Welcome, welcome. Another year, another late set of year-end lists from ya boi FeedTheDog. At least it isn’t February.
This year, my lists are being published following the 2017 Grammys, a pointless, forever-shitty circle jerk so trivial I immediately regret even invoking it by name — so I thought I’d center my lil preamble here around some reflections on inconsequential accolades and the idiots who award them. This may be a little longer than my usual intros, so if you’re only here for the inconsequential accolades themselves, scroll right past all these angry word boxes to the nice big picture squares below.
If you are one of the ~eleven special people who ever actually read these lists, you know what I typically write in this space – lamenting the insane amount of time I devote to putting these lists together and openly pondering why I dedicate myself to such a meaningless enterprise. You could argue that everyone who publishes these kinds of best-of lists are wasting their time, but at least when Pitchfork and Rolling Stone share their best albums of the year, people read them.
Most of the reasons I continue putting these lists together, despite the above, probably have to do with personal issues of fear (e.g. what if one day I forget all of this) or mental dysfunction (e.g. I don’t know how to stop doing things once I start doing them)…. but here’s an interesting one: in my heart of hearts and mind of minds, I know everyone else is wrong. Really wrong. Surely other people who look at year-end lists also recognize that everyone is wrong, but are still looking for a list that may be right to help them identify great music they’ve missed. Here, then, is such a list.
But let’s pause for a minute and talk about who is wrong, and why.
If you are a publication that writes about music, even only occasionally, then you publish year-end best-of lists. You can find a fairly complete list of those publications in places like Metacritic and AlbumoftheYear.org, and they tend to fall into one of a few sub-categories:
- The Old Guard (e.g. Rolling Stone, Spin, NME) — household names who have been writing about music since the premise of Almost Famous seemed realistic
- The New Guard (e.g. Pitchfork, Stereogum, The AV Club) — publications that established themselves as tastemakers in the Internet Age
- Genre-Leaning Pubs (e.g. Complex, Decibel, American Songwriter) – magazines and blogs that openly skew towards a particular genre or style
- News Orgs (e.g. NPR, USA Today, Interview Magazine) — publications that have no business sharing their opinions on music
It should go without saying why The Old Guard is going to be wrong when ranking music — they are out-of-touch writers and editors, writing for an out-of-touch audience, whose legitimacy rests solely in the legacy built by people who no longer work there operating within a music universe that no longer exists. Genre-leaning outlets are similarly unhelpful, as their known genre bias tends to present itself quite visibly. Also, many if not most of these types of publications are similarly old and out-of-touch. Dedicating yourself to a singular genre is itself an outdated way of listening to music. News sites – man, I have no idea why places like Time Magazine and ABC News feel the need to publish lists at all. They don’t even pretend to have music credibility. If you’re turning to a place like this for music suggestions, you’re so lost I can’t help you.
There’s nothing new in what I describe above, so if you’re like me, you tend to rely on the last category of The New Guard for your music recommendations, year-end lists or otherwise. I look at everyone’s lists every year as part of my process. And interestingly (or not), despite identifying a few as my most trusted sources, their lists never look similar to mine. Not even close. And after my seventh (!!) year doing this, I’m ready to say it’s not me, it’s them. And I’ve concluded that there is one reason why no one publishes decent year-end lists, and that reason is white supremacy.
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When I say white supremacy, what I mean is this – even among The New Guard, rock and folk music are considered precious and capable of more significant degrees of excellence than pop, hip hop, r&b, and electronic music. And before I get too far here — yes, black people are responsible for basically every genre of American music coming into existence, and race is in no way a limitation for what kind of music an artist can create. I’m also not claiming that music publications fail to give credit to black artists, either – I’m well aware of Kendrick’s domination this year, and Solange’s the year before that. What I’m saying is that, as in so many areas of society, we expect “black” music to work harder to achieve the same recognition afforded to lesser “white” music.
The simplest way to recognize that is in simple genre representation, rock vs hip hop. I don’t feel like pulling a bunch of stats to back this up, but if you’ve been paying any attention to popular music, you know that hip hop has been taking over rock for years, in every important category. And why not? Growth in art has always and will always come from what is exciting and accessible to young people. In the modern era, if you’re a young person who wants to start making music, you can download free software and start making beats in seconds. No bandmates, no physical instruments, no lessons required. The freedom of modern recording is subsequently giving us some of the most inventive hip hop as scenes pop up around the world and then find each other online. Popular music now reflects and reinforces this as well – better hip hop on the radio means more people are inspired to make that sort of music themselves. Iron sharpens iron, and all that.
Music publications, however, have some strange resistance to acknowledging this shift. I’m old enough to remember the days (around 10 years ago) when Pitchfork was considered bold for writing about pop and hip hop to begin with. Writing a review for a Beyonce album was a statement. And despite the fact that we now identify Kanye West as a “Pitchfork artist”, we shouldn’t forget that The New Guard claimed their original legitimacy on the cult of “indie” and a certain breed of snobbery that turned its nose towards any music considered mainstream, instead heralding a collection of emerging scenes of independent music. Those scenes of music, it turned out, were primarily collectives of white rock musicians. Not to say that underground, predominantly black and brown music scenes weren’t thriving concurrently – there just wasn’t the same push being made by music publications to highlight them.
Despite the change of culture since, particularly the rise of the “poptimist” (i.e. snobs intellectualizing pop music), these lists haven’t changed much. While a wider range of genres may be represented, they simply are not being treated equally. Looking at Album of the Year’s aggregated 2017 lists — which grades albums based on the spots they claim on critic lists — 9 of the top 50 albums are hip hop by my count. Genres can be a little blurry, but I’d count 21 rock albums in the same top 50. After digging through all of this year’s releases to compile these lists, this ratio isn’t just off, it’s absurd.
Notably, some of the hip hop records that top my list — Young Thug, GoldLink, Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz, Mura Masa – were unanimously lauded in reviews by the same critics declining to recognize them at the end of the year. This frequently leads me to ask the question, what makes a record worthy of “Best New Music” type accolades, but not worthy of a year-end list? To me, calling a record one of the best of the year isn’t all that different from calling it a 9 or a 10 – if there’s any additional criteria for best-ofs, I’d say it’s the record carrying some kind of cultural significance or breaking new ground. But looking at the typical year end list, that clearly is not the differentiator for music publications, unless someone wants to explains the cultural significance of another boring Julien Baker album to me. If anything, it seems like the unfortunate differentiator for other publications is something like “meaning”, the legitimacy of which ultimately being tied to arbitrary moralizing and again, white supremacy. White people singing about being lonely will always be given more credit than black people singing about fucking.
Let’s look at what is actually happening in rock and in hip hop in 2017. Hip hop for starters…. has never been better. Artists like Young Thug, Migos, Playboi Carti, and Lil Yachty are inventing new subgenres, making music that sounds like nothing that has ever existed before while building legions of followers and copycats. Competing creative forces in hip hop are pushing artists to take greater risks and elevating everyone’s game. Even freaking Jay Z just dropped an art album, his best in like fifteen years, as his latest Sprint-Tidal content product. Jay hasn’t made interesting music since Kanye West was best known as a producer, he’s designed a business model that guarantees any album he “releases” will “sell” no matter the quality, and somehow we still got The Story of O.J. in 2017. The Culture made him do it.
Rock music? Like the rest of the world, I’ve been listening to more and more pop and hip hop and less and less rock, but this year is something else. The well has gone dry. Even if you think I’m missing something, look at the rock records topping critics lists this year – LCD Soundsystem, The War on Drugs, The National, St. Vincent. None of these artists are breaking compelling new creative ground, even within the context of their own work. None of which represent a sound that is exciting or new. None of which represent a thriving, young music scene. All of which are boring.
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There’s something I can’t relate to among many people my age (late 20s/early 30s) where they seem to settle into a listening rotation of music that is only nostalgic, and while they may continue to pick up the latest releases of their favorite artists, they aren’t interested in any new music beyond that. In time, they begin to hold the music of their youth as precious, and somehow more meaningful than anything that could come after it. And they do crazy things like spend money to see Weezer live in 2018 (oh wait). I remember the moment in my childhood where I realized that’s all Rolling Stone and Spin were ever doing – aging out of relating to new music, while exhaustively cherishing the glory days of rock and roll. They were more interested in making sure I, a young audiophile, understood how important Elvis and B.B. King were, and how useless I would be as a music fan without this education. Otherwise, why would I give a shit about who the 100 greatest guitarists of all time were?
I’m realizing now that the publications I trusted most growing up – Pitchfork, Stereogum – have reached the same age in 2017. And as soon as it becomes more important to tell your audience that, hey, LCD Soundsystem is really important!, as opposed to introducing them to new directions in music that are changing the world, your year-end lists are not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, you’re not highlighting the best of the best and you aren’t sharing what is exciting about new music. You might as well be USA Today.
End rant. And with that, I give you the (actual) best albums of 2017. It was a great fucking year and I’ve never been more excited to be a music fan. As always, you can find all my top albums and my top songs on Spotify.
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
2. Playboi Carti – Playboi Carti
3. Migos – Culture
4. Young Thug – Beautiful Thugger Girls
5. GoldLink – At What Cost