Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Best Tracks of 2009... Or rather, my favourites, your favourites and this year-end listopocalypse!

Somewhere, not far from this blog, lists are being made and totals are being totted up. They're being double-checked and ratified... 

It's coming to that moleskin Almanac time of year again. A time when everything has to be wrapped in a ribbon and buried in a capsule of time to ensure the world of music can take stock and move on. The overlooked all year, will remain overlooked (unless the publication in question focuses on the overlooked), with a few palatable concessions. Mixtapes and playlists are being woven together with such anal detail that you'd think a song following a song could cure ear Aids. Then, when the best albums and tracks have been sprinkled with corked wine, it's time to list the acts who will be bigger than bejeezus in 2010...Oh and this year's a rollover and you'll also be bombarded with end of decade lists too (sorry!).

Who will top the lists? Who will care? Oh, yeah, the people who rely on these lists to pick their festival bills and book acts for TV shows, they will care. As will those clueless types at brands, wanting to be on trend with their client's chequebooks. That's before noting how these lists also become a reference point for those who contribute to them. This is why lists are dangerous, because they oxygenate the flames of hype, whilst cementing what you probably already knew if you were paying attention and what you probably would find out about anyway, if you weren't. Yet, so much time is given over to these lists and so much fuss is made of their 'importance', yet they're utterly flawed!

Oh to be able to step back and see it as the ramshackle folly that it really is - a marketing exercise. A cynical manipulation of "this is who we are, this is what we stand for." Or, if you're not in the media a "this is who I am, this is how coolandjustlikeyou I am, aren't I?" list. Thankfully, this time of year we're so blinded by the Christmas lights and collectively ensnared by the capitalist buy-some-shit values of 'the holidays' that it's hard to snarl at the year-end window displays which'll be coming to a new Firefox tab near you, soon.

If all this sounds obvious so far, that's because it is. Oddly, the discontent is isolated and quiet because it's hard to dissent about what a music blog or magazine has to say, when the airwaves are riddled with seasonal novelty and pop music swimming in an inch deep mainstream. You can leave comments but in the grand scheme of things, you, me and mardy columnists, we all know these lists are predetermined nonsense.

I wish I could believe that a year will end without the muddled but prevailing 'popular things are popular' mentality. I wish, just for a moment, that a few influential publications would sidestep their PR relationships and the "well, we already said this..." and "we can't forget that after we did a cover feature with them," ass-coverings. I wish these charts mined the depths of people's passions, rather than were mindful of the audience gap which results in a liberal peppering of pandering to the predictable choices. Yawn.

Instead of people people telling you why one album is important, huddles of staff members pick lists and totals are totted up - no-one's personal favourite album of the year ever making the top 5 or getting the time to shine that they believe it deserves (else Panda Bear woulda topped the 2007 DiS list). And even the lists staff members submitted probably made concessions for weighted, political, democracy-blurring reasons. I know this because I've done this taken this tactical low-rad when submitting my lists. This is why, last year, despite previous year's democratically voted charts, the DiS year-end list wasn't totted up but approximated and influenced by patterns pulsating from people's year-end lists - kinda like an inversion of how American political parties pick a candidate and then leave it up to everyone else to pick a president, only with me dictating the winners. It wasn't perfect but looking back at the list now, it doesn't seem too silly. It reflects who our audience are and the readers we'd like to appeal to if they only first hear of us by our end of year list - which looking at our stats, is about 400% the average number of people that read an article, so these lists are fairly important in the grand scheme of our business. This year, I'll be running things similarly but also presenting every staff members end of year list and as of Monday, every user of the site can make their own list and rate every record, so we're have the best rated album of the year, as well as a staff list, come mid-December.

No-one ever really talks about why they don't like end of year lists (although Hipster Runoff did a damn fine job of ridiculing them), I guess because you're not really allowed to say you don't believe in the fundamentals of democracy, unless you want to appear as some tormented dictator-in-waiting. But then, when it comes to music, things shouldn't be measured by how agreeable they are. Words like palatable and "quite nice" are the enemy of music (music journalism, especially), yet year end lists seem to reflect little more than this. There's nothing worse than something that is so mediocre that the largest possible swathe of people can agree upon - when did MOR become middle of the superhighway? Middling, what a horrible word, who wants to find out what is average? [See also: the success of Coldplay. Although I'd love to believe in a meritocracy where things that are good, get big!]

Music is, has always been and should forever be about individuals. Not just renegades and pop puppets but people so exceptional they stand out and connect, and in doing so, find an army of people willing to defend (ideally, to the death) why what they've created means so much, to all of those it offends. Music is a divisive art-form and should be all about personal connections manifesting as a undeniable passion that can't be reduced to a broad brushtroke 'list'. Yet, it seems in a way, technology has made us retreat into our little trenches with glowing screens and tinny speakers which has left us craving a sense of collectivism whilst searching for self-definition. I've never really understood why some people like music purely for its unifying capabilities - it all feels like falling in line, become enslaved to our similarities and abilities to fit in. [Although I really love songs that are universal, so I'm a contrary bastard at the best of times but admitting as much weakens this 'argument'].

Music should be about opinions that don't attempt to scale and define the impossible "What is the best?" question. Because to answer it, requires the ability to define how this 'best' was quantified and most media doesn't have room or the attention spans for much more than "it just is" (this is why I don't particularly like the Brits and the Mercury Music Prize, especially in an age of such transparency, given the impact they wield. Maybe it's moreso their impact I don't like...).  And why does 'best' now just seem to be the success of marketing? And by marketing I don't mean billboards and Editor's Google street map, but the 'positioning' of acts so that their relative merits become a forgone conclusion, especially with tip lists. It's all about the lineage at the foundations and the undersell of expectations. The investment in playing every relevant international festival but playing all of them smaller, earlier, to ensure bigger crowds. The artist associations via street tours or family ties or syncing; the hook, the strap-on party-line, the teeth-sinker. I dunno why people argue that it's about the music or how good you are live, when last year's big tip La Roux didn't play her first gig 'til the February and her people had only let people doing the tipping hear the first two singles?! At least with the year-end lists people have the benefit of hearing the albums, in the context of other albums but obviously not every has the ability to hear every album before making an informed judgment, blah, blah, blah....

Surely the results of these lists are the antithesis of why people get or got involved in music in the first place? Maybe to be able to infect them is why some people get involved in the first place and invest their lives in the music they believe in (pretty much why I released the Kaisers first single). Perhaps, in an age of public charts like and, which can measure things in more quantifiable ways, the end of year lists and January tip lists have lost their importance anyway. Maybe it's only media and the hardcore audiences sites/mags already have who care and will never be please, any of the time. Yet, the influence these things wield, ends up infecting the populace in the long-term, so it pays to be influential (lolz), even if it's only upon the minds of an intelligentsia. 

It seems the only thing we can all agree upon (or at least that I can agree with myself) is that, on aggregate, whatever list it is, it doesn't represent anything that's truly 'the best'. Perhaps these lists are little more than symptomatic evidence of what's wrong with the entire system and yet, rather ironically, they're also reflective of what's truly happening in media. Personally, I think it's interesting the difference a few passionate voices can make in a sea of indifference. It'll warm my cockles that amongst every list, there are many a few surprises and a few records which I hadn't taken the time to check out, so they're not without use.

Ultimately, there's only one real winner and that's the perpetual loop of success, fueled as much by marketing as the nice, agreeable, universally sound, 'quite good' qualities of the music.

Anyway, without further ado...

My Albums of the Year (listen on Spotify)
1. Paramore brand new eyes
2. Phoenix Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
3. Metric Fantasies
4. St Vincent Actor
5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs It's Blitz!
6. Manic St Preachers Journal for Plague Lovers
7. Grizzly Bear Vecktamist
8. Idlewild Post-Electric Blues
9. The Veils Sun Gangs
10. Arctic Monkeys Humbug

My Songs of the Year

Or as a Spotify playlist.

My Tips for 2010
This is what I sent to BBC Sound of 2010 this week... although I also wrote this for Sunday Times Culture about these kinda tip lists.
1. Free Energy - tracks on Hype Machine
2. James Mercer (The Shins) & Brian Burton (Danger Mouse)
3. Joy Orbison - tracks on Hype Machine

(explanations to follow at a later date on DiS)

1 comment:

Ally Brown said...

Sorry, I read that yesterday so I may be going off-point here (or repeating somethings you already said?) - I think the problem with lists reinforcing the canonical positions of average albums is that the list-compilers ask for too many votes from the writers. My listening throughout the year is influenced a great deal by what is well-reviewed and hyped and what my friends recommend which itself is influenced by what is hyped etc. it creates a never-ending hype-circle when these albums place i.e. 9th on everyone's list and then finish 2nd overall. That's what makes lists boring - the boosting of solid GOODs at the expense of less-heard GREATs. So, don't ask anyone for their 9th favourite. Why not just ask for the writers' top three albums of the year, no more, all of which they will undoubtedly genuinely love, and all of which they will probably have to write about to compile the big list. And sure, there might be a few notable omissions, but that's a small price to pay for not being boring.

As for the final ordering, there are a number of options - multiple votes add up of course, and you could split the rest on any number of criteria... or the writers could get 'points' to divvy up i.e. everyone gets 20, so my No.1 gets 8 points, 7 go to my No.2 and my No.3 gets 5.

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