Album of the Year Obsession

Sometimes, in April or May or some other random month, I find myself asking a friend what their album of the year is going to be. They look at like I’m mad. There’s 8 months to go and they only listen to the Fleetwood Mac greatest hits anyway. Even some of my fellow Picky Bastards, who are every bit as music obsessed as I am, take the piss when I review an album in January and call it an album of the year candidate.

It happened last year with Shame’s Drunk Tank Pink. I claimed in our WhatsApp group that I didn’t see anything matching it in 2021, and got called crazy for making such an early claim. And they were right. I love that album, but it finished fourteenth on my end of year list – meaning that, on average, at least one album a month overtook it. And now, in early January 2022, I’ve just spent half an hour creating an empty spreadsheet and three empty playlists so that, as soon as new albums come out on Friday, I can begin ranking the year’s releases and finding the next pretender to the crown.

What’s wrong with me? I genuinely don’t know. But album of the year obsession reached a lifetime peak for me in 2021 and I have been trying to figure out what it is that makes me so eager to begin this search as soon as a new year begins. I’m already predicting Big Thief will take it out in 2022 and I haven’t even heard any of the singles yet.

One potential explanation I have come up with is that I’m simply simple. I sometimes find it hard to express just how much I love music and how much a certain album means to me, or I think that if I go into too much detail I’m going to lose people, so I return to that quick and easy phrase ‘it might be my Album of the Year’. I convince myself that saying that will make people take note – they’ll have to listen to it now. But I suppose when I say it about every third album I hear, that phrase kind of loses its power. Another explanation is that I’m a big kid who never got over the stage of saying ‘my dad is stronger than your dad’ only now I’ve transposed it to ‘the album I like is better than the album you like.’

In reality, though, I think it comes down to how big a role music plays in my life. I permanently have an album playing in some format, whether spinning on my turntable, streaming into my earholes, or echoing tinnily out of my Bluetooth speaker while I take a shower. Music soundtracks my every move. And each year there will be an album that gets more plays than any other, sitting there beside me through the best and worst moments of those twelve months. As the years and their events meld into one, I forget what happened when, but all I have to do is remind myself what my album of the year was and I’ll be able to sort my life into a kind of timeline, tracking the successes and the failures, the exciting life events and the moments of struggle.

This obsession really blossomed in the last five years, but if I think back to what my favourite albums from each of these years remind me of it tells a story. Kae Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos came out in 2016 and every time I hear it I remember the spate of racist incidents that I experienced as the EU Referendum came about, but I also remember how the album played a role in me deciding to leave my job in Marketing and start to work in social care instead. Nadine Shah’s Holiday Destination took the prize in 2017, and that album always reminds me of attending an anti-racism protest for the first time and blaring it in my headphones on the way home. It was also the first album that made it obvious to me that I’d become a proper geeky record collector, searching for the version I wanted in shop after shop and taking months to find it.

2018’s winner has some sadder connotations, as it was the year that Mastersystem released Dance Music and Scott Hutchison sadly took his own life. So that album reminds me of how hard that was to come to terms with, but it also makes me think of living in Hebden Bridge and walking in the hills with his music in my ears and how that music helped me to think differently about my own mental health. Self Esteem’s Compliment Please from 2019 actually has the opposite effect, reminding me of one of the most positive years of my life and the fun me and my partner had going to see Rebecca Taylor perform these songs live on several occasions. Without knowing it, this was to be the last year in a long time in which we were totally free to attend festivals and gigs together and drink ourselves into a merry oblivion. Compliments Please will always take me back there.

2020 was the year of Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers. And while it was also the year of a little pandemic you might have heard about, that album was powerful in the way it made me feel like I was escaping my home in Levenshulme even when I was only allowed to go out and  exercise once a day. I’ll always remember the cathartic feeling of walking with it in my ears. And when it comes to Anna B Savage’s A Common Turn from the year that has just passed, I know I’m never going to hear it without thinking back to the year my daughter was born, remembering how I sat by the record player and sang the songs to hear while I fed her from a bottle. Nothing wrong with getting her started early on the feminist introspection.

Who knows what 2022 will bring? But I know that whatever happens this year, there will be an album that eventually brings my memories of it flooding back whenever I hear it. So when I make my spreadsheets and my empty playlist it is definitely partly because I’m simple, and definitely partly because I’m a big kid. But it’s also because of the way that music helps my aging brain hold on to certain moments I’d rather not forget. Although I still think those friends who give me a puzzled look when I ask about their album of the year in March are right. I really need to get a grip.

Anyway. It’s January 12th 2022 today.

What’s your album of the year?

Words by Fran Slater

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