Music Musings

Mid-Year Music Report: Searching for the Album of the Year

Kendrick_Lamar_-_To_Pimp_a_Butterfly

Compiled from Metacritic’s Top Releases of 2015 list, I cropped the excess that worms its way into it, namely albums with less than ten reviews. As I said in a similar column I posted last year, it’s an arbitrary number, sure, but it seems as good a place as any to start getting a sense of consensus. A more involved process would be crosschecking albums reviewed by America’s biggest outlets—Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Spin, A.V. Club, maybe Consequence of Sound. Here’s the top fifty, though the top twenty-five is of more concern to me, because it really starts flattening once the scores approach 80. I’m not really sure how Metacritic ranks albums with the same grade, or if there’s any ranking system at all. Alabama Shakes and Shamir, for example, just missed making the list even though they share the same grade as the guy in slot fifty and definitely have more reviews.

End-of-year lists are so idiosyncratic there’s really no telling what obscurities prominent publications will endorse. It’s clear already that unless someone releases an album so good it causes involuntary ejaculation upon every listen, Kendrick Lamar is taking home everyone’s “Best Album of the Year” title. And even though I don’t think it is, we’ll get an idea of just how racist the Grammys are if they shaft him a second time. Only a few titles here surprise me, but maybe when I get around to listening to them they won’t. Big one is Napalm Death, mostly because I don’t remember ever seeing a review for them. And sure, with the exception of Donnie Trumpet (which is certain to pick up more reviews in the next week or so, I would think), all the other albums surrounding it have big review numbers, a trend that drops off dramatically after the top ten. So I’m curious to see who they are, but my sense is that they’re the oddball heavy metal act that inevitably worms its way into a high ranking every so often.

The list already starts to get a little strange outside the top ten. I mean, everyone knows a band like Thee Oh Sees has no chance of making any  sort of year-end Hail Mary to rank highly in any consensus poll, so what’s exactly going on here? How is it that there are all these albums that (probably) won’t be big finishers in Pazz & Jop, for example? You’d probably have to drop down a bit further to the mid-to-high 70s and search for some big pop acts (like last year’s Taylor Swift release, which had a 78 or whatever on Metacritic but popped up in top 5s and 10s all over), the kind of stuff that’s divisive but really shouldn’t be—I’ve never met anyone who didn’t listen to music for pleasure, and if Tay Sway doesn’t give you pleasure, that’s fine, but she doesn’t get dismissed (along with Lily Allen, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Beyonce, or whoever) in the press or by online hacks like myself because the hooks aren’t good enough; she gets dismissed because her music—and pop in general—is considered to be a low art form in comparison to some prog shit like Godspeed You! Black Emperor. (Seriously, have you listened to their new album? Same as holding a conch shell to your ear for forty minutes.)

In fact, it’s those divisive artists that interest me a hell of a lot more than Lamar—who made a really good album that I enjoy, and that I’m sure the critical world will hold in high esteem for a long time—but there’s always something a bit fishy about such universal agreement, even if that should obviously mean something. It’s probably useless to ask such a question, but is To Pimp a Butterfly receiving praise because it’s as different as everyone claims? Difference tends to divide, and I don’t know that there’s a whole lot there that hasn’t been done elsewhere. Politics is the backbone of hip-hop, as is personal reflection. Jazz has been infused into hip-hop at least since Illmatic, and P-funk was a path that led to hip-hop’s development. Eh, it’s fine. No use working up a sweat over it.

One last thing I’ll point out: if you head over to Album of the Year and put on the same filters (2015 releases, min. 10 reviews), you get some different artists. The core pillars are the same—Lamar, Sleater, Stevens, et al—but there are some switcharoos. For example, there’s no Napalm Death on that list. No Jim O’Rourke or Lady Lamb or Roison Murphy, etc. They have a much more consistent critics’ pool, the kind of cross-checking analysis I talked about at the beginning, whereas Metacritic will include just about anyone—and also exclude them without explanation.

Either way, I’ve included Album of the Year’s top 50, as well as Spin’s “50 Best Albums of the Year… So Far.” Bolded albums are one’s I’ve heard, graded ones marked so at the very far right.

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