Thursday, January 16, 2014

Pazz and Jop 2013

So it was yet another dominating win for Kanye West, tying him with Bob Dylan for the most number one albums in the history of the poll.  What's even more amazing is that he's done this over the space of just six albums and less than ten years, and the two albums that didn't top the poll still finished at #6 (Graduation) and #10 (808's and Heartbreak).  Six album, six top ten finishes.  Yet another reason why the monoculture's death has been somewhat exaggerated ...

This was the first year I voted using the (admittedly lazy) 15-14-13-12-11-9-8-7-6-5 points scheme.  My enthusiasm for my top albums was muted this year compared to most previous years, so I couldn't, in good conscience, give anything the 20+ points that a truly great album deserves.  I've always tried to quantify my attitude toward my favourite albums as accurately as possible, i.e. if two or three albums stood head and shoulders above everything else I heard that year (which is the case in most years) then the points totals should reflect that.

This year's top ten featured an album released by surprise over the internet only four days before the deadline for submitting ballots, a mixtape that wasn't released on an official label, and a self-released album by a band that had been in hibernation for nearly 20 years (and hadn't received much mainstream rockcrit love when they were in their prime).  Plenty of people claimed that the indie-heavy 2009 poll meant that a sea change was underway, where Pitchfork-approved rock and pop of the younger generation of critics would dominate from then on, and that never came to pass.  But I think the surprises at the top of this year's ballot do represent something meaningful about the changing perception of what makes for a critical smash.

David Bowie, Arcade Fire, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds all finished in the top thirty, in part due to merit, but mostly due to their reputations.  The albums didn't blow many people away but they will always draw reflexive support from the many people who simply enjoy voting for them.  If you think I'm exaggerating, consider that "The Next Day", at #15, finished higher this year than "Let's Dance" (#19), "Scary Monsters" (#19), "Lodger" (#31), and even "Heroes" (#21) in their respective years.  That's partly because American critics weren't as into Bowie compared to European critics, but otherwise there's no way to say with a straight face that "The Next Day" is better than all those albums.  People were glad to see his return to music (as was I), there were some solid tracks on the album, it sounded very much like classic Bowie with none of the odd experiments he busied himself with from 1995-2005, but otherwise this was people voting for Bowie the event, not Bowie the artist making some of his best work.

In a way you could say the same about MIA's "Matangi" (#28), Yo La Tengo's "Fade" (#48), and Low's "The Invisible Way" (#71).  None of them were close to representing their respective best work, but they'll always draw a base level of critical support whenever they release something new.  In fact, I think you could say the same about another 15-20 albums in the top 100 of the poll. Voters didn't pick them because they're great albums, they picked them because they've always voted for them in the past, their new album wasn't all that bad, so why not?  (says the guy who voted for Depeche Mode this year ... game and match?  Perhaps.)

As always, Glenn McDonald's P&J stats are the best thing about the poll, bar none, so you may want to stop reading this and go directly to his site.  I could get lost scrolling through numbers on his site for hours.  Now that he's been tabulating the poll for a few years, he's begun building a database of historical metrics on top of the ones specific to this year.  In 2013 I was ranked #277 out of 453 in centricity (39th percentile), almost exactly in line with my accumulated centricity from 2008-13 (40th percentile).  In 2009, I was strictly hit-or-miss as far as the mainstream of the poll was concerned -- I voted for two albums that received a huge number of other votes, a bunch of other stuff that got almost no mentions, and finished with my highest ever centricity score:

Other votes for Animal Collective + YYY's: 266
Other votes for the other eight albums in my top ten: 23

This year the distribution between the have and have-nots was even more extreme:

Other votes for MBV, Daft Punk, and The National: 164
Other votes for the other seven albums in my top ten: 4 (includes four albums with zero other votes)

And that's how end up with a centricity score in the middle of the pack: two top ten albums, another that almost cracked the top twenty, and a whole bunch of nothing.  The commonalities between me and the people in my list of similar voters are mainly from my songs list.

Finally, I have to say that I'm proud of finishing near the top of the breadth list (#79 out of 1120 critics), which means I tend to vote for completely different artists every year.  I really try to keep challenging myself with new music and now I have the stats to "prove" it!

No comments: