Monday, January 16. 2012
A couple days ago I decided to stop adding new lists to my metacritic files of new records and reissues/vault music. That left the former with 4622 records, and the latter with 826. I had put together similar files for several years running, but this year's file was, if not the largest ever, the most dilligent and systematic. Throughout the year I tracked Metacritic and most of the online semipopular music publications that regularly reviewed records and provided grades that I could (like Metacritic) convert into a numbers. Depending on the publication, I decided that a grade of 70-80 would be counted as a review of interest, and I dutifully jotted them down for everything except classical music. I looked at Metacritic weekly, and I looked at nearly everything else every month or two. I used this research to find records of personal interest, and jotted my own grades down when I managed to listen to something -- a subtle but insignificant bias in the final totals.
Then when people started posting year-end lists -- something virtually everyone involved in reviewing records winds up doing sooner or later -- I collected those two, broadening the sweep: where I tracked 93 sources during the year, I wound up with 414 year-end list sources (some of those producing multiple lists, so figure at least 500). The number of publications tracked was significantly up this year, but the number of year-end lists was down -- in 2010 I counted literally everything I could find, no matter how ill-informed or sloppy the compilers. This year I was pickier, looking for established publications and knowledgeable critics -- especially bloggers confident enough to produce long lists. If a list came to 100 records, I counted them all, giving them equal weight. This is arguably the wrong approach if you want to find the best-liked record of the year, but it does help find a wider range of records -- and that was my main interest. (There are some cases where I didn't count records that hadn't previously made my list -- this especially happened in looking at foreign lists, which were occasionally thick with unheard of local releases.)
I picked up lists from all around the world -- the listserv at Acclaimed Music Forum was a rich resource, especially as it picked up lists from print publications that were otherwise hard to find. I avoided local-specific lists: best Canadian releases, best local Austin bands, etc. I added in most genre-specific lists: again, eschewing classical music, also so-called Christian music. I wound up counting a lot of metal lists although I didn't go out of my way to find them. I did look for electronica, hip-hop, jazz, and country, and much less successfully for world. For jazz, I wound up counting all of the year-end lists at JJA, plus most of the ballots to our recent Jazz Critics Poll. Still, indie rock dominates by a large margin: that's just where the press is saturated. There's also a UK bias, thanks to the fact that about half of the English-language music publications are based there.
What follows is a cleaned up version of the results for the top 100 records. The second column has the total count. Following the record info are three numbers: the number of top-3 list finishes, the number of top-10 list finishes, and the number of tracked pubs that rated the record high and/or included it in a year-end list. If you click on the arrow, you'll get an abbreviated list of the top-10 publications (top-3 italicized; the abbreviations and all of the sources are here), and you can toggle the expansion away. Finally, in brackets, you'll find my grade for the record, which mostly shows that I don't think there is very much correlation between where a record places and how good it is.
There are three or four jazz records in the top 100 -- Akinmusire, Rollins, Zenon, you decide about Stetson. Their tracked counts are very low, basically because it was hard to find jazz magazines to track, but they cracked the list because I had a lot of individual jazz critic lists. I could 13 hip-hop or r&b records on this list -- 4 of which were download only (Weeknd, Frank Ocean, ASAP Rocky, Big KRIT). Further down the list: Clams Casino, Danny Brown, Charles Bradley, Das Racist, Childish Gambino (all close at 41-48).
Electronica placed 11 records, although the electro-pop borderlands are hard for me to gauge, so maybe less (M83, Little Dragon). Off the list includes Rustie, Balam Acab, Justice, Kuedo, and Andy Stott, but the dropoff is sharper here.
Country didn't fare so well. The only thing country-ish that cracked the top 100 was Gillian Welch, leaving off the list: Pistol Annies, Hayes Carll, Lucinda Williams, Eric Church, Miranda Lambert, and that hideous Glen Campbell album (at 25). The only world album to hit the list was Tinariwen, and just barely. Runner up was Bombino (way down with 16). I also bothered to do a breakout for metal, which strikes me as at least as cliquish as any other genre, and probably more so. Only top-100 was Mastodon, with Liturgy (38) and Wolves in the Thron Room (35) well back. Only one I bothered to listen to was Mastodon -- nothing there I ever want to hear again.
The reissues list is way spottier than the new releases list, and got swamped by jazz votes near the end, pushing Julius Hemphill and Bill Dixon into a thicket of expanded rock reissues. Most of the press doesn't cover reissues at all, and those who do don't do a very good job of it. Further down, there is a lot of fodder for Recycled Goods if only I were able to get the records and find the time, but neither appear to be in the cards.
In theory, the metacritic file should do a fairly good job of predicting the results of the Pazz & Jop critics poll, but I have my doubts this year (but we will find out real soon now). One persistent problem is that I don't score more for placing higher on a list, whereas P&J does. The result is that a broad-based record will lead one that is intensely favored by slightly fewer voters. In the recent past, my file listed Arcade Fire over Kanye West, and Phoenix over Animal Collective -- two wrong conclusions, although both were easy to predict by looking at the ranks. Same thing would seem to be happening this year: PJ Harvey should easily beat out Bon Iver, and indeed on Metacritic's own list summary does so handily (Bon Iver slips to third, behind Adele, which I have stuck in 11th; Adele wasn't reviewed all that well initially, but after selling 5 or 6 million copies critics seem to be warming to it). The problem here is that PJ Harvey has a huge advantage with UK critics, whereas Bon Iver does slightly better in the US, and P&J is an American poll. James Blake and Radiohead also have slight UK biases -- much less so than Harvey -- so Bon Iver's only practical challengers are rather far back in the pack: Fleet Foxes, Tune-Yards, Tom Waits, Kanye West/Jay-Z, St. Vincent, Wilco, and I suppose you could just as well throw in Adele, Shabazz Palaces, or the Weeknd (the big story of the year was the free downloads, and the big winner there is House of Balloons).
Hanging around Christgau's Expert Witness discussion list, I initially expected Tune-Yards to be the record to beat. It's no doubt a contender -- finished 4th at Metacritic -- and it has both broad and intensive support, but not nearly as much of the latter as I had expected. Watch the Throne is a record that got mild reviews -- probably some rebound from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy -- but has gained ground in year-end lists. In most years, two or three crossover rap albums get more support in P&J than in the metacritic file, so there's a good chance that it, Shabazz Palaces, Drake, and Roots will get something of a bump, but I've scoured the hip-hop lists pretty well so they could just as well have it already.
The only other big movement I'm sure we'll see wtih P&J is Paul Simon -- tied for 58 on my list, certainly top-40 and possibly top-20 at P&J. Other than that it's hard to say. Two records that finished strong that I can't credit are M83 and Real Estate: I don't see anything attractive about either, and find it hard to imagine what it might be. (Beirut is another one, but looks to be on its way down.) The Horrors is a big UK thing, so expect them to drop (and take Wild Beasts with them, if not Florence or Laura Marling). I expect Frank Ocean will do better -- he's Weeknd's main competition, and I know a lot of people who prefer him. Two more possible gainers: SBTRKT and Oneohtrix Point Never. I'll also admit that the main reason I voted for Sonny Rollins was to see if we can push a jazz record into the top-40. Looks like a long shot, but not out of the question.
More after P&J, as I try to close out the year.
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