It’s mid-December and the year is over. At least when it comes to "Best of 2016" lists (including our own, admittedly).
When is a year not a year? When you’re in the business of creating and consuming best albums of the year lists. Even casual fans have surely noticed it -- and when you work in media, it’s been palpable for some time: the backwards creep of release dates for best of the year lists. As of this writing, aggregate site Metacritic has tallied more than 75 "Best of 2016" music lists that have already been released, including some that dropped in late November.
Some quick research bears out the trend in striking ways: 11 years ago, Stereogum released its 2005 best albums list on Christmas Eve. This year? Dec. 1. NPR’s writers, who publish individual lists, went in mid-December of 2009, and this year released on Dec. 9. The NME, whose 2008 list came out on Dec. 8th, unveiled their top albums this year the final week of Nov. -- the same time as venerable Rolling Stone, who a decade ago dropped its albums list on Dec. 15. So yes, the backwards creep of year-end lists is real -- by an average of two to three weeks in recent years.
“Because there are so many lists,” offers Brandon Stosuy, “it’s kind of like if you wait too long for a list, by the time all the other ones are out, it kind of feels a little bit after the fact. There’s that whole thing in online culture of people wanting to be first, and I think it’s just gone to a logical extreme where year-end lists don’t even come out at the end of the year anymore.” Stosuy is currently Editor-In-Chief of the Kickstarter-affiliated culture site The Creative Independent, but he spent most of the past decade at Pitchfork and Stereogum, where all lists -- but particularly year-end ones -- were big online traffic generators. “At Stereogum, because you had comments, it was kind of amazing how you could see the response to the lists,” he recalls. “It was almost like you were throwing meat to a bunch of hungry dogs. And usually it would end up with people fighting and arguing. And many lists are sponsored, so publications know they’re an easy form of traffic and revenue.” As for best of the year lists coming out earlier and earlier? “It’s like if you put it up now, people will be arguing it until the new year,” says Stosuy. “So you might as well get it up for those extra days for people to argue about it.”
Ross Scarano, Music Editor at Complex, which released its Top 50 albums Dec. 5 -- as compared to Dec. 14 only two years ago -- agrees. While Scarano says a number of departments at the hip-hop culture site, including social and audience development, have a say in when the list gets published, he adds that not waiting too long to release is key to being part of “the conversation.” “So that we’re in conversation with Rolling Stone when they’re releasing theirs, or we’re in conversation with Stereogum when they’re releasing theirs,” he says. “As opposed to like, everyone’s dropping lists and there is silence from us. And everyone wants to have this conversation. You go on social media and this is what people want to spend the month of December talking about.”
Scarano oversees the compilation process of the Complex Top 50 that begins in early November with a Google spreadsheet that includes staff submissions of titles and cosigns, followed by three to five conference room meetings to “talk it out,” and he likens the experience to a best-music conversation you might have with friends at a bar. “The difference being when you’re talking with your friends at a bar, there’s no consideration of an audience,” he adds. “And here we have to think about our audience, and think about the artists that resonate with them.”
Creating a list that’s just different enough to reinforce an outlet’s brand but not too out of step with the zeitgeist seems to be the needle threaded this time of year. A glance at the many lists currently on view at Metacritic reveals some not unexpected curveballs: pop-favoring Fuse puts Rihanna’s ANTI on top, rock outlet Kerrang! goes with Green Day and American Songwriter anoints Angel Olsen’s exquisite My Woman. But by and large, the biggest takeaway from the "Best of 2016" lists for me is the uniformity of them. Beyoncé’s Lemonade and David Bowie’s Blackstar lead the pack -- turning up on the vast majority of lists, followed by a second tier of favorites including Frank Ocean, Solange, Nick Cave, Chance The Rapper, Radiohead and A Tribe Called Quest. It’s made for one of the most predictable year-end list years in recent memory.
Scarano says that’s because of a bountiful 2016. “This year seemed to have such a real wealth of great music,” he explains. “And that’s not a bad problem to have. This year perhaps more than other years, there was a real sense of consensus around the best work that was done. It was kind of inarguable for a lot of publications and music enthusiasts that Beyoncé had put out her masterpiece this year, and Solange had surprised people with the direction she had gone in, and that Chance kind of had this high-water mark for his career.” While Scarano acknowledges that may make for some predictability, he points to Complex distinguishing itself by such touches as a No. 5 ranking for rapper Travis Scott’s Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight.
Stosuy is skeptical. “With some of the lists it’s hard to know how honest some of them even are,” he says. “A lot of the lists feel a little too strategic, like sometimes they’re there to give the publication the best look possible. It would be cool to show a list of what you actually played in a year. That would really be your list. I think that there’s so many lists and so many that have such similar Top 10s, I’m always like, 'Well, were these really the best ones? Or were they just expected to be the best ones?'” He adds that his favorite year-end ranking during his time at Pitchfork was the “Overlooked” list -- lesser-heard releases that didn’t quite make the main list. “That was always to me a useful list,” he explains. “Like, ‘Okay cool, here’s things I missed, things that I can actually learn something about.' Whereas sometimes the other lists have a bunch of echoes.”
Dave Godowsky of Fort William Management, whose clients include indie luminaries Cass McCombs, Speedy Ortiz and Okkervil River, also thinks there’s room for a year-end list comprised of something other than only the biggest and boldest names. “I’d love to see a list of our favorite records of the year that have sold fewer than ten thousand copies or something like that,” he says. “The kind of stuff you may have missed.” But Godowsky says a herd mentality takes hold in which being early does matter. “People are really excited when they see those first year-end lists popping up. It’s like, ‘Oh here we go, let’s see who made the cut and who didn’t,’” he asserts. “But by the end of the year it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, whatever. I’ve already seen 41 of these things, I don’t need to see another one.’” The manager calls most year-end lists “music’s form of click-bait journalism” and thinks they do music consumers no favors. “The point of the thing is not to lead people to a close meaningful artist-listener relationship with this art,” he says. “It’s not about trying to connect a person with a great record. The endgame is just about capitalizing on the excitement of that fleeting moment. It’s like, ‘Oh my God there’s a new year-end list, let’s see who’s on it! And then let me go back to whatever I was doing thirty seconds before.’”
Which is not to say a placement on a year-end list isn’t useful when Godowsky has his manager’s hat on. “If someone says Cass McCombs made one of the best records of the year, and I know a few hundred thousand people are gonna read that sentence, that’s good to know and it’s all a part of promoting the record,” he admits. “I might mention that in certain conversations where it’s relevant. It becomes a piece of promotional ammo.” Likewise, Jessica Linker of Pitch Perfect PR, who represents at least two artists getting lots of 2016 year-end love, Angel Olsen and Mitski, says lists can be a boon. “I check them multiple times a day,” she says. “It’s an exciting time if your artists are doing well on the lists. We’ve definitely seen an increase in sales when an artist does well on many year-end lists.” On the other hand, the publicist adds, “With year-end lists being considered so early, people just don’t have the time to give October and November releases as fair a chance.
“This especially affects newer artists,” she says, citing client Weyes Blood as an example of an artist whose latest, the acclaimed Front Row Seat to Earth, may have been hurt in terms of list inclusion due to its autumn release date.
Finally, year-end lists offer an opportunity for music outlets to produce some fine writing as well -- a chance to reflect on an album or an artist with six or eight months’ hindsight, in a different, often richer context than you might get at the time of a record’s release. But is anyone paying attention, or is the fixation all about the horse race, on clicking through as quickly as you can to get to No. 1? Scarano sure hopes the writing is being noticed. “This is also a way to build a canon,” he says. “These lists ideally serve as a way of marking history, and people can go back and refer to them at any time. I think there is a lot of strong writing in those blurbs, and a lot of time goes into writing them and editing them. There’s almost 10,000 words I think in that entire list. That’s not a small amount of text. And we definitely don’t create it with the intention of it being skimmed and pushed aside.” Still, says Stosuy, “We would always have that problem at Pitchfork, where you kind of got the sense that people would look at the albums that were reviewed, look at the scores and then kind of leave. That’s sadly the way it goes with online culture, where you can have a beautiful piece of writing, like, here’s this amazing essay I wrote on Chance the Rapper and the importance of independence in the city of Chicago or something, and people are just like, ‘Okay where did it fall on the list?’ and then they move on to the next one.”
Is it 2017 yet?