The Secret Formula to Making a Year End “BEST OF” Album List

By now you’ve probably checked out an end of the year list or two.  Whether it was the Top 10 or the Top 50 albums, you probably have some sort of opinion about all of these other opinions that people are throwing around like bunk flash grenades.  Do these “Best Of” lists really matter?  Probably not.  The problem that I see with them is the implication that whoever is making the list actually had the opportunity to hear every single release that came out within the year and, more importantly, that they actually had enough time to sit with each one and give it the appropriate attention necessary to let the corresponding material unfold around them.  In some ways, it can create slight, yet unnecessary, pressures for both the artists and reviewers.  What is the purpose of these goddamn things, anyway?  I’d like to think that they ARE good for one thing; introducing you to some releases and/or artists that might have slipped past your radar throughout the year.  Other than that, they are pretty much bullshit.  Everyone has different opinions and, although I find value in hearing them and expressing my own, rating/comparing music with a number scale isn’t something that I find a whole lot of purpose in.  Of course, that’s also my opinion and it might actually change in the future, but I doubt it.  Maybe it’s because I went to a liberal arts college, but I’ve always been more drawn to the concept of detailed evaluations than grading systems.  It’s true that a good ranking might also help push an act or artist further into the limelight… so… I get it…  Are they necessary?  I don’t know.  Are they expected?  Pretty much.  Still, this mandatory annual ritual of ranking one album over other, often completely incomparable, albums is starting to feel like a tedious and bothersome routine that may even be boring those who actually make them.  Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I have begun to recognize a fairly specific pattern on how many of these lists were constructed this year.  There seems to be a simple “go to” or default mode being used to churn these things out and I’d like to share with you the gist of what I’ve noticed.

Still need to make a best of 2010 list?
Here are a few rules to make it mindlessly simple for you:

RULE #1:

YOU SHOULD HAVE ALREADY MADE IT BY NOW!

Nobody waits until the actual end of the year!  What were you thinking?  December doesn’t really count anymore; you should have pumped all of your opinions out, regarding the entire year, by the last week or so of November.  This also means that you should have gotten started by the beginning of November, by the latest.  Grab all of those advanced copies of upcoming releases, listen to them as quickly and thoroughly as possible and start jotting them down.
[remember to give special attention to those that you think you might wind up liking once you actually do have sufficient time to put in.]

RULE#2:

FOCUS ON THE LAST FEW MONTHS

Strike while it’s hot folks.  Has anyone else noticed how many of the albums on these best of the year lists have only been released within the last few months?  If you want to stay on the cutting edge you need to toss your carrots in the stew while the water’s still swirling.  Sure, a best of the year list, by definition, is somewhat of a retrospective, but this is the internet goddammit!  People want their information as quick as possible.  They wanted to be fed yesterday, but with a snack from next week.  They want updates on albums that will be released 2 months from now so that they can get ideas about which leaked material they should be downloading tomorrow.  If you wanna be a taste-maker, you can’t be serving up stale chips.  An album that came out 6 months ago might as well have been from the early 90s in internet time (not to mention, that it probably sounds like it anyway).  All the flavors been chewed out of the gum.  Let the kids know that you are with the times and even throw in some shit they haven’t had the time to listen to yet.  By the time they start to form an opinion either way, there will already be some new shit to start pushing at them; stuff from the beginning of this year that you can ignore once the time for your 2011 list comes around.

RULE #3

QUICK SCAN THE 1st HALF OF THE YEAR/
SELF-FULFILL YOUR EARLIER PROPHECIES

Of course you can’t completely ignore the first half of the year or you’ll come across as too one dimensional and green.  As important as it is for your list to appear hip, current, and with it, one can never underestimate the importance of giving props to those who laid the groundwork in the past.  It’s just like if you want to be respected in rap circles you need to drop names like RAKIM or how, in punk circles, it’s not a bad idea to know something about Black Flag and SST records.  You know?  Something that the kids have heard of, but usually aren’t incredibly versed on so that you can retain that edge as a resource.  Well, these days, mentioning something from February or January on a list in November makes you look like a fucking musical historian (but one that’s still “in the know”).  Remember: seeing Zeppelin live in the 70s will give you some street cred, but if every story you have only involves shit from the way back and you keep riding these tales like a life-raft, you’ll just start to come across as outdated and past your prime.  That’s why you need to mix some of the albums from earlier in the year into your list of fresh new jams.

But what should you be throwing into the mix?  I mean, anything released in the Spring is pushing it’s expiration date by now.  The answer to that question is super easy.  Remember at the beginning of the year when you were pulling your musical Nostradamus routine and claiming that certain albums were shoo-ins to be top albums for the end of the year?  Well, make it so.  Make sure to do the reverse, as well.  If you hurriedly claimed that something missed the mark, only to realize later that it was pretty great, you can’t turn back now; casually ignore it.

RULE #4

SPRINKLE IN A LEGEND

With the current buzzing artists and the early claims you’ve made in the year, the list is filling up quick.  Now it’s time to remember if any of the real living legends have released anything recently.  Did anyone who’s universally respected drop a new album.  Neil Diamond, maybe?   Bob DylanTom Waits?  Shoot for someone of that caliber.  Have we run out of artist’s recommended by Kurt Cobain yet?  Hmmm… I’m sure you could always just pull up some names of people endorsed by someone like Thom Yorke instead.  If it’s even halfway listenable, you’re gonna want to toss that in to the list too.  It’s hard to argue much of the time and everyone loves a comeback or return to form.  Shit, for all anyone knows it could be amazing, but just “over their heads”.

RULE #5

THE USUAL SUSPECTS

Beyond the longtime legends like The Stones or Neil Young there are artists like Radiohead and the Flaming Lips who have been working towards that status for the last 20 or so years.  In addition to them, there are artists that you may have been championing over the last 10 years or less that can never seem to do any wrong in your eyes, are gaining their veteran status, and have become big names a lot more recently.  Deerhunter dropped their latest at the end of September.  Both Antony and the Johnsons and Sufjan Stevens released new albums on the same day in mid October.  Haven’t had enough time to really go through them?  YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION! IT DOESN’T MATTER! Remember, focus on the last few months.  These guys are all supposed to be “geniuses”, right?  You’ve been claiming that forever, so you might as well add them if you need more titles.  It’s better than leaving them off and looking like a buffoon, right?  RIGHT!? The truth of the matter is that there’s no way that you’re honestly gonna be able to listen to everything that’s been released anyway and, even if you could, you would never be able to give each of them the personal attention that would be necessary to truly make a valid assessment required for any legitimate ranking.  The sheer truth behind this fact also means that you really have no authority to be claiming what the #1 album is at all and creating this illusion of authority is what music journalism is all about.  Don’t worry, if these albums turn out to be bunk, you can always construct an elaborate argument to dismantle the artists later, while explaining why you still continued to hold any misguided faith in them earlier.  Faith that has since been lost.  It will work perfectly, because that’s the other vital component in music “journalism”, tearing down those who you’ve built up.  Well.. that and self preservation, maintaining relevancy for yourself, and becoming a huge marketing vessel.

RULE #6

TEAR ‘EM DOWN

The list is building itself nicely.  In reality, we’ve basically just started with all of the hit releases that everyone has been talking about anyway and then removed, added, and arranged some pieces to create a guise of credibility.  If a group has continued or headed in a new direction that you approve of, then they go on the list as consistent innovators.  If, for some reason or another, you don’t like something about their latest release, pull ’em.  If you’re undecided or haven’t formed much of an opinion, toss them in somewhere in the middle (as stated in the previous rule), it might be too bold to attack someone still standing so tall.  If you have decided to sling a stone at Goliath earlier in the year and call them out for going in a direction that you’re not into, keep with it and yank ’em like a tooth.  Remember, you can always build them back up later.  As stated before, people love a comeback.  Even if the next release is similar or they eventually prove undeniably that you were always wrong, you can always angle it as if they took your notes and got their act back together.

RULE #7

ANIMAL COLLECTIVE

Did Animal Collective release anything this year?  If so, put it towards the top.  If not, look for Animal Collective related projects.  Avey Tare, Panda Bear, & Deakin are all names to look for (the 4th member, Geologist, hasn’t pumped out any solo shit yet.  Maybe in 2011.)  Remember, Ariel Pink was the first artist signed to Animal Collective‘s Paw Tracks label and they helped put his ass on the map.  His album goes on the list too.  It’s a pretty simple formula.

RULE #8

RAP MUSIC

Don’t be racist!  Throw some hip-hop in there, or no one will believe that you are eclectic enough.  Most likely you’re gonna instinctually pick some white, indie, pseudo-rap shit like WHY?, so you’re gonna have to make a conscious effort to throw some sizzurp drinking blinged- out cat like  Lil Wayne on there for good measure.  [Pitchfork listed both Drake and Rick Ross on their list, so it obviously doesn’t matter what you add, as long as you add something]

RULE #9

ELECTRONIC MUSIC

Just like RAP, full-on electronic music has proven that it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  So, get with it motherfucker!  I get it, you’re an indie music site, which basically translates to a popular music site, and you don’t really know much about rap or electronic music.  Electronic sites are gonna have a best of list consisting of electronic albums.  Rap sites are gonna have a top hip-hop albums list.  You’re trying to play all sides and be a cool hunter and taste-maker, so you’re gonna have to find something to throw on there from both of these genres.  Right now, everyone’s trying to heavily inject electronics and synths into their sound, so it’s going to be necessary to add a legitimate electronic musician in as well.  No, HOLY FUCK doesn’t count!  Groups like that run in the same circles as everyone else in the meat of your list.  You’re gonna have to find some kind of Venetian Snares, Amon Tobin, or CEX-type cat to throw into the mix.  Someone that people who actually make electronic music or that primarily listen to electronic music might actually respect.

RULE #10

SURF/EFFECTED VOCALS/THROW BACK POP etc.

Being that you’re making a 2010 list, there’s a few things that you need to ask yourself.  Does it sound poppy as fuck?  Because poppy is in.  Now, does it sound like 60s pop?  Ok., ok… now we’ve really got something.  Think along the lines of groups like The ZombiesBeach Blanket Bingo style surf-pop jams are also blowing up this year, so toss in groups that are employing that sound into the pile as well.  Last year was more about the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, but this year is more overt and poppy with the happy time surf angle.  Think less technical “Walk Don’t Run” style Ventures, as it’s been fuzzed out and utilized by such bands as WAVVES and SURFER BLOOD.

Now, do the vocals sound overly processed through hi-fi equipment to make it sound lo-fi?  That’s a good sign too.  Are you into heavy psych music?  I don’t mean laid back dreamy hookah smoking pop style shit, I mean super heavy gel-tab acid trip through a jet engine type psych rock chaos.  Well, let it go buddy, because 2010 was all about a gradual progression towards the former.  Find a crazy psych rock jam and then turn it down to a reasonable level so that there are no sharp edges and the highs don’t get too high.  The dreamy voice effect processing is the auto-tune of the indie pop world.

The electro dance beats are still popular at this point too, but for those we aren’t looking as far back as with the other shit.  We just need to go back to early MTV videos and shitty 80s cuts.  If you can remember that the kids of today want to dress like they are from the mid to late 80s but want to listen to music that sounds like it came from twice as long ago, and vice versa, your list will be looking good.  Go back 25 years and then go back another 25 years.  Now interchange the music and fashion from each, or just toss them all into the same salad spinner.  Remember, today it’s all about neon/leg warmers and psych music or leather jackets/60s gear and synth-pop.  Mix all that up and you’ve got your musical potato salad.  Fresh and ready for the kids at the potluck.

RULE# 11

“DISCOVER” THAT UPCOMING GROUP

A good rule of thumb for a list like this doesn’t veer too far from that old saying about weddings: “Something old, Something New, Something borrowed, and something blatantly stolen, but from so long ago that none of the younger generation has any substantial frame of reference for it“.  As for the “something new” you’ve definitely got to throw a new young group into the mix, at the very least, to show that you’re not only on top of the current scene, but the future of it, as well.  There are already plenty of buzz bands on the rise out there and it’s not too late for you too jump on board now.  My personal money is on TAME IMPALA… so, there’s one gimme for your list.  Just throw them on there.  They’re actually really good and are sure to gain even more popularity throughout the coming year.  Funny thing is, they provide that heavier psych sound that seemed to be wearing out, but they stabilize it with smooth Revolver era Beatles vocals.  When people look back from the future, it’ll appear that you had your finger on the pulse from jump street, even if it was really a slight bit delayed.  Whatever you do, however, make sure that you have at least one newer band on your list to build up.  Otherwise, who are you going to tear down in the future?

A Few Extra Pointers:

Don’t forget to arbitrarily contradict yourself.  It shows a reckless freedom and somehow,  ironically supports the notion that you are both the guiding force of the ever shifting musical climate, as well as being sensitive to it’s subtle changes.  You’ll also want to remember that it really doesn’t matter if you’re secretly aware that you’re opinions aren’t really as important or as vital as you lead on.  All that really matters is that others buy into it.  Represent your personal feelings as fact as much as possible.  Use a voice of authority, as if it is the end-all-be-all and constantly nourish the implication that anyone who disagrees with you is simply misguided and undereducated.  If you can’t believe it, how will anyone else?

There you go!  We wish you success on your future importance.

[ANOTHER EXTRA NOTE:  Radiohead has a new album scheduled for 2011.
Our suggestion is to just add that to your next list now and save your self the energy.]

Dead C

Located in Seattle, Dead C is the founder/editor, as well as the principal writer and photographer, of Monster Fresh. Creating the site in 2007, he did so with a specific dream in mind. Unfortunately, being a muscle relaxer-fueled fever dream, it's hard to recall all of the details. "I remember that my mom was there, but it wasn't actually her in the dream, it was actually 70s heart throb, Jan Michael Vincent. And everything took place here, in this room... but it wasn't actually here... it was different. The colors were washed out and, for some reason, there was a raccoon kicking it with us and it was wearing a holographic monocle."

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