In 2011, why bother with a midyear music list? Look at what’s to come

Entertainment Column
Written by Nathan Mattise

Everyone who writes about music loves compiling best-of lists. No exception here. I spent early July musing over a first-half Top 5 (in no particular order: Reptilians, Kaputt, w h o k i l l, Nine Types of Light, Within and Without) then lamenting the slew of other releases I like but would have to exclude.

Some really big guns released solid albums (The Strokes, Radiohead, Death Cab for Cutie, Lupe Fiasco, Peter Bjorn & John, Foo Fighters, The Decemberists, The Cars, Paul Simon, Danger Mouse).  Some growing or lesser known entities produced worthy listens I wanted to champion (Cut Copy, Yuck, Telekinesis, Cults, Tennis, Eleanor Friedberger, Lykke Li, Noah and The Whale) and some acts I don’t care for, despite recognizing their ability and success, continued to perform (Panda Bear, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver). Virtually any combination from the albums listed above could be justified as a compelling, valid list and my running first-half tally likely overlooks a number of underrated gems.

Despite all that, it’s entirely possible no album from the first half of the year will end up in a 2011-ending Top 10. Consider the following 10 albums slated for fall in light of their most recent releases (and corresponding Metacritic scores):

St. VincentStrange Mercy | Last:  Actor (81)

Clap Your Hands and Say YeahHysterical | Last: Some Loud Thunder (63)

Feist – Metals | Last: The Reminder (79)

The Black Keys – [Untitled] | Last: Brothers (82)

Kanye/Jay-Z – Watch The Throne | Last: [Solo albums from both]  (Kanye – 94, Jay-Z – 63)

Neon IndianEra Extrana | Last: Psychic Chasms (81)

Mates of State Mountaintops | Last: Re-Arrange Us (71)

Lil’ WayneTha Carter IV | Last: Tha Carter III (84)

DrakeTake Care | Last: Thank Me Later (75)

WilcoThe Whole Love | Last: Wilco (The Album) (76)

The two lowest scores on that list come from Jay-Z (who is collaborating with the highest scorer, had “New York State of Mind” on that recent album and boasts a track record dwarfing his recent release) and Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah (whose self-titled debut is a modern indie landmark). You can expect above-average critical work from these 10 artists without much worry to about. Adding these (and potential late year dark horses such as Blitzen Trapper, Mister Heavenly, M83, Theophilus London) to the list of albums above creates an enormous logjam of year-end candidates. Close your eyes, pick a list and you still stand a chance at being considered a knowledgeable, go-to critic.

Is 2011 some fluke boom of good music? Certainly a strong year but probably not. 2010 carried similar expectations . The reality now seems to be every year will present an over abundance of critically loved albums making consensus at the top rare beyond a few select releases (see The Suburbs or Dear Science). I have a few quick, underdeveloped theories as to why:

1. The decline of album sales removed a ratings factor that previously denied bands praise.

In the past, it was easy to look at albums like Thriller or  Nevermind and see critical adoration validated by albums sales. Nowadays it’s rare that any album, let alone one with critical buzz, can move millions of units. In fact the albums that do reach that status are often dismissed critically and have their success attributed to pop commercialism. Sales figures no longer even enter the discussion for how good a band is.

The decline of album sales also forces bands to act quicker to capitalize on success. Even the most established of  bands cannot release an album once every five years and hope to remain financially viable. This causes the best artists to produce more albums in shorter time frames, resulting in a musical marketplace saturated by top talents year in and out.

2. The internet gives everyone a voice, meaning more “legitimate” critics to help establish band credibility.

The first sentence of this post links to a different respected music outlet with each word. That sentence does not even include mid-year lists from any radio station, Rolling Stone, Paste, Largehearted Boy, BBC music, Hipster Runoff, Pop Candy, Brooklyn Vegan, The Village Voice or any other number of places where an informed music fan could turn for news and opinion today. As recently as 10-15 years ago, were there 10 established outlets a majority of devout fans believed carried value? Think how many you can name today.

The internet provided more opportunities for music writing, leading to more sites gaining followings and thus influence. With more places carrying authority, their klout will be divided among a wider variety of artists. For example, say in ’95 that 10 outlets with sway existed and they each picked 10 artists: 100 bands max received year-end acclaim. This math increases exponentially today allowing more artists to gain the distinction of being critically heralded.

3. There really are more good albums being made today

The combination of more critics with more pressure to apply (a musical system of checks and balances?), increased accessibility to music of potential influence (more tours + shorter album cycles + the internet) and less barriers to music creation really led to more quality music releases. The 50th best album of 2011 will be more innovative and socially accepted than the 50th best of 1995 even if both will soon be forgotten.  This simple theory more than any other could be at the heart of why every year brings an abundance of albums to consider for year-end glory.

All things considered, I’ll still craft year-end lists until I stop keeping up with new music. My personal lists won’t carry the weight of some individuals backed by larger, more established media outlets but our pool of candidates are the same. It’s wider and yields more right (in terms of viability) answers than ever before, so maybe the critics and I aren’t as far away as we once were.

(Links today from Metacritic, Pitchfork, Stereogum, NPR, NME, SPIN, Sound Opinions, Consequence of Sound, AV Club, Spinner and Merge Records)

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