A LISTMANIA INTERLUDE: WHAT MAKES AN ALBUM ONE OF THE BEST OF THE YEAR?
In this piece I’m following up on a discussion that began in the Comment section of one of yesterday’s posts.
We’re in the middle of that time of year when metal sites (and cross-genre sites) publish lists of the year’s best albums. I suspect the initial reaction of most people when they see these lists is to agree or disagree based on whether they liked or disliked albums on the list, or whether the list omitted some of their favorites. Of course year-end lists can also be really useful as a guide to new music that people might want to check out for the first time.
But let’s take a step back and ask a highly relevant question. In fact, it’s so highly relevant that maybe writers who create lists should be answering it explicitly when they announce their picks: What makes an album one of the year’s best? The Comments in yesterday’s posts suggested some different ways of answering that question.
Using 2012 old-school death metal releases as an example, one commenter wrote: “They may sound pleasant to our ears, yes, but most of it just ain’t gonna cut it for ‘Best of’ lists, because ‘Best of’ lists ought to honor bands that have at least pleasantly surprised most seasoned extreme metal listeners by pushing the boundaries of their chosen genres or coming up with unique crossovers done thoughtfully and musically coherently.”
To me (and some other commenters), that seems unduly restrictive. The truth is that not many bands in a given year successfully pull off such feats, and even when they do, that doesn’t necessarily mean their albums are going to be among the best of the year.
Believe me, I understand the attraction of music that’s new and different. Especially if you spend a lot of time listening to new albums, something that doesn’t sound quite like anything else tends to grab your attention. And on top of that, I suspect that some music critics, either consciously or subconsciously, like to praise albums that push or cross boundaries as a way of showing how refined and discerning they are as critics. Just getting sustained enjoyment from an album doesn’t seem to be enough.
On the other hand, the fact that an album is widely enjoyed and extremely popular doesn’t necessarily make it one of the year’s best either. I don’t know of any way to find out what the bestselling metal albums of 2012 are, given the vast number of ways in which fans acquire music these days. But in this respect I doubt that metal is any different from any other genre of music (or entertainment more generally): “most popular” does not necessarily mean “best”.
Here, from The Font of All Human Knowledge, is a list of the highest-grossing movies of 2012 to date:
Are these the 10 best movies of 2012? I guess it depends on who you ask, but I sure don’t think so. There are some vey entertaining movies on this list, but I wouldn’t call any of them one of the 10 best of the year.
I’d like to think that metal fans are more discerning about music than the average moviegoer is about movies, but I believe the point is still a valid one: Even in metal, “most popular” doesn’t necessarily mean “best”.
So if being “unique” music that pushes boundaries is too restrictive a criteria and being widely enjoyed is not restrictive enough, where does that leave us? Is there a place on a “Best of” list for albums that don’t break new ground or push the envelope and yet deliver music that’s extremely well-written, very well-performed, and highly memorable?
I think the answer is Yes. In fact, I think a decent argument could be made that an album is worthy of Best of Year status even if it’s not highly memorable. You can become so thoroughly overwhelmed, torn down, turned inside out, altered at your core, by an album that it becomes a landmark in your existence, and yet be unable to repeat the songs in your head a week later.
Having said that, I do agree that the best albums in a year are generally those which are also most memorable. Creating metal that really establishes an emotional connection and stays with you is not easy — if it were, many more bands would succeed in doing it. And generally, if you can’t remember much about an album, or how it made you feel, a month or two after you’ve heard it, it’s tough to say it was one of the year’s best.
Here’s another question that seems relevant to this subject: To what extent should personal taste enter into the creation of a Best of Year list, and is it even possible to divorce personal taste from the decision? For example, if I were to make a Best of Year list, you would see no power metal on it. Why? Because I don’t really enjoy power metal. And because I don’t really enjoy it, that means I don’t feel qualified to judge what’s best in the genre, and I would have a very difficult time comparing it to the best albums in metal genres that I really DO enjoy.
I suppose this kind of problem could be handled in the way Best In Show winners are supposedly picked at the Westminster Dog Show. How do you pick between a Great Dane and a Shih Tzu? As I understand it, the judges try to pick which dog is the most ideal representation of its breed. You might not care for Shih Tzu’s generally, but in a given year you might be able to decide that the best Shih Tzu entrant better represents its breed than the best Great Dane in the competition.
Frankly, I still don’t see how it’s possible to do this, i.e., to filter out personal tastes, to compare apples and oranges, and to reach something like a truly objective comparison of albums across a wide range of musical styles. I know this question is addressed in academic literature on criticism — none of which I’ve read, because I’m just a half-assed metal blogger. However, it does seem like an important question.
But look, I didn’t write this post just to express my own thoughts on the subject of what criteria should be used in picking a group of albums as the year’s best. In fact, as you can tell, my own thoughts on the subject aren’t fully formed. The main reason I went down this road was in hopes of getting a discussion going — or rather extending the discussion that began yesterday.
So, what do you think makes an album worthy of “Best of Year” status? When you think about your own personal list of what you thought was the best of what you heard, what caused you to pick certain albums and not others? And are there albums you would name “Best of the Year” that are neither ground-breking nor unique nor envelope-pushing but are just really well done? In deciding what metal to track down, what makes you give weight to some Best of Year lists you see while ignoring others?
P.S. If you’re wondering why I put that painting at the top of this post — other than for the obvious reason — its title is “Interlude”. The artist is Douglas Hofman.
Here’s Andy Osborn’s list from The Alchemists Cave
He writes “You’re just reading a list of a bunch of stuff I love, influenced by my random brain and completely subjugated to my mood, feelings, and non-logic” and that is as good as reason for EOY list as any.
I also quite agree with this bit from hos conclusion: “In terms of the industry, the biggest game-changer is without a doubt Bandcamp.”
I really enjoyed reading that. Very interesting list too. The albums on there I know really make me want to hear the ones I don’t know.
Yeah, that’s exactly how I felt too. I see a few Bandcamp searches coming up.
I’d never seen the Cyanic album and it totally destroys.
I stumbled across Cyanic in this MISCELLANY post, and it is indeed an awesome piece of destruction.
Actually I quite like how he starts with ‘biggest disappointments’ – we all talk up the albums we love, and I certainly don’t have much time for slagging off bands (there’s more than enough of that going around), but sometimes you’re looking forward to something and it just doesn’t live up to your expectations.
Right off the bat, I thought it was odd that he was disappointed in Nachtmystium for returning to their roots and then in the next paragraphs wonders why bands (Enslaved in this case) can’t resist exploring their inner Pink Floyd once they get a taste of it. Especially since the Black Meddle albums were so Pink Floydy. But of course, it reflects his personal opinions on those band’s early work.
Also, finally somebody puts Cattle Decapitation in their number 1 spot. It’s been oddly overlooked, imo, in a lot of the lists I’ve seen.
If you take a look at the lists sent in by musicians to MetalSucks Cattle Decap appears a good number of itmes.
What it all comes down to is personal opinion. Using the word ‘best’ or even ‘good’ is highly subjective to one’s own opinion. I have a top 12 of 2012 list going on at my blog, where I clearly state what I feel about said albums as my own opinion and then try to persuade readers to give the music a try.
This is why I made sure to mention mine was a personal favorites and not a best of. I don’t see any bulletproof way for discerning a best of in a subjective medium. As for giving weight to the lists of others, I look for their inclusion of some of my favorites alongside things I may not have heard and a certain amount of stylistic variety. I fell in love with music 30 years ago and have considered myself a metalhead for 25 years so my tastes are pretty wide ranging (y’all may have noticed). All these years have shown me time and again that some thing you love now may lose their luster fairly quickly while something you thought was “okay” will slowly worm into you and become a longtime favorite. I would suggest looking back at our own year end lists from previous years and seeing if we still agree with ourselves.
Sorry if this makes no sense. I just woke up and have no fuckin coffee. 🙁
I’m drinking my fuckin coffee now. I had this thought in between gulps: the more music someone listens to and the longer someone listens to music, the better able they are to tell what will last and what won’t, depending on how many brain cells they lost over the years.
That’s pretty accurate, though there are always exceptions and I’ve lost a lot of brain cells. 😉
I have listened to probably less than 1% of ALL the music that was released this year. Therefore, any list that I personally compile will be GUARANTEED not to include some of “the best” music of the year. My list will include what spoke TO ME personally, the most out of the music that I HEARD this year. I can’t promise anything beyond that.
And so it is that every Best Of list is an exaggeration. No one seems to label them “Best Albums I Heard This Year”, even though that’s what they are, at most.
I’ve listened to maybe. MAYBE 3 entire albums from this year. I don’t know if I’ve even listened to the–nope. No, I haven’t listened to the entire Aborted album.
Bah, if I liked it and I liked it enough to go out of my way to tell you I liked it, that puts it among the best.
You can trust me. I am infallible. Mostly. Well, except for when I’m wrong.
Okay, well that answers that. What did you think of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted?
I think I’m glad I didnt see
My personal “best of” list is definitely based on my own opinion of what I liked most…and I guarantee most everyone else’s is too. When it comes to music, there is no objective way to decide what constitutes “good” or “best”, its just a reaction to what we find pleasing to listen to (hence why so many of you people here love tech stuff, and I…dont 🙂 ) .
Like I said briefly in the other thread…pushing genre boundaries is great, but it isnt the only characteristic of a well done album. At the end of the day, whether its through a unique element or a just a riff we really like, I think the only factor we really take into account is if the music grabbed our attention and was able to hold it.
PS..my music list is totally the best albums of 2012..total fact
Great. This will save me a lot of time since now I only need to read your list. I wish you’d told me this sooner.
I figured you already knew this after the last couple of years…I was just letting the rest of readers know
The main thing wrong with these lists is that they’re being published now. Ideally they should be published a few months into 2013 giving the music of 2012 proper time to sink in.
Will the newly released album you’re very excited about now still hold water? And what about albums released in November and December, do they get a fair chance?
Point. I want to amend my reply to Valley of Steel’s comment. No one seems to label these lists “The Best Albums of 2012 That I Heard Before December”, and yet that’s what most of them are. I guess it just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Yeah totally agree. I just got Finsterforst in the mail, and I’m thinking after a few listens it’s up there with anything I’ve rated as ‘Best of 2012’. These premature lists are a good way to hear about bands you hadn’t caught… but definitely a few months into the following year would be a better bet for making lists.
I’ve had a few ‘late to the party’ finds over the last few years – Cynic’s Traced In Air I didn’t hear until about 2010, just this year heard Septic Flesh’s The Great Mass. Two stellar records I didn’t catch the year they came out, probably both of which I would put in my ‘best of ever’ albums list if I were to draw one up.
Also maybe we should just rephrase these as one’s own personal ‘most liked albums’ list. For me, it’s all about whatever I’ve had on high rotation.
I just find that it makes for a very good follow up post once January or February rolls around…”Albums that should have made my 2012 list” or something like that
This is kind of funny to me because as I was compiling my list I realized that very few if any people would consider any of the albums “Best of” anything so I was trying to think of a better term and all I got was “Best Albums I’ve Heard This Year”. It’s either that or “Shit I Got In 2012 That I Think Is Awesome And Also Think Other People Should Check Out” but that’s just too fucking long.
You could just shorten it to “Shit”.
I think it’s possible to separate personal preference a little bit, but not completely. I mean, I probably enjoy the new Charon album more than the new Be’lakor album, but I do like both and I think there are more bands doing Charon’s style of black/death metal well these days than there are bands doing melodeath well. So I put Be’lakor a little higher for that. But personal tastes are always going to be reflected in a “best of” list, and I think it’s good to realize that when you read someone else’s list or you’re more likely to end up getting agitated.
Yes, but using your example..thats just a reason youve chosen to place it higher on your personal list. What your saying is you think the Be’Lakor album stands out a bit more because you think good melodeath isnt as common anymore..Thats still an opinion based on your own personal observations and tastes.
My personal thing about music is that it’s separated into two major categories: Artistic and Entertainment. Artistic provides entertainment, but it’s generally more serious and focuses on a musical direction that breaks boundaries or just does something new (Deathspell Omega). Entertainment is just fun to listen to (Pathology). I think if I were to do a more formal list I’d make two of each to keep things clear, I think Andy did something like this last year. But I’m not making a list, for reasons which are obvious.
Seriously guys. Send me all your albums from this year. I might finish listening to them by the end of next year.
It’s pretty safe to say that no matter who I listen to this year Cattle Decap is going to be at the top. If I’d have to go off of anecdotal evidence, Aborted, Sigh, Anaal Nathrakh, Tempestuous Fall, Aevangelist and that’s all I can think of, would be on there.
Interesting thing about the parallels with movies and an album being groundbreaking vs. memorable. In a movie discussion elsewhere, the author of an article brought up the point that many times in The Academy Awards, a movie may in fact be the most technically competent or even emotionally resonant of that particular year, but few of those “best movies” ever last in the general consciousness. The relevance of the ancient academy members and notorious nepotism is a topic for another discussion, but just simply looking at a list of Oscar winners of the past and see this idea play out: http://www.oscars.org/awards/academyawards/legacy/best-pictures.html
I would say roughly only a 3rd of the overall best pictures still have a lasting impact. Moreover, many movies that lost out to the winners go on to maintain their legacy in Hollywood while the winners are forgotten (the most famous example off the top of my head is when Shakespeare in Love beat out Saving Private Ryan; which one of those mas made a bigger impact?) MaxR mentioned that Best Ofs should be done in months after to allow time for separation. But much like movies, I think it truly takes years of separation to truly determine what the Best Of anything was for a given year.
On that note, I’ll be publishing my “best of 2002” list very shortly…
Hah, too soon…but clearly the time has come for my “best of 1985” list
Oh, I think you should add this to your list then
Man, I’d forgotten that Saving Private Ryan lost out to Shakespeare In Love. I thought of another movie analogy, when really good movies get overshadowed initially by equally good movies. In 1994 Forrest Gump won Best Picture — but the other nominated films included Pulp Fiction, Four Weddings and A Funeral, and The Shawshank Redemption (which didn’t do well at the box office when it was released but has gone on to set records for how often it has been watched on TV). I’m agreeing with your point that it takes some time to realize which albums will have staying power and continued appeal.
Well, my “Best Album of 1970” is Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath”!
I had 42 years to realise it has staying power and continued appeal.
And on that note, The Thin Red Line lost out to Saving Private Ryan. A travesty of equal measure.
For me it’s a mix of several things, to varying arbitrary degrees –
an album that I really enjoy listening to, no matter how many times I hear it.
an album that is just undeniably great, that forces me to like it from first notes to last (these are rare)
something that sounds fresh, whether it’s an excellent take on something I’ve heard a hundred times before, or something entirely new, as long as I think it’s awesome and I enjoy it, it’s likely to be on my list, unless I have 25 better albums already.
For no good reason, I try to stop at 25. I’ve tried smaller lists, but they don’t do justice to what I think are great albums, even if they aren’t the absolute best (maybe 5 per year), and more than that gets a little too inclusive for me.
For my end-of-year lists I try to sample broadly from different sub-genres, and take the top 3-5 or so from each that I listen to. That gets me to 25 really fast, and I have to make some tough choices. If I start by listing what I thought were 10 solid death metal albums, then apply the criteria above to each, I can narrow it down, but it’s really hard for me to compare across genres towards the bottom of those starter lists. It boils down to personal preference at that point – maybe I love my 6th favorite death metal album more than my 4th favorite black metal album, and so my final list has 6 death metal and 3 black metal albums. Or maybe I just flip a coin at that point.
The best part of making a list though is re-listening to all of the albums that I thought were great or might have overlooked as merely good. That’s a lot of good music to listen to.
I think a “Best Of” list has to be based on personal favorites.
If a band is getting praise all around for pushing boundaries and doing stuff never done before yet I don’t like it…then it’s not going to make my year end list.
I appreciate bands trying to do this but my personal taste doesn’t prefer it.
I base my year end list on how much enjoyment I got out of it, how often I went back to it and how memorable it is.
Who could possibly decide a true best of when each and every one of us have different taste?
Use these lists for what they are; lists based on personal taste that you could possibly discover new music through.
I know I have a blast going through peoples lists and youtubing bands I’d never heard of, or bands I only know in passing.