From an insightful piece by Philip Cosores in Uproxx:
From track lengths to chord progressions to song structures, the amount of math involved in what sounds good to the ears is the least sexy aspect of music, right up there with the language of recording contracts and the cleanliness of tour buses. But it wasn’t until the rise of services like Spotify and Apple Music that the mathematics of music felt so dangerous. Namely, the math involved in streaming. […]
It’s been music critics who have been beating the drum about the dangers of streaming algorithms lately … but most of the time the criticism is less about well-researched investigations and more about gut feeling call outs, directed at music that is often simultaneously commercially successful and critically derided. Over the course of the last year, you’d be hardpressed to find a negative album review that didn’t at some point evoke the idea of The Algorithm being to blame for the music’s perceived lack of quality — it has become this specter hovering above popular music, ready to sink its talons into anything that finds commercial success. […]
Of course, the music world has changed because of streaming, and many artists and labels will always look to trends when creating their own strategies and aesthetics. But blaming streaming for the music that you don’t like feels increasingly closed off from reality, where streaming is, in fact, influencing most of the music that is being consumed, regardless of quality. This is no better or worse than it has ever been, it’s just a recent mode of consumption that musicians are learning how to work with.
It’s impossible to argue that in the history of commercial music — even before recording technology — there was a time when the means of delivery wasn’t an influence on songcraft. Whether it’s writing an opera with
Of course, there are artists creating music specifically to exploit Spotify as a platform — the ‘poop song’ guy immediately comes to mind — but I agree with the thesis of this piece. It’s easy to accuse music we don’t like of solely catering to ‘the algorithm’ just as we once derided songs made specifically for pop radio or albums in the ‘70s that seemed so serendipitous they were obviously capitalizing on a trend.
The favored target of the music critic is ever-changing (and I love music criticism and feel it’s necessary, so don’t take this as a slam). The identity of that target is a gauge of where music stands and the ways we, as music fans, feel uncertain in its progress. Emerging trends create a widening feedback loop, making it increasingly difficult for the critic to separate the calculated from the cultural. Yesterday’s disparaged made-for-MTV band is today’s algorithm-friendly artist. And, soon enough, probably tomorrow’s A.I. assisted songwriter.
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.”