‘So this is Christmas / And what have you done?’
As the lyrics to John Lennon’s immaculately saccharine pop confection remind us, Christmas is a time for stock-taking: for looking back over the year that was, and perhaps for daring to imagine what lies ahead. For music writers, and indeed for most cultural critics, this takes the very specific form of being asked to contribute to end-of-year lists. Despite the regularity with which the occasion rolls around – there’s literally a year to prepare each time! – the prospect always fills me with a subtle kind of anxiety.
It’s not hard to see why people like end of year lists. They fulfil our human desire for competition and ranking, which makes them analogous to prizes. Securing the top spot of a well-regarded publication’s album of the year list certainly must feel like a prize for the musicians involved, particularly if the decision is an unexpected one – I’m certain that The Knife’s Silent Shout benefited from being named Pitchfork’s 2006 album of the year, for example. (This may not seem so surprising in retrospect, but at the time Pitchfork had a much narrower musical aegis, mostly covering indie-rock, and Silent Shout’s win marked the first time a dance music record had topped the poll). Conversely, even a bad decision augurs well for any given publication, since the controversy the decision makes will lead to incensed pageviews and the entertainment of a heated comments section. Thus, even though U2’s Songs of Innocence remains a studiously bland record, it is in its own way the ideal recipient of Rolling Stone’s album of the year 2014: what could be more appropriate for a relic of a magazine attempting to court controversy, than to give the gong to a relic of a band attempting to court controversy?
Although the stakes aren’t very high in the larger scheme of things – we’re not talking about the process of awarding Nobel Prizes here – it should be clear that a publication or individual writer’s end of year list matters in some way: it functions as a shorthand for taste and knowledge, and signals cultural capital. Which might be why, personally speaking, the prospect of authoring one of these lists inspires that subtle anxiety. Listing what you consider to be the year’s best albums – however many you choose, whether or not you’ve ranked them in any way – implies that you’ve listened to enough music to at least tentatively nominate the year’s best albums, and that your tastes and biases are sufficiently universalisable that an audience of the general public will find your suggestions useful. Since I spent much of this year disassociated from the world of record company promos and the hype cycle, and since my tastes run to what others might politely call ‘recherché’ material, I’m not sure either of these things is true in my case.
So: what good does it do for me to tell you that my favourite album of the year that has passed was Swans’ To Be Kind? Such a declaration is unlikely to help shift any copies of the album (although, if you’re reading this and you’ve yet to acquaint yourself with To Be Kind, do give it a spin through your streaming service of choice – it’s a masterpiece), which means that all it does is position me, as a critic, somewhere between those who think Songs of Innocence is a worthy AOTY recipient and those with even more outré tastes than mine. Like the practice of assigning a numerical score or a star rating to an album review, this kind of ranking seems in a sense inimical to one of the tasks of criticism, which is to understand a work of art within its context and to articulate that understanding. Numerical scores promise us a world where all music can be unproblematically compared and ranked, but how is it at all meaningful to compare, say, DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s brash trap anthem ‘Turn Down For What’ with Vashti Bunyan’s gossamer construction ‘Across the Water’? How could anyone possibly say one is objectively ‘better’ than the other? The kind of deep listening that the best music criticism requires actively discourages this comparative and evaluative mindset, but come the end of the year critics are nonetheless asked to rank their favourite musical experiences – as though this artform, with its singular power to command the full gamut of human emotional response, were a mere sporting league with clearly defined ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.
We won’t see an end to end-of-year album and song lists any time soon – it’s hard enough for sites and publications to turn a buck without scorning one of the easiest means of acquiring sales and page views. And in the Christmas spirit of giving, I have duly turned in end-of-year lists to those publications that have asked me to do so, because it’s flattering to be asked and because it’s a nice way to give back to the publications that have supported my writing. (Perhaps I let my frustration with the endeavour get the better of me when composing my list of ‘musical moments’ of the year for this very site – it opens, perhaps a little snottily, with an entry for ‘silence’.) Despite this, I can’t help but make my own modest little Christmas wish: that we stop treating music as a league table of cultural capital and start to engage with each song or album on its own terms. Or, as Lennon might have put it: ‘Competition is over / if you want it.’