this is not a year-end list

a reflection on 2020 and the limits of year-end lists

I don’t know you guys, I’m not really into year-end lists. Especially in 2020! My listening habits (and other people’s) changed radically this year because of the pandemic, and, for the most part, I listened to old music. It just feels rushed and uneven for me to make a top ten when I had literally four albums on repeat for the entirety of 2020.

But I did give this whole “top ten” thing a try, cycling through the year’s releases to figure out 1) which ones I actually listened to and 2) which ones I actually liked. That list was pretty long, so I narrowed it down to this, but even then it feels incomplete. I tried to get to the nitty-and-gritty of why year-end lists are so hard for me, and I kept returning to Marty Sartini Garner’s article on end-of-decade lists:

“Nobody actually listens to music this way, preoccupied with how the current album rates relative to the other albums you happen to have listened to recently; why suddenly adopt this posture just because the decade is ending?”

Part of it is this weird desire to rank music against itself, which Garner describes as the idea that “some albums can be everything to everyone.” The idea that some music can objectively be the best is odd because the beautiful thing about music is how subjective it is. Music appeals (or doesn’t) to listeners for different reasons and our taste can change just as easily as our mood. Comparing albums doesn’t make sense for me because I value different albums for different reasons.

It’s this idea of objectivity that Garner disassembles in his article, pointing out how year-end lists can obscure the power dynamics behind who gets picked for the list.

“By virtue of their ubiquity, the artists who got the most press are bound to rise to the top while lesser-known — but no less talented — artists languish on individual writers’ lists.”

This is a symptom of the way that music journalism, which has become increasingly online-only, is set up. Even publications that focus on indie music are drawn towards covering major label releases because bigger names bring more clicks. Don Giovanni Records got a lot of flack for tweeting something similar about how major label artists dominate coverage, even at indie publications, when folklore dropped.

It’s not really their fault, but major label artists tend to suck up all the air in the room. But I can’t fault journalists for listening to music that already has buzz around it. The other option would be to listen to every release you’re sent, and that would be impossible. But the artists who don’t have the resources to launch a full-scale album campaign get lost in that buzz. In a normal year, that buzz would be built naturally through touring, but the pandemic has made that impossible.

Garner writes that it's more helpful to think of these lists as "a way of articulating that these are the records that mattered to people in this distinct period of time.” But years of political science classes have trained me to reflexively ask which people we are talking about and what is it that they value.

Year-end lists, when presented as objective, obscure the people who actually write them. Journalists of color have made it clear this year that objectivity has always been racialized because whiteness is presumed neutral and therefore “objective.” But the idea that we can be “objective” when it comes to art still endures in music journalism.

Garner gets at this at the end of his article, asking why writers must be the objective every-man, the “all-seeing eye that stands outside of the world.” I particularly like this question:

Shouldn’t a criticism informed by poptimism and set loose on the internet be more curious and receptive, prone to wandering and comfortable with changing the subject?

The idea that music journalism can improve by reveling in its subjective nature, rather than trying to force objective, is enticing. What would year-end lists look like if we admitted that it’s all subjective, if we embraced our different points of view and spoke openly about how race and class shapes them? Rather than compare, can’t appreciate what each album brings to the table?

The idea that we should replace year-end lists with something more reflective of the way people interact with music isn’t new: Garner ends his article with a personal reflection on the role music has played in his life, and as I’m writing this Bandcamp Daily has already released it’s manifesto on why it won’t be doing year-end lists anymore.

Bandcamp’s letter points out similar things about objectivity and the forced art of ranking a medium whose value isn’t simply quantifiable. More than that, J. Edward Keyes writes that “when you assign something as hard-coded as numerical rankings to works of art, you start moving out of the realm of subjectivity, and into the realm of codifying taste.” And that’s really what I want to drive home here: whose taste is being reflected in year-end lists?

Whose taste is reflected in year-end lists when 2020 saw hundreds of journalists get laid off (many of them BIPOC), freelance budgets shrink, publications fold, and coverage for smaller artists evaporate? Is it even fair to write a year-end list for 2020, nevermind how contradictory the practice is itself? If you accept that a diverse newsroom makes for a better publication, then you must also admit that the exclusion of BIPOC voices this year has made year-end lists worse

I’m glad to see other people find this whole exercise as odd as me (and that I’m not just being lazy about listening to albums). And yeah, year-end lists don’t make sense because they prioritize objectivity in a field riddled with inequalities of access and coverage, but I also think year-end lists don’t make sense because of the unique position we find ourselves in this year. Maybe 2020 could be the year that we all realized year-end lists were absurd.

There will be growing pains as music journalism imagines a way to sum up a year of music without ranking. I’m interested to see what Bandcamp and other music publications will do, but I’m also interested to see how music fans will reflect on 2020. Projects like 2020isasong—a virtual time capsule of music that got people through 2020—offer an alternative. 2020isasong doesn’t waste any time delving into which songs were the “best” or “worst” of the year. In fact, no value judgments are made. Instead, submitters are asked to describe how the music made them feel.

The relationship between the listener and the music is at the forefront here, which is a refreshing take on the year-end genre that stands in direct contrast to the cold hard data that Spotify repackages into Spotify Wrapped every December. Campaigns like Spotify Wrapped can’t tell you what your favorite music of the year was or how the music made you feel—it can only show you your listening habits, and I’m sure few people would argue that “White Noise for Sleep” is their favorite song.

Moving beyond year-end lists and campaigns will only help strengthen ties between artists and listeners, asking listeners to reflect on the active role that music played in their lives.

So I won’t be doing a year-end list this year, and probably not in the future. Maybe I’ll write about the music that got me through 2020 instead, but that might just devolve into a list of albums I like to cry to—but even that would mean more than any ranked list I could try and muster up.