As David Simon Cowell and I prepare to unveil our best-of-the-year music lists next week, I thought I would take a step back for a moment and think further back than just the last 12 months.
Year-end music lists are a tricky and random cultural oddity. They place random time parameters on the music being released, and they give an advantage to music that was released early in the year, which has had more time to grow on the listener. In that way, they’re the opposite of year-end film awards, which are always heavy on films released in the fall and early winter that are fresh in voters’ minds (it also helps that “prestigious,” Oscar-baiting movies are usually held back until autumn intentionally). Music as an art form also often takes months or even years to reveal its true greatness, or lack thereof, so even a full year may not be enough to properly judge an album.
Thus, year-end music lists are hindered by short-sightedness. So I’m going to take a look back at my own year-end lists from the last few years, see where I was right and where I was way off, and try to keep that in mind as I develop this year’s list.
A little self-examination never hurt anyone, right?
I’ve been compiling year-end top ten lists since 2005, so we have five years of data to work with. Let’s all plug up those time-travel nosebleeds (nerd), and take a trip back through the late Aughts.
1) Kings of Leon / Aha Shake Heartbreak
2. Spoon / Gimme Fiction
3) The Hold Steady / Separation Sunday
4) Clap Your Hands Say Yeah / Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
5) The White Stripes / Get Behind Me Satan
6) Okkervil River / Black Sheep Boy
7) Franz Ferdinand/You Could Have It So Much Better
8) Ryan Adams/Cold Roses
9) Kanye West/Late Registration
10) My Morning Jacket / Z
Wow, that’s a hell of a music year right there. I don’t think we’ve had a better one since. I know it’s confusing, kids, but there was a time when Kings of Leon didn’t make bullshit AOR rock.
Rated Too Low: Separation Sunday. I still love both Gimme Fiction and Aha Shake Heartbreak, but Separation Sunday has separated (ugh) itself from the pack in the intervening half-decade. It’s The Hold Steady’s greatest achievement, and the best album of 2005.
Rated Too High: Cold Roses. It’s a fine album, but too long (as is every double album), and too influenced by The Grateful Dead. This shouldn’t have made the top ten.
What’d I Miss: An easy one — The New Pornographers’ Twin Cinema. At the time, I had it just outside the top ten, but I was holding a slight grudge because it wasn’t as all-out catchy as Mass Romantic or Electric Version. Over time, I have had to admit it’s just as strong as those earlier albums, albeit in its own way.
Does the Token Hip Hop Album Deserve to be There? Absolutely. Late Registration is probably my favorite Kanye album, and still the one I listen to most often.
1. The Hold Steady/Boys & Girls in America
2. Jenny Lewis/Rabbit Furcoat
3. Neko Case/Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
4. Arctic Monkeys/Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
5. Cat Power/The Greatest
6. Justin Timberlake/Futuresex/Lovesounds
7. Bruce Springsteen/The Seeger Sessions
8. What Made Milwaukee Famous/Trying to Never Catch Up
9. Belle & Sebastian/The Life Pursuit
10. Clipse/Hell Hath No Fury
Umm…yeah. I don’t really know what was going on in my life when I made this list, but I’m going to have to assume I was either distracted or going through “a dark time.” Not my best effort.
Too Low: Clipse, I guess? Hell Hath No Fury isn’t an all-time great hip hop album, but it’s filled with catchy singles and should have been ranked higher in an off-year for music.
Too High: A lot to choose from here, but I’ll single out What Made Milwaukee Famous. It’s a decent power-pop album, but one with absolutely no staying power.
What’d I Miss? Both TV on the Radio/Return to Cookie Mountain and The Thermals/The Body, The Blood and The Machine should have been in the top five.
Does the Token Hip Hop Album Deserve to be There? Yep. See above.
1. LCD Soundsystem/Sound of Silver
2. Spoon/Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
3. The Shins/Wincing the Night Away
4. Arcade Fire/Neon Bible
5. Okkervil River/The Stage Names
6. Bruce Springsteen/Magic
7. Jay-Z/American Gangster
8. Feist/The Reminder
9. Kanye West/Graduation
10. The Broken West/I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On
A rebound year for music as a whole after 2006, and for me personally as far as list-compiling ability goes.
Too Low: Okkervil River’s The Stage Names, an album I’d now rank second for that year. It’s a record of consistent depth and emotion.
Too High: The Shins. Wincing the Night Away does deserve a spot in the top ten, but not as high as #3. It’s just too big a drop-off from Chutes Too Narrow, and contains too many ultimately forgettable songs.
What’d I Miss: Radiohead/In Rainbows, an album I didn’t really appreciate until the following year, and The White Stripes/Icky Thump, which I can’t possibly justify not including.
Do the Token Hip Hop Albums Deserve to be There? Yes for Kanye, no for Jay-Z. American Gangster simply doesn’t rate with Jay-Z’s strongest work.
1. Vampire Weekend/Vampire Weekend
2. Okkervil River/The Stand-Ins
3. Gaslight Anthem/The ’59 Sound
4. TV on the Radio/Dear Science
5. Li’l Wayne/The Carter III
6. The Hold Steady/Stay Positive
7. Cool Kids/Bake Sale
8. Ra Ra Riot/The Rhumb Line
9. Blitzen Trapper/Furr
10. The Kills/Midnight Boom
The Late Aughts had a pretty clear one year up, one year down thing going on with pop music. I’ll leave you to decide which this was.
Too Low: Gaslight Anthem — shoulda been number one.
Too High: Several albums, but notably Li’l Wayne.
What’d I Miss: Los Campesinos, Bon Iver or Vivian Girls probably should have snuck in there somewhere. Like I said — not a great year.
Do the Token Hip Hop Albums Deserve to be There? Bake Sale wasn’t really a full LP, but still probably. Li’l Wayne, again, probably, but not that high. In a better all-around year, neither should have been a top-tenner.
1) Dirty Projectors/Bitte Orca
2) Yeah Yeah Yeahs/It’s Blitz
3) Neko Case/Middle Cyclone
4) Lucero/1372 Overton Park
6) Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears/Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is
7) The xx/xx
8) The Thermals/Now We Can See
9) We Were Promised Jetpacks/These Four Walls
Hey, what’s up ladiez? Last year was apparently all about girl power, with the top three albums all boasting female vocals. Was all this really only a year ago? Jesus. 2005’s albums feel more recent.
Too Low: We Were Promised Jetpacks, a confident debut filled with slow-building, propulsive pop songs.
Too High: The xx. As time passes, this album feels more gimmicky and less self-assured.
What’d I Miss: The Antlers, Real Estate and particularly Phoenix — one of those bands should definitely have pushed Blackroc out of the top ten.
Does the Token Hip Hop Album Deserve to be There? Blackroc? No. Nope. Certainly not. No way, Jose. Uh uh. Nosireebob.
And so there you have it, a five-year look at my failures and successes as a professional, well-compensated music critic. What will this year hold? How will I completely fuck up my 2010 list? How badly will I overrate Bruce Springsteen and/or the Hold Steady? What will be this year’s token hip hop album? So many questions! The excitement builds…