I recently wrote about ‘Best Of’ lists and the practice of using them as a guide to finding acclaimed albums one might have missed over the past year. Since writing that post, I’ve decided that playing catch up on the previous year — which might take all year! — only ensures that I’m always catching up. I’ve started the year, as part of my ‘album a day’ routine, looking to the present with the goal of my own ‘Best Of’ or ‘F
But these end-of-year lists remain a fascinating study. They reveal trends, changing attitudes, and clues to where the mainstream is going.
Rob Mitchum has been aggregating many year-end charts to create a mother-of-all-lists. He’s been doing this since 2013 so comparing his results over the last five years is starting to reveal swings and transitions. This year is marked by diversity, increased critical acceptance of popular artists, and the lack of a clear breakout winner for the number one spot.
When asked about why there isn’t a breakout pick for best album of 2018, Mitchum pointed to a paradigmatic shift in music writing that’s led to better representation and coverage of music genres across the board, with more albums thus vying for preferential treatment. “Music writing has become a lot less indie rock-focused, and there’s a better diversity of music opinion, which levels the playing field a lot for albums …” he said. “You can see in 2013 already how critics have been broadening out to other genres. If I had started the project fifteen years ago, it’d be more apparent how music writing has changed.” […]
Mitchum stressed that it’s good for music when critics move towards a wider variety of genres, and more consideration of the popular and the mainstream. “There’s a lot of alarmist writing on algorithms and streaming, but data-driven music discovery can be good… and I guess that [my] project is another way of saying that,” he said.
These results also show how much the mainstream has changed in the past several years. The sound of popular music has been affected by unlimited access to emerging sounds and cross-pollination of genres that previously would have stayed in tight niches. There hasn’t been an obvious new musical movement or style since perhaps the ‘90s, but I’d argue that a lot of current popular music would sound downright experimental to someone listening ten or fifteen years ago. It’s good to see critics supporting this.
However, for a ‘Best Of’ list reality check here’s some straight talk from book publisher Anna Trubek from her always enlightening Notes from a Small Press newsletter:
… I feel a fool for falling for [Best Of] lists, which are really “favorite books read by critics, who must read the must buzzed-about books for their jobs, so much-buzzed-about books are a large percentage of the books they read, so they often end up on the Best of lists, which are really just their favorites, and a tiny percentage of the total number of books published in a year, and so these lists are all a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy.”