Year-end lists reconsidered




I don’t mean to get all self-righteous — because it’s a new year and I’ve given that up completely — but yesterday’s New York Times article critiquing critics' album-of-the-year picks gave some legitimacy to a claim I’ve been making for a while (most recently in the intro to my own year-in-music piece).

Times writer Jon Caramanica centers his argument around Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” an album that’s No. 3 on his own list (Rick Ross and Taylor Swift earned the top slots in that order).

His concern is the rest of the media’s virtually universal proclamation of Kanye's contribution as the Best Album of the Year. Here are excerpts from his argument:

"Its reign has been tyrannical — surprisingly, less because of Mr. West’s maniacal and loud sense of self-importance than because of the unimaginative group-think the album has spawned. In the waning weeks of last year it was hard to read about music without being assured that this album, Mr. West’s fifth, was a world beater. It topped lists. It received perfect scores.... But consensus is less a measure of greatness than of social climate. And when the year-end lists of several prominent outlets with different demographics and agendas — the magazines Rolling Stone, Vibe and Spin; the Web sites Pitchfork and Stereogum — share the same winner, it almost certainly indicates intangibles at play.

"More vexing were some of the ratings, with outlets falling over themselves to grant Mr. West a top score: a rare 10.0 at Pitchfork, a slightly less rare 5 stars at Rolling Stone (which also gave that rating to his second album, “Late Registration”), an A from Entertainment Weekly (in fairness, a not infrequent grade at that magazine). And so such reviews are bones dropped for approval by tail-wagging puppies.

"These ratings and rankings make a statement about not only the presumed quality of the album, but also about institutional decisions regarding an artist’s worthiness, and about those institutions’ desire to be seen acknowledging an artist’s worthiness. Enjoying an album is a private, micro affair; certainly not everyone on the staffs of those publications felt that Mr. West’s album was the best. But advocating for it is a macro decision, carrying the weight of many — and by extension, all, not one."

Out on the other coast, the L.A. Times published a welcome antidote to the pack journalism that seems more prevalent than ever in this year’s Top 10 lists:

"The Times asked a select group of music writers to identify the one release of 2010 (or two, some couldn’t resist) that they felt bad about omitting from their top 10 lists. What follows are second-chance tips on the albums you should hear that didn’t get as much attention as Arcade Fire or Kanye West did; and for the musical authorities whose love can’t stay within the limits of an even number."

Among the artists that these critics said should have made it onto their own lists were singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, New Orleans legend Irma Thomas, soul-jazz artist Bilal and, erm, Katy Perry. The fact that three of these had gone unheard by most music writers, myself included, is pretty understandable. But that’s really more an excuse for what gets left off these lists, not what gets put on them.

All of which begs the question: Would readers be better served learning more about writers’ favorite artists, instead of the ones critics expect to fit in with the consensus among their peer group? Worth considering, I’d say.

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