I'm finalizing my own Top 10 or so albums of the year for posting here on Reverb in the coming days, but to whet appetites and kill time 'til then, I thought I'd run through what have so far been the best, or at least most interesting or illuminating of the Best of the Year lists going around so far (with Reverb Monthly's own localized take on the matter and Chris Kornelis' favorites excluded because, of course, it wouldn't be fair to the others). Here they are, then, in precise numerical order:
"Consensus is mendacious." --The Wire
5. NPR's "All Songs Considered" Listener's Poll (for the self-selecting truths it reveals about the pejorative of "NPR muzak").
It will seem like ancient Internet history now, but one of the year's most interesting conversations about music was Nistuh Abebe's three-part hand-wringing about "indie adult contemporary" or "NPR muzak," which began with an essay for NY Mag, continued in a dialogue with NPR's Frannie Kelley, and finally played out via his monthly column for Pitchfork. Abebe attempted some serious critical feats here: to get beyond thumbs-up/thumbs-down (or, egad, numerical) ratings of this stuff to instead talk about much more interesting ideas around the music: why "challenging" music is often seen as more worthy than "comforting" music, for instance, or why reasonably growing old(er) is still seen as the worst possible thing in rock'n'roll. Many nerves were touched, including some of Abebe's own, but mostly those of people whose presumably safe, vanilla tastes he was thought to be insulting. So when this listener-submitted list popped up a couple of months later and confirmed everything--behold, the blinding soft whiteness of Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Adele, and the Decemberists!--well, it was a gently soothing driveway moment.
4. The Wire's 2011 Rewind (for their awesome transparency of process).
No surprise that willfully obscurantist British rag the Wire's Best of 2011 list is topped by James Ferraro's winking Windows '97 soft-rock hellscape Far Side Virtual and further ranges from the Beach Boys' SMILE Sessions to Laurel Halo and Hyp Williams. What's awesome about their list though is the accompanying blog post which explains in great depth the voting process and mathematical quirks behind their picks, laying bare the idea of such lists as in any way solid, final, or reflective of reality. "Consensus is mendacious," writes the Wire's Tony Herrington. "A composite of multiple, often conflicting individual realities, consensual reality projects an image that doesn't exist."
3. Pitchfork's Top 50 Albums of 2011 (for overall taste-making power, and because I write for them, too).
The Village Voices' annual Pazz & Jop Poll might rope in more critics (and therefore be more representative of a broader--although, as pointed out above, not necessarily more real--consensual reality), but Pitchfork's end-of-year staff lists are arguably more ahead of the curve, equally valuable for reflecting extant popular tastes as for predictive taste-making. Also, they let me write for them sometimes. Bon Iver holds the top spot here, too, but the top 10 and beyond quickly open up to far more diverse and lively picks (and local heavyweights Shabazz Palaces and Fleet Foxes land right next to each other at 14 and 15, respectively.)
2. TIE: The VICE Albums of the Year 2011 (because, British-isms aside, they pretty much nail this) & Chunklet's Best of the Best of 2011 (because grumpy American satire deserves a spot, too [and because both find Shabazz Palaces immune to snark and bile]).
Vice: "50 - 43. Stuff you've never heard. 42 - 41. Stuff you never want to hear. 40. Band managed by ex-music journalist now furiously milking his old contacts for snippets of friendly press." Etc.
Chunklet: "Antlers, Burst Apart: Oh wow, a shitty album of heartfelt shitty indie pop that nobody else is really talking about. Nice deep pull, NPR. No."
1. The Slate Music Club's Best of 2011 Roundtable (because the conversations around the lists are always more important than the lists themselves, and because these are some of the best thinkers-out-loud in the business).
Consensual reality aside, lists aren't written in stone. They're not binding, or even all that important. They can only scrape at summing up a present moment, and they certainly can't predict what we'll look back on fondly from the future. They're fun for nerds and useful for publishers, and hell I love every last one of them, but at best they're starting points. The important part is the conversations that come out of them, and here, as in previous years, Slate has assembled some of the sharpest critics in the business--the above-mentioned Nitsuh Abebe, as well as Ann Powers, Jody Rosen, Jonah Weiner, and Carl Wilson (whose 33 1/3 stunner Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is required reading)--to hash out What It All Means in a series of epistolary blog posts. This one's still unfolding as we speak, but there's plenty up so far to spark all sorts of further conversation. Get started.