This Is How We Do
This is how Drowned in Sound chooses its album of the year.
Listmas. Yearendageddon. Whatever you want to call it, the annual ritual of presenting a series of records in numerical order has become a fascinating ‘season’*.
It’s as great for the media curious as it is for the contented ‘I like a bit of everything, me’ music lover or the easily enraged super-fan. In a post-BuzzFeed world, we love to hate these lists—they’re as reductive and pointless as they are enlightening and ‘ooooh, I hadn’t heard of that, and you’re right, it was amazing!’
Each year, the process of each media outlet sharing a list of their favourite albums and songs has become a little more important. With increasing competition (even Vogue covers music now, darling…) for your precious attention online, these lists have become as much about defining a publication, record shop or radio station, as they are about highlighting the best of the year. One hope is that with a year ending, and new habits forming in January, that you’ll frequent one of the places whose list most cohered with your list or intrigued you into rethinking your prejudices.
Our lists do need to appeal beyond what politicians call ‘their base’ audience. Looking at our analytics, for a lot of people, it’s the one time they visit a site they used to love. For others, it’s one of their monthly check-ins. Now that we’re reaching our 15th year, I notice that a lot of our older readers who are busy with jobs and kids and life, who struggle to keep up, really love our annual catch up. We appreciate that reading three album reviews a day is a big ask, and realise that these lists are a helpful lifeline, which is why when we redesigned last year we added a Recommended Records section to our frontpage to have a sort of ‘rolling’ best of.
Our stats also show that for other music-loving internet users, year-end lists can be a first time visiting a site because an artist they loved shared a link or they saw someone bickering about it.
So, given the fact our annual albums list gets about 20,000 more page-views than our most read review or feature, I thought it might be worth me explaining — in case anyone is at all interested (hi!)— why we do things different and how our list is compiled, as it isn’t as simple as totting up some votes.
We DO Ask Our Staff to Vote
However, votes won’t be totted up, ratified and adjudicated, because I have a whole different system to that. It’s not really a dictatorship, but it’s a process which tries to ensure as many of our staff’s interesting number one choices make the cut.
Not All Votes Are Created Equal
Senior staff have a little more sway, but only because I trust their tastes and know they’ve had to slog through a lot of records to make their decisions (whereas I can’t be as sure that a freelancer who has written 2 reviews has had as much time or inclination to do their due diligence…For all I know, they could have spent the year working at a national newspaper in india listening to nothing but Leonard Cohen) (this actually happens, such is the wonderful array of people who contribute to the site, and I love their pre-list disclaimers!). I also ensure that people’s specialist knowledge of micro-genres gets special treatment (else why bother asking someone to write an ambient column all year?).
What Would The Community Think
I also take into account the ‘vibe’ on the forums over the course of the year, as DiS is an outlet for a myriad of opinions. DiS is an ecosystem and there are a lot of voices to try to reflect, acknowledge and aggregate. I know that the vast majority of them hated it when I made M83 and Phoenix album of the year, but I love that some of them, in hindsight, came around a few months later and posted wonderful ‘sorry, not sorry, but you might not have actually been wrong’.
Symptom Not A Cure
The biggest problem with DiS staff is—as you’ll see when, for full disclosure and purposes of transparency, I share their top 3 votes next week—that there’s very little that gets more than a few votes and most people have number one choices that no one else has voted for. I hope, by not making it democratic people have voted more honestly and less tactically/pre-emptively, that the list is better. In reality, we’d end up with a lot of albums at joint 12th place…
I think, on the whole, this semi-curated process has been good at reflecting our loves and highlighting a few records people missed out on by positively discriminating in a slightly undemocratic way (is democracy really all that perfect when the most likeable politician seems to prosper…?).
I make a few drafts of the list, and I don’t decide alone, several of our team take a look and argue the cases for and against certain records, and we eventually publish the list, and move on with our lives…
I started doing this because I hated the idea of Arcade Fire or Radiohead or Kanye being top of the listmas tree, and yet not be a single person’s personal number one pick…
Sure, I wanted to ensure that DiS’ list stands out from the pack. I guess for me I want to really reflect the spirit of the site. Those who explore that little bit more are the back bone of what we’re about. Showing that popular things are popular isn’t what gets me excited. We all know that biggest isn’t always best, else U2 would make the cut… Not that Taylor Swift, much like Paramore last year or any number of stadium fillers that we love, will be excluded from our songs and albums of the year lists. Exclusion is the last thing this is about, but then we also call it ‘Our Favourites’ rather than ‘The Best’, which is a distinction I wish more outlets would make.
That said, I love that acts like Emeralds and Hookworms have topped recent DiS Albums of the Year lists, and that, in a small way, we’ve give some records like these a platform and a way into people’s consciousness. I’d far rather be running a site that does that than gives yet more plaudits in these marketing-driven groupthink times we’re living in.
A lot of the acts who dominate year-end lists have already “won music”. I appreciate that some people like the lists that confirm what they already know, which is fine and all, but that isn’t why I started a music website. Allowing mediocrity that no-one is passionate about to flourish or showing how ‘on it’ we are with the flavours of the moment or celebrating dinosaurs (with massive marketing spends) to ensure we get interviews/them-to-attend-our-awards-shows, isn’t why we do what we do.
*= (now that fashion-speak has infiltrated all walks of life, everything can be a season…)