My phone lights up on the desktop. I pick it up. “What days are you taking off at Christmas?” my girlfriend asks. I stare at the numbers in my Google Calendar. December has crept up, hasn’t it? And then it hits me. The pang of dread in the pit of my stomach. That sinking feeling. Oh crap. It’s nearly Album of the Year season, again.
Ok, I’m exaggerating. And I am writing this on a music website which will run a series of year-end articles in December, so of course I can’t despise it quite that much. But honestly, I have grown to resent the AOTY cycle. It’s tedious, repetitive, and seems to go on forever. And it isn’t confined to December; it feeds into the general discourse around new albums. When a decent album is released, it is hailed in multiple quarters as the best of the year. When a particularly bad album comes out, it is condemned as one of the year’s worst. In our attention economy where superlatives are always in overdrive and exaggeration is king, we all lean on the 12-month framework we call a year to emphasise our points.
It makes sense. We use years to organise the amorphous concept of time. When at least a dozen new albums come out every week, it is handy to use the end of the year as a breather – a chance to evaluate the last big chunk of time. I do find some value in listening to some of the common inclusions in the AOTY lists of various publications – maybe ones that I overlooked during the busyness of normal life. And when the first lists come out at the start of December, I scroll through with interest – wondering which of my favourites are in there.
BUT. After you’ve read about 3 of these lists, the tedium begins. A bunch of albums are commonly held to be the year’s highlights, so every big publication lists the same ones. The only difference is the ranking, which is the crux of what I’m complaining about. Music criticism is necessary, but ultimately the concept of ranking albums is quite stupid. What makes the album at no. 24 better than no. 37, for instance? If The Guardian ranks Beyoncé’s Renaissance at no. 8, but Pitchfork ranks it at no. 2: what’s the significance?
Let me zero in on Pitchfork. I’ve mentioned before that Pitchfork has been my go-to website for a long time now. Part of what drew me in in the late ‘00s was their ranking system for reviews: essentially a 100-point scale for ranking the quality of albums. But when you think about this even for a minute, it’s ridiculous. When I read that they’ve awarded an album an 8.8 out of 10 or a 9.5, I conceive of it as the same rating. It’s the same with anything between 6.0 and say, 7.2 (an average album). And between 4.0 and 5.9 (a bad one). The last example means that there are almost 20 points on the scale with the same interpretation, so what’s the point?
We don’t do ratings at Picky Bastards, and I’m glad. Assigning value to the artistic expression that is an album-length piece of music by ranking it is a joyless pursuit. It’s kind of handy on some level, but it is joyless. Can we just enjoy the art without the value-o-meter? Sometimes it’s possible. I find that my favourite artists are immune to sensible critique. I’m so enamoured with Alex Turner’s songwriting that it’ll be a futile question to ask me whether this Friday’s new Arctic Monkeys record is ‘good’ or not. And I suppose this is what I want to get back to. I’d love to remove (or at least quieten down) the critical part of my brain and get back to a more natural experiential relationship with music.
Because at the moment, as soon as I hear an album I’m subconsciously or even consciously deciding how good it is. Whether it’ll rank in my albums of the year or not. Dampening my enjoyment for what is a short-term exercise. As once we’re into February of next year, nobody will care what the albums of this year were, because we’ll be too busy hailing the albums of next year.
I’m not advising you to boycott our upcoming year-end coverage. I’m just saying take the 2022 AOTY landscape with a pinch of salt. Enjoy the art, don’t worry about its value.
Words by Tom Burrows