Can We Save The 'Best Albums' Lists Until The Year Is Over?

By Tankboy in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 17, 2014 7:00PM

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That's right, only suckers publish year end music lists before the year's end any more. Photo of Charli XCX courtesy Atlantic Records.

Almost every publication out there has published a “best albums of 2014” list by now, even though the end of December is still a couple weeks away. The time has come to demand that album specific "best of" lists should wait until after year's end to run.

I understand that in some arenas—specifically film, TV and literature—the physical product is still largely limited by lead times, but this model no longer truly applies to music distribution. In fact I'll even acquiesce and admit I'm O.K. with some music lists, like best shows of the year or favorite small releases or local music moments of the year. Those feel more like recommendations less constrained by a calendar beginning and end than the canonical implications something like "best albums of 2014" carries with it.

A few years ago websites started to go into defensive mode and publish their lists earlier and earlier in order to garner the most buzz for their selections. That approach was a dumb exercise in preemptive striking based on outdated reasoning and it's been made even more so over the last few years, for a number of reasons.

Best album lists have turned alarmingly homogenized. In a time when such a massive amount of material is out there and folks have the power to discover bands not held back by gatekeepers this feels counterintuitive. Leading me to believe most lists are based on a combination of publicist relationships along with the wish to reinforce readers' to believe that a publication's tastes are really awesome. Why rush to release a list that looks like everyone else's?

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Why is D'Angelo smiling? He can't wait to see how music writers twist and contort to fit his album in NEXT year's best of lists since they've already published this year's. Photo Credit :: Greg Harris
Artists are increasingly releasing music weeks (or months) after these best album lists come out. I'm sorry, if you publish your list in November you can't put Beyoncé's December release from last year on a 2014 list. And who just dropped an album Monday that was possibly one of the most anticipated albums of the last 14 years? D'Angelo.

On top of that Charli XCX is garnering massive buzz and positive reviews for her new album Sucker, out yesterday, and I can attest that both releases are easily contenders for anyone’s “best albums of 2014” list. And while I haven't heard the Nicki Minaj album that was also released, how could any self-respecting writer not think that it might be something worth considering in a 2014 album list? And this trend of releasing high profile albums all through December is only going to grow more popular with artists. I honestly wouldn't be surprised if we saw one or two more high profile surprises drop before Dec. 31, 2014.

How can you call a "best albums of 2014" list before the actual end of 2014? I mean, aside from my previous two points, this one seems the most glaringly indefensible from the standpoint of people that have already published lists?

This whole practice is sadly outdated, and honestly it's built on a practice that did make sense in the past—most music writers had music through the end of December delivered to them well before December even began, so these lists could be built ahead of time. But that practice was rooted in print limitations, and those limitations have quickly eroded leaving behind only pointless habits over the last few years.

It's time for music writers and their editors to get with the times and adjust this whole "best albums of" exercise to actually reflect reality. Hell, even if you argue that these lists help people discover music to give as holiday gifts then just write a gift guide and call it what it is, and leave the critical examination until after the dust has settled.

I guarantee if publications took more time with their "best album" lists and didn't just cobble them together in hopes of getting them to be first out the door they would a) make more selections that won’t seem embarrassing in 3 months and b) identify more unexpected selections that might actually give readers the pleasure of discovering something new instead of jumping on the bandwagon everyone else is already crowding to overflowing.

So take your time. Then everyone wins.

[This piece originally appeared in a slightly different version on Tankboy]