When album of the year lists go bad

I have wondered out loud whether I should delete this blog because it’s irrelevant and reactionary. Because I write about obscure struggling prog-rock bands rather than about millionaire rappers I’m an old man yelling at clouds who should stop taking up a younger generation’s space.

No, nobody has explicitly said that to me, but it’s the dog-whistle subtext coming from The Guardian’s album-of-the-year rundown this year. Several of the write-ups wear identity politics on their sleeves, and at least one crosses over into unsubtle race-baiting. It’s hardly a surprise that the comments have turned into an ugly mess of racism and ageism.

I have nothing against any of the individual entries, except that they’re not my thing, and nothing in the write-ups makes me want to investigate further. And it goes without saying that none of the music I love gets a look in, but that’s been true every year for as long as I can remember.

It’s all because The Guardian insists on doing an aggregated ranked list.

Ranked lists work for single-genre specialist publications, like prog or metal, because all the records are evaluated and ranked by the standards of one consistent aesthetic. It works for your individual list because it’s a personal thing, and the list is as much about you than it is about the contents.

But when a publication that aspires to cover a broad range of genres with radically different aesthetics takes that approach, it all degenerates into a zero-sum game pitting genre against genre, and the results are never pretty. Especially when The Guardian seems to have a winner-takes-all voting system that ensures that whenever a critical mass of voters like the same things, their choices crowd out everything else. Every year their top ten ends up looking very samey, notable as much by what is excluded than by what’s actually in it.

The critics’ individual top tens, published after the ranked rundown almost as an afterthought are always far more interesting and illuminating. Perhaps next year they should give the individual critics’ lists a lot more prominence, and emphasise the aggregated list rather little less?

There is so much music out there nowadays that it’s impossible for any one person to keep up with it all. In a musical context like this, exactly what is the value of a ranked list of lowest-common-denominator mainstream records?

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One Response to When album of the year lists go bad

  1. Michael says:

    There is so much music out there nowadays that any one newspaper cannot hope to cover it all.