Along with chilly weather and frantic Christmas shopping, the beginning of December rings in the season when hordes and hordes of year-end top 10 album lists start materializing.
These lists are a fun exercise. Having done a few myself, I like them. Yet you may not realize they but often contain some cryptic traits not necessarily evident to the untrained eye.
It's simply too easy to throw together 10 albums that a certain writer enjoyed over the course of the year. No, there needs to be some substance -- some way of showing the reader that the writer has very refined (maybe even a little eccentric!) tastes.
The token top 10 albums of the year list looks like a handy guide for informing readers who don't get paid to obsess over music what they missed. Perhaps they were too busy feeding their family to know about a certain album they may have enjoyed -- as well as show everyone just how cool and edgy the critic's music tastes are in contrast.
It's a lot to decode, I know. So here I present to you a top 10 list explaining why albums are placed where they are on the year-end lists you'll be reading for the next four weeks.
Shit's about to get real meta...
10. The Personal Favorite This slot is dedicated to an album that the writer really likes, yet not many of their colleagues feel the same way. They want people to know about the album, yet they know they would catch far too much shit for putting it any higher on the list for fear of an unabashed bias. Usually, this is the oddest choice on the entire list -- the one that makes casual readers actually scratch their heads and pisses off serious music fans to no end.
Examples: The Coral -- Butterfly House; The Drums -- The Drums; Mumford & Sons -- Sigh No More
9. The Artsy, Far Too Dense Album
This one can be an album the writer doesn't fully understand and, thus, can't really get into -- but for fear of institutional mockery, they cave in and put it on their list. It's gotten great reviews and really expands its genre, but all that screaming/ambient noise is rather off-putting.
Examples: Four Tet -- There Is Love In You; Caribou -- Swim; Jónsi -- Go
8. The Token International Album
This position shows just how broad a spectrum the music writer covers. There may be more than one non-U.S./Canada album on their list, but this one serves to really get the party started. The token international album is a quick and easy way to show refined tastes -- bonus points if the album is entirely in a foreign language.
Examples: Frightened Rabbit -- The Winter of Mixed Drinks; Robyn -- Body Talk Pt. 1; Laura Marling -- I Speak Because I Can
7. The First Big Name Album
This slot goes to the album most everyone you know has heard and deserves to be in the top 10 -- not quite in the top five. Why not the top five? There is another slot reserved for the second big name album. Let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet. As well, this album is usually released on a major label and/or sold a ton of copies.
Examples: Arcade Fire -- The Suburbs; The Walkmen -- Lisbon; The National -- High Violet
6. The Token Hip-Hop/R&B Album
Not every album on the year end top 10 list can be rock music. There needs to be a spot reserved for the best hip-hop music. Many writers feel the need to put a hip-hop or R&B album on their lists because it creates a little bit of diversity. Others recognize that a certain hip-hop or R&B album is just that good. Whatever the case may be, the year in music will at least provide one candidate for this position.
Examples: Big Boi -- Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty; Janelle Monáe -- The ArchAndroid; The Roots -- How I Got Over
5. One For the Old Folks.
Guess what, kids? Neil Young still makes music. As do Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Gil Scott-Heron. If the hip-hop/R&B album gives the top 10 list some diversity, the slot dedicated to the older acts still chugging along helps round out the list. It also helps the writer duck any declarations that they are too biased toward music from newer, younger bands. You gotta give some love to the influential acts of yesteryear, right?
Examples: Neil Young -- Le Noise; Mavis Staples -- You Are Not Alone; Swans -- My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
4. The Spot Reserved For Kanye West
Nothing too difficult to figure out about this one. Mr. West has found his way onto many people's top 10 lists this year. Granted, his album was released in a strategically late part of the calendar year (November 22), yet it deserves to be on everyone's list because, simply said, it's fucking good. He may be an insufferable ass, but the man shook all the dust off his last, lackluster release and smacked everybody right in the mouth.
Example: Kanye West -- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
3. The Second Big Name Album That Doesn't Deserve To Be This High
Again, the name says it all for this one. This album's placement so high on the top 10 list is due to the fact that the album came from a popular band -- yet that doesn't make the album all that good. Reputation does not an album make, yet don't tell certain music writers this. They know a certain band's debut a few years back was warmly received, and they want to believe that the band's sophomore effort is just as good -- if not better. Such is the fate for this beleaguered slot. It should be switched with the seventh spot on the list, but it never is.
Examples: Vampire Weekend -- Contra; MGMT -- Congratulations; The Black Keys -- Brothers
2. The Real Number One Album
There's no way the writer could actually put their favorite album of the year in the top spot, right? That would be too easy. Instead, the writer deftly hides their favorite offering from the year in this spot, for fear of showing too much bias. This album is one not too many people have heard about -- at least the writer thinks so -- and is usually pretty damn good. Its crafty placement at number two, then, helps keeps its low profile intact.
Examples: Toro y Moi -- Causers of This; Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti -- Before Today; Deerhunter -- Halcyon Digest
1. The Unbiased Album That Will Gain Credibility With The Hip Kids
Since the music writer has buried his favorite album of the year at either slots 10 or two, this album is free of bias or personal agenda. This album may be one that the writer doesn't necessarily understand but know it adds a certain beauty to their list. You buy an expensive painting from a renowned artist and hang it in your house, walking past it every day struggling to figure out how its use of color defines its abstract meaning. "Fuck it," you say. "At least it looks fantastic up on the living room wall." This top spot on the year end top 10 list is that very painting.
Examples: LCD Soundsystem -- This Is Happening; John Grant -- Queen of Denmark; Beach House -- Teen Dream