a great opportunity to tie together the year as it was, while also revisiting and reminding others about albums that may have fallen off the regular rotation but deserve to be celebrated.

But this year my revisiting process, normally fun, has been a struggle — and not on account of the quality (or lack thereof) of the records. No, my issue is that nearly all of those albums above feel so incredibly distant to me (as do some records from even later in the year) that assessing their place in “2013” is leaving me at something of a loss. With a couple of exceptions, they feel like albums that spoke to a much smaller unit of time than a calendar year yet, on objective quality alone, some of them absolutely deserve to be considered among the year’s best.

Which has led me to a somewhat uncomfortable conclusion: I think we may need to end year-end lists.

* * * * *

Now, let’s not get alarmist here: year-end lists aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. (In fact, I’ll still be doing mine later this month.) List season is a great for web traffic, after all, as everyone clicks through to see where their favourites are ranked. Year-end lists will probably be part of the critical ecosystem for the foreseeable future.

But the whole point of a list is to try and make a summary statement about musical culture with a given parameter: top 5 Beatles songs, ranking the Wu Tang solo records worst-to-best, the 500 greatest metal albums, etc. The year-end list suggests, by its very nature, that the calendar year is an appropriate parameter within which to assess our current musical culture.

And I’m not sure that’s the case.

Maybe it never was. After all, the whole idea of reflecting on a “year” as a unit of time is that some things happen the same way every time: seasons, holidays, vacations, economic cycles, work cycles, etc. It makes for easy points of comparison. Music culture is not without its own annual traditions — festivals, award shows and the like — but the musical experience itself is often much more varied. Some songs linger around in the public consciousness for months, others for fleeting moments. A great record might be tied to certain settings of experiences (cars, walks, working out) but seem less universal outside of them. Under these terms, perhaps using the year as a musical yardstick has always been a bit awkward.

But it certainly feels like it’s getting more and more awkward, and that’s because the Internet has amplified and accelerated popular music’s hyper-commitment to now. The entire promise of pop is the now, after all: building a world in 3-4 minutes that comes down to one chord, one choice, one feeling right now in front of you. The Internet is the same way, just with different tools: breaking news, latest tweets, “most recent” Facebook posts. Current music culture and the Internet itself, intertwined, both value the hyper-present.

This means a music culture based on an endless stream of now-ness, even when it’s peddling nostalgia. (“Album ______ turns 20 years old TODAY.”) As well, the Internet has obliterated the two traditional barriers to accessing music itself: scarcity and wealth. YouTube makes the latest musical moments, from songs to live performances, available at the touch of the button, and services like Spotify and Rdio mean that each week’s new releases are there, waiting for you, every Tuesday, pushing aside the new releases from the week before.

People who write about music for a living are used to this: it’s their job to be living neck-deep in the musical now. But the Internet can make anyone into a music critic of sorts, instantly attuned to the latest conversation points in the culture. The flip side of this, though, is that they also have the opportunity to dive deep into the now-cycles of their favourite bands. Take Arcade Fire, for example: do you know how many times I’ve seen the band perform “Afterlife” on their publicity tour? It’s unquestionably one of the year’s best songs, but I already feel like I’m nearing the point where I’m done with it and it’s only a month old. The goal of the publicity cycle (single > video > album > interviews > tour > repeat) is, ostensibly, about expanding reach, but our flattened digital culture means that its divergent corners can all come together at once in an exhausting cacophony.

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So, to sum up: we’re constantly coming in contact with new things to like, and when we find something we like, we have so much of it available that we can quickly reach our capacity for it.

That’s why great records like mbv and Push the Sky Away feel so distant from “2013” to me: they had their moment early and, then, after extensive listening, I moved on. This might suggest they weren’t really that great after all — “staying power” as a metric of quality — but in the current deluge, only the most extraordinary albums can possibly justify having a presence in one’s life throughout the calendar year. (Well, that and albums that play the pop game well: Timberlake may have fumbled with 20/20 Part Two, but the months-long promo cycle for the first record was well executed and resulted in that record feeling more like it spanned 2013 to me than, arguably, anything else on that list above, despite being hardly the best.)

The bottom line is that, when you stop and think about it, comparing albums from January and February with those in November and December might not make all that much sense anymore (if it ever did). If lists are about conversations, year-end lists don’t reflect any authentic real-world chatter: the only time we really compare albums from year’s start and year’s end in our fleeting music culture is in the year-end list itself.

(Aside: you could extrapolate my argument here and suggest that lists with longer periods of time as parameters — “best of the decade,” for example — are even more problematic. I’m not sure I agree, though: I think my problem with ranking music within a “year” is that it fails to reflect the speed of current musical culture and also is too short a window of time to add real perspective. In contrast, a decade list offers a much more thorough opportunity to reconsider and revisit records. So I think I’m okay with it.)

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Solutions for the year-end list’s shortcoming? Maybe we look at music by quarterly season instead. After all, there’s something genuine and relevant in the annual quest to determine “the song of the summer,” as it’s more grounded in the current, lived experience of music culture. Alternatively, the “half year” list phenomenon already seems to be gaining a foothold on many music websites — “2013’s best albums so far” — so perhaps we could take that to its logical endpoint and make the December component of that process focused solely on albums from July to year’s end.

More likely, though, the year-end list will continue. There’s something charmingly absolute about wrapping up of another 365 days of music in a big, red Christmas bow. But don’t be surprised if, over time, the year-end list starts to feel like an antiquated relic of a different, slower musical time.

Let the countdowns begin.

2 responses to “Is it time to end the year-end music list?

  1. Pingback: 2013: The year of underdog pop? | McNutt Against the Music·

  2. Pingback: Fighting the false fierce urgency of “now” | McNutt Against the Music·

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