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Album-of-the-year lists reveal personality, deceptive consensus

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From page B1 | December 06, 2013 | Leave Comment

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

It’s time for year-end music lists, of course. Who’s is this “Santa” person you’re talking about?

Critics compile their favorite spins, showing off the year’s favorite albums – Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories,” Kanye West’s “Yeezus” and My Bloody Valentine’s “MBV” – and the overlooked underdogs, such as San Francisco blackgaze metal group Deafheaven’s “Sunbather” or Canadian ambient artist Tim Hecker’s “Virgins.”

As lists begin stuffing our social media stockings, it doesn’t take a crystal ball or Miss Cleo to know some will look similar. Just jumping back to a small sampling of last year’s favorites shows their resemblance, a sort of critical hive mind mentality.

Comparing 2012 lists from Rolling Stone, Spin, Pitchfork and Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop show Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” at either No. 1 or 2 on every list but one.

In fact, “Channel Orange” also grabbed either the No. 1 or 2 for A.V. Club, AllMusic.com, BBC, Consequence of Sound, Exclaim!, Filter, Gigwise, Mojo, Paste, PopMatters, Pretty Much Amazing, Slant, Stereogum, The Guardian, Entertainment Weekly and Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot.

Another example of massive critical consensus came in 2009, when Animal Collective’s “Merriweather Post Pavilion” seemed destined for album of the year before the end of January. At least 10 publications gave it the year’s top prize, according to Albumoftheyear.org, a site which specializes in compiling scores of year-end lists.

It’s easy to point a finger and blame the Internet for this collective opinion. Critical mass forms behind a record and it’s hyped among writers and fans, becoming a lightning rod for consensus.

While there’s truth to that, the problem is it’s been happening since long before Al Gore invented the Internet.

Anecdotally, The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was so celebrated in 1967 that the Grammy Awards – which had previously given its highest honor only to serious musicians such as jazz players and vocalists such as Frank Sinatra or Judy Garland – deigned to honor such lowly creatures as a Liverpudlian rock ’n’ roll quartet. It marked a sea change in the perspective of embracing what was popular on a critical level. It also shows that collective critical agreement is not a new thing.

Actually, thanks to streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, iTunes Radio, Slacker Radio, Google Play, Rdio, Rhapsody, Mog and more, while the best-of lists may be top-heavy, the deeper they go, the more personality they reveal.

Since the access is there like never before, the ability to bounce from traditional African music to death metal to Lady Gaga is simple. Critics may agree at the top of the lists, but outside of the top 10, that’s what shows a person or publication’s tastes.

Critical mass may have formed behind “Channel Orange” and “Good Kid,” but the comparison of Rolling Stone, Spin, Pitchfork and Pazz & Jop from last year also revealed 156 different albums.

Another example of the widening field was 2011, when there was little consensus on a landmark effort or a game-changing platter, so an array of albums earned the mantle, including PJ Harvey’s “Let England Shake,” Bon Iver’s “Bon Iver, Bon Iver” and St. Vincent’s “Strange Mercy.”

Look beyond the handful albums that ascend Praise Mountain to find gems that might lack universal critical appeal, but are still worthwhile efforts. The old adage is that writing about music is the same as dancing about architecture, so listen for yourself and form your own opinion.

Don’t take the critics’ words for it.

To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.

Nick DeCicco

Nick DeCicco

Nick DeCicco is the editor of the Tailwind and writes the pop culture blog/column For Those About to Rock. Before joining the DR staff in July 2007, DeCicco (pronounced Deh-CEE-Coh) worked at The Union in Grass Valley, Calif., and the Greeley Tribune in Greeley, Colo. A 2004 graduate of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, DeCicco spends his free time attending concerts, listening to music, going to movies, traveling and hiking.
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