What’s Happening to Best Album of the Year Lists
For many pop music critics, December was once the most joyous month, and it had nothing to do with holidays. Immediately after Thanksgiving, when new releases were all but suspended until the following January, we began to compile our ten best albums lists. The habit had been a seasonal journalistic enterprise for books and movies for many years, but for the first generation of rock critics, the endeavor became formalized with the first of a consecutive series of Robert Christgau’s 1974 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll in New York’s The Village Voice.
Christgau began a test run in 1971, contriving the name “Pazz & Jop,” inspired by the feature in the short-lived Jazz & Pop magazine in the late 1960s. Jazz & Pop created the mathematical formula for which the Voice’s poll was based, and even rock critics who scorned math in school obsessed over the arithmetic: a list of 10 albums, highest grade 30, lowest grade 5, with a cumulative total of 100 points. Those of us who contributed from that 1974 start slaved happily over our homework, fine-tuning our numerical awards and redoing the math as if a NASA mission depended on it.
The top ten in 1974, that year, from the aggregated 28 critics, including me. (Numbers are total points, followed parenthetically by number of ballots mentioning the record.)
|1.||Joni Mitchell: Court and Spark (Asylum)||186||(14)|
|2.||Steely Dan: Pretzel Logic (ABC)||157||(13)|
|3.||Randy Newman: Good Old Boys (Reprise)||154||(13)|
|4.||Stevie Wonder: Fulfillingness' First Finale (Tamla)||153||(15)|
|5.||Rolling Stones: It's Only Rock 'n Roll (Rolling Stones)||150||(12)|
|6.||Bob Dylan and the Band: Before the Flood (Asylum)||139||(10)|
|7.||Roxy Music: Stranded (Atco)||106||(7)|
|8.||Jackson Browne: Late for the Sky (Asylum)||85||(6)|
|9.||Eric Clapton: 461 Ocean Boulevard (RSO)||83||(7)|
|10.||New York Dolls: In Too Much Too Soon (Mercury)||76||(8)|
No jazz, not enough women (Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel was No. 11, but look who is No. 1) or people of color to satisfy the socially aware Christgau, but plenty of what was becoming formatted as “album rock”: many contained hit singles, some were rock critic specialties, but all but the Dolls were universally recognized by fans, readers, and the critics as good or great important albums by good or great important artists. There was just not that much distance between what was thought to be the cult of critics and the popular choices of radio listeners and record buyers.
Now, we live in an era of perpetual lists, so numerous in social media that they’ve spawned a cute name: listicles, as in, “here’s a listicle of my favorite cat videos of the year.” Lists and rankings permeate so many facets of our digital lives (daily lists, from one to ten, of most influential albums from high school, for example, from my graying Facebook cohort) that they’ve become a nuisance, a waste of fonts and bytes.
But when it comes to the ten best albums of our current year, a different problem arises: albums don’t really matter in contemporary popular music (pop, rock, rap, R&B) anymore. Rare is the artist (Adele, Taylor Swift) whose fans buy hard CDs in any measurable quantity, and even fully thought-out, album-length collections of songs are infrequently reviewed by a dwindling mainstream music press. The old gatekeepers—mainstream newspapers such as The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, legacy rock media such as Rolling Stone and Spin, and the once abundant alternative weeklies (from The Village Voice to New Times in various cities) have disappeared or have drastically cut down on album review coverage.
There are exceptions: Pitchfork pays serious, often too serious, attention to a wide swath of contemporary rock music. The online Guardian in the U.K., read worldwide, has top-notch pop coverage, and the U.K.-based print magazines Mojo and Uncut continue to publish more than a hundred reviews of new and archival albums every month. Relix, the magazine for Deadheads in a post-Grateful Dead world, covers albums with wide bandwidth but not much depth.
Pitchfork also provides exhaustive year-end lists, but we’re here to talk about albums. Pitchfork’s 50 Best Albums of 2019 (promising, in the subhead, “FKA twigs, Bon Iver, Kim Gordon, Da Baby and more”) starts in reverse order—Floating Points at 50, Faye Webster (49), Danny Brown (48), Barker (47). Counting down the top five: Solange, Angel Olson, Big Thief, FKA twigs, and finally, at No. 1, Lana Del Rey’s Norman F*cking Rockwell. Christgau would have been pleased with both the female representation and persons of color in this hugely diffuse list, but its very variety is the best argument about the absence of purpose in today’s albums. A deeper look at the list (six to 10: Bad Bunny, Helado Negro, Fennesz, Weyes Blood, and Purple Mountains) suggests the possibility that not many of these recordings as albums meant that much to too many people. Or each of them meant a lot to very few people.
Rolling Stone takes a contrarian position for a magazine that once identified as “counter” and as the first redoubt of the male rock star. The top four of its Best Albums of 2019 might be those of any typical teenage white girl: Number four: Taylor Swift, Lover; three, Del Rey’s Rockwell; two, 17-year-old phenom Billie Eilish’s Where Do We Go When We All for Asleep?; and number one, Thank U, Next by Ariana Grande, now an undeniable talent at a stage of quickening development, but come on: Ariana Grande, Rolling Stone? Did any of the board of critics who chose this listen to this album as an album at all? Did anyone give it more than three-and-a-half stars (a recurring joke for decades among those who find the RS star ratings a might overcautious and 3-1/2 star album reviews ubiquitous)?
Gone are the days when you walk through a college dorm, hear fascinating music coming from a turntable, or even a boombox or Bluetooth speaker in another room, knock on the door and make a lifelong friendship with either the person or the artist. Each individual enjoys their noise in silence: in their rooms, while walking, in cafeterias, while on public transportation, almost from waking to sleep, everyone with their own earbuds listening to their solitary playlists. Those who’ve decided on genre preference: hip-hop, whatever’s left of alternative rock, classic rock, or pop (now a mostly R&B/hip-hop hybrid), metal or something called post-metal, listen to music on devices (by that I mean phones) that seem to be equipped with warning signals if the listener strays from their musical lane. Speaking of such common safety features in new automobiles, it is not insignificant that many new cars are no longer equipped with compact disc players. I can stream effortlessly from my phone, or copy albums I own to a USB drive, but the impulse to grab a CD or 10 for a trip of any duration is to be resisted.
In other words, the album may be over, a fear articulated by The New York Times when it published the top ten lists of pop writers Jon Pareles and Jon Caramanica: “Our critics chose the best albums of the year, a format that is in an increasingly fragile state in pop music.” Eilish was number one on the list by Pareles, whose tastes run global: his top five is rounded out by Brittany Howard (formerly of Alabama Shakes); Africa Speaks by Santana and Spanish/African singer Buika; Athena, by Sudan Archives, the name of the project by multi-instrumentalist Brittney Parks; and Almadura by Puerto Rican songwriter iLe. Del Rey is number seven on the Pareles list.
Caramanica, whose specialties are both hip-hop and country, lists 14 albums. He places Del Rey at No. 6, with the first slot for the artist known as 100 gecs (“the sound of internet splatter,”). The eclectic-in-a-more-orderly way Bad Bunny, “the definitive global pop star of the last two years,” is No. 2. Kanye West’s Jesus is King is No. 9, Grande is 11, and Swift No. 14.
Del Rey seems to be as much of a consensus selection as one might find in 2019. She is the clear number one on ten best list aggregator Album of the Year https://www.albumoftheyear.org/list/summary/2019/, getting 408 drawn from 117 sources. A distant second was one album that might have done well in a classic critics poll: Ghosteen by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (273), just two points ahead of FKA twigs’ Magdalene, with Eilish and Angel Olsen clustered close behind. The new album by now-mainstream Vampire Weekend (Father of the Bride) was No. 11, which makes sense, because it was just inside or outside the top ten in every relevant list I surveyed.
But here’s the rub. Even Del Rey appeared at No. 1 in only 12 of the 117 lists AOTY surveyed. Conspicuous for its low ranking was Bruce Springsteen’s Western Skies, in an exact tie with Taylor Swift’s Lover and alt-country-rock firebrand Jenny Lewis's On the Line, ranked 33-35 with 62 points each.
Still, the future of ten best album lists remains bleak, especially for veteran critics who long for the formality and stature of the Pazz & Jop poll. Two established critics in my social media circle published such lists on Facebook out of habit, need, nostalgia, or desperation. And one told me in an email that the 10 albums he posted on social media were pretty much the only ones he could think of that he listened to from beginning to end more than once. American Songwriter listed its top 25 alphabetically, which seems a sane choice, though indecisiveness and nuance get lost in the compromise.
The problem, of course, is that listeners, labels, and the streaming companies that rule the music business don’t fetishize albums as we once did. In 2019, most music appeared to be made, beat by catchy beat, to go in one ear pod and out the other, as deeply considered as turning on the streaming faucet from which music pours, one solitary listener per song at a time, setting set to Shuffle.
Wayne Robins is a veteran music critic and journalist. He is a former editor of Creem, was pop music writer at Newsday/New York Newsday, and has contributed to dozens of publications and web sites around the world. Author of three books and a contributor to many anthologies, he is an adjunct professor at St. John’s University in Queens, NY.