Year End Lists and the New Indie Rock Elite

One of the music blogs I read regularly, Stereogum, has been keeping track of 2007 Best Album lists from various publications and blogs over the past week or so, and I’m as frustrated as everyone else over there with the results. Of course, best of lists are always a source of contention and general annoyance, and they should be – you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and disagreements with the Best Of industry are a way of expressing both taste and suspicion of the relationship between taste-makers and marketers in the music industry (as one commenter suggests in response to Q magazine’s list, “this is a list full of major labels, especially all of the top ten … just another ploy by the industry, trying to subtly say that the best music comes from a big record label, which we all know is complete bullshit.”) I have mixed feelings about this particular sort of suspicion (big record labels often release good music, so you can’t exclude an album just because of its label, but Q’s list does seem suspiciously loaded). However, as I prepare to author my own Best Of list for 2007, I want to complain about something else that I seem happening all too often and to suggest a general principle for best of lists that I will, at least, be trying to follow myself.

I like Wilco a lot. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth are two of my favorite albums of all time, and most of their other albums rival the best of a lot groups that get more attention. I liked Wilco’s 2007 release Sky Blue Sky alright, and was even happy to hear it whenever the VW commercials came on. But it is not one of the best albums of 2007, and it certainly won’t be on my list, for one reason: given the depth of Wilco’s catalogue to date, Sky Blue Sky doesn’t stand out in any way, and the odds that I’ll be listening to it in 10 years are slim.

Endurance over time is an important element of aesthetic quality. The best albums of a given year aren’t necessarily the ones we’re listening too with most glee on December 31 as the clock strikes midnight. Otherwise, we’d be in danger of over-valuing end of year releases which we’ll be have burned through by February 1, and neglecting quality releases from January through March that aren’t as fresh in our minds. Second tier albums from top tier veterans may catch our attention for a couple of months, but more often than not the praise will fade with some perspective by the time the next year’s year end lists are up (after all, I can’t say I’m really ever going to listen to Sufjan’s The Avalanche again, despite earlier praise).  In short, if your best of list is made up of 3rd best albums from bands you already liked at the beginning of the year, it’s time to broaden your musical horizons.

There are certainly exceptions to this rule. A friend of mine suggested the other day that the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible is the best album of the year, even though most everyone (including, I think, this friend) seems to agree that their incredible 2005 debut, Funeral, is a superior album. Still, I don’t have any problem with my friend’s claim, and I do expect Neon Bible to end up somewhere on my top 20 albums of the year, albeit in a somewhat lower spot. There are three reasons why Neon Bible is an exception:

  1. Funeral was probably the best album of 2005, and arguably the most significant album of the last 3-4 years. That Neon Bible can’t possibly live up to that kind of acclaim hardly tarnishes its quality. While I’d still be hesitant to declare the Arcade Fire authors of the best albums of two separate years, there will always be a very small elite (probably varying from fan to fan) who can do no wrong. For some historical perspective, think the Beatles… This year, I’m sort of feeling that way about Radiohead (In Rainbows is neither The Bends, nor OK Computer, nor Kid A, but very few albums are…)
  2. If Neon Bible is not quite on the level of Funeral, it’s also not simply a slightly duller facsimile in the way that, for example, I think the Go! Team’s Proof of Youth, though enjoyable, is more or less indistinguishable from 2004’s Thunder, Lightning, Strike. The Arcade Fire made us wait two years between Funeral and its follow-up precisely in order to avoid rushing out an album that would cash in on the earlier album’s hype without contributing to the group’s development. Instead, Neon Bible is an exemplary follow-up album insofar as it manages to leave the group’s signature recognizable while simultaneously offering a significant departure. To quote Pitchfork (only because I plan to give my own take on the album when I write up my year end list):

    …the Arcade Fire’s second album is markedly different from its more cloistered predecessor: On Neon Bible, the band looks outward instead of inward, their concerns more worldly than familial, and their sound more malevolent than cathartic…The influences most commonly associated with Funeral were Davids Byrne and Bowie, but on Neon Bible, it’s Bruce Springsteen who appears not only in the wordy songs and aggressive shuffle, but in the compression of so many styles and sounds into one messy, exciting burst.

    While not their best release, Neon Bible still occupies a significant place in the band’s oeuvre and helps firmly establish them as innovators who we can expect to exert an influence on music for year’s to come.

  3. Given the particular musical tastes of the particular aforementioned friend, his praise for Neon Bible seems genuine and distanced from the hype. The move towards Springsteen, for example, is no doubt a significant part of his favorable appraisal.

To generalize these exceptions, albums from veteran acts that represent less than their best work can still be appropriate additions to year end lists if:

  1. The album somehow stands out among the artist’s work, representing either a significant departure or a work of cultural significance or some personal attachment for whoever’s making the list.
  2. The artist is among a very small elite, either one of the most prolific and significant acts of a generation or, from a more personal perspective, one of those “favorites” where you’ve hunted down every track the artist has produced and you just can’t get enough. Even then, it’s somewhat difficult to justify putting a band’s sixth best album on a year end Best Albums list.

If you want to put Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky on your list of best albums of 2007, then, you ought to be able to either make a case for the significance of the album in the band’s catalogue, or explain why Wilco is just so good that even their lesser work is significant. More likely, what you’re actually saying is that it’s cool to like Wilco now, and you want to communicate your appreciation of the band without really saying anything about the album, in which case what you really should do is go out and get A.M. and Being There (the two “earlier albums” whose sound Sky Blue Sky is so often praised for “returning to”) and forget about Sky Blue Sky. Or else you’re saying that Wilco is finally acceptable, but only on the condition that they’ve moved away from the experimentalism of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, in which case, well, I just couldn’t disagree with you more.

Now, if it were just Wilco here who was overrepresented on year end lists (and Sky Blue Sky is actually one of the less overrepresented albums out there), I would think that maybe I was just missing out on something, and I’d probably rush out to listen to Sky Blue Sky again just to see. That’s exactly what an effective Best Albums list ought to do – tell your readers, at least the ones who share your tastes, what they need to hear. But what really concerns me about a list like Q‘s:

10 Rufus Wainwright – Release the Stars
09 The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America
08 The Shins – Wincing the Night Away
07 Kings of Leon – Because of the Times
06 Bruce Springsteen – Magic
05 The Good, The Bad & The Queen – The Good, The Bad & The Queen
04 Radiohead – In Rainbows
03 Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare
02 The White Stripes – Icky Thump
01 Arcade Fire – Neon Bible

…isn’t the preponderance of major label releases; it’s the preponderance of second-tier albums from industry vets. The Arcade Fire or Radiohead appearing Top 10 on their own would be no cause for concern, and Boys and Girls in America is a major breakthrough for the Hold Steady (even if it was released last year), but Icky Thump, Favourite Worst Nightmare and Wincing the Night Away just aren’t anywhere near on the same level with White Bloods Cells (or Elephant or Get Behind Me Satan), Whatever People Say I Am… or Chutes Too Narrow/Oh, Inverted World, and the there’s not a single newcomer on the list (with the possible exception of The Good, The Bad, & the Queen, which is really an all-star team headed by former Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn and produced by Danger Mouse, of recent Gnarls Barkley fame).

The danger of these sorts of lists has everything to do with major labels. They threaten (or promise, from the perspective of the industry) to create a recognizable Indie Rock Elite that would allow indie rock to be packaged as a stable genre rather than a source of tireless experimentation. Among artists, they privilege complacency and consistency over originality and creativity, and threaten to drown out the voices of the marginal artists that are driving the music in unanticipated directions. They labor to create a canon of representative artists, an Indie Classic Rock to come, to populate the oldies stations of our generation, a common musical vocabulary rather than a network of movements, counter-movements and singularities. They transform Indie Rock into an identity rather than a signifying field within which identity can be produced and contested through complex negotiations of divergent trends. In a sense, they negate the very thing that makes Best Album lists of interest – in an age when they can’t possibly claim any universal cultural authority, what else does the Best Of list offer?

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~ by Matt on December 7, 2007.

5 Responses to “Year End Lists and the New Indie Rock Elite”

  1. I should be going to bed, but I’ll bite…

    A
    “They [major labels] labor to create a canon of representative artists…a common musical vocabulary rather than a network of movements, counter-movements and singularities.”

    Yes, such was the fate of Rilo Kiley.

    B
    Is Rilo Kiley’s album a joke? …in the worst kind of way… Mainstream critics praised it, and surprise, surprise, ‘Q’ gave it 4/5 stars, yet under the black light of long standing fans it came up as a predictably packaged, lyrically tired, melodically monotonous, mainstream clich…ça suffit. I just hope The Decemberists don’t involve themselves in such jokes.

  2. I have to say, you got my motivations for picking Neon Bible as #1 pretty much exactly. You also clarified some of the reasons I’m not doing a top-ten list this year—see my blog, later, for more, but basically it has to do with the amount of knowledge and detachment needed to make such lists meaningful, which for various reasons I don’t think I had this year.

    As for the quality of the albums: for the record, some of this might not be as definitive as you say. For instance, I like Icky Thump at least as much as Get Behind Me Satan (though not the other two), and I think Wincing… is on par with the Shins’ other two records. Both IT and WtNA would probably be in this year’s top ten—if I was doing one—if for no other reason than that I didn’t get that much new music this year. Did I mention I have a new job with Q Magazine?

  3. C. Saavedra – I think the Decemberists did everything right with the big label budgets on The Crane Wife. I wouldn’t be too worried there.

    tomemos – hope you don’t mind my preempting your comments here; glad I was at least accurate. If you’re not doing a list, at least you can scatter some opinions in various comment fields. I’ll be posting tracks with my best of list, so hopefully that’ll help fill in some of the knowledge.

    Re: Icky Thump, I could call it even with Get Behind Me Satan (I haven’t fallen for either yet, but my brother raves about the latter, so I figured I’d list it), but either way, the point is that White Blood Cells, at least, is clearly better, and I’d rather give a slot to a new artist.

    I’m actually somewhat on the fence about what to do with Wincing. I think it’s a fine album, and takes the Shins in some interesting new directions, but I just can’t find the same attachment that I have to Chutes and Oh, Inverted World. It feels like a transitional album to me – like next album they’ll work out the kinks and commit to the new direction rather than keeping one foot safely planted in their first two albums. Wincing could creep onto the end of the list, but there are just so many albums I want to give credit to this year. Expect at least a track on the best tracks (I’m doing something similar to last year: 20 best albums + 30 best tracks, max. one per artist).

    Also, my complaint in this post is mostly directed to magazine lists, since at least in theory they’re supposed to have a thorough knowledge of what they’re talking about. If your favorite albums of the year are Neon Bible, Icky Thump, and Wincing the Night away, how can I blame you for gravitating towards what already like? Hopefully, though, I can sway you over to a couple of new acts. I think this was a strong year for new music.

  4. It took me a few months to warm up to WtNA, since it was not the next move that I was expecting from The Shins. At first, I didn’t like how it was so packaged and produced compared to the simple intimacy of their first two albums. However, once I accepted the new direction that they were taking, I was able to appreciate the work that went into WtNA. Seeing them perform songs from this album live made me feel even better about it. I found myself standing there thinking “yes, this is exactly what they should be doing right now”. However, I wonder if there is still something to be said for my initial indifference. Perhaps, through a good number of listens, I merely allowed the album to grow on me until I was convinced that this is one of the year’s best. It’s hard to see it objectively now.

  5. […] living here to return to their keyboards. Surlacarte is back with two excellent posts, covering the disappointing end-of-year music lists and his own list of 2006’s underrated albums. Yes, it takes a particular kind of mind to sum […]

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