Best Albums of the Year, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Making Lists

by 5:4
9 minutes read

[This article is adapted and expanded from a patron-only post published to my Patreon supporters late last year.]

In two weeks’ time i’ll be starting my annual two-day pilgrimage through the forty Best Albums of the Year. Each year these articles tend to garner more attention (and certainly a greater number of hits) than anything else on 5:4. Over the last few years i’ve been asked numerous times the question of, considering the large quantity of music that i listen to, how i go about whittling this down in order to create my Best Albums list. It’s a good question, and i thought it would be interesting to share with you my own particular way of doing it.

First of all, something i’ve stressed on many occasions in my Best of the Year articles, and it’s worth re-stating again, is the essential provisionality of all such lists. This is something that’s stated very emphatically in one of the best books ever written about music, Words and Music, by one of my very favourite writers, Paul Morley. To paraphrase Morley (but pretty closely), lists are definitive: they’re a true reflection of one’s subjective reality and outlook at the time the list is created; yet they’re also provisional: if i was to draw up the same list the following day, there’s a good chance that some, even many, of my original choices would be changed. (This is literally true: the very first album i listened to this year – Halve by Hibou, released last year but which i hadn’t got round to hearing – would and should have been on last year’s Best Albums list.)

So the truth that my annual Best Albums of the Year list tells is the whole truth and nothing but the truth – yet it’s also only the truth as things stand at the end of each year. As i’ve noted, there are always plenty of discs i’ve not had a chance to spin by the time 31 December has passed by, and for this reason a few years ago i introduced an additional page on 5:4, Best Albums of the Years, where i periodically (typically every six months) update all of the previous end-of-year lists with my current, even more definitive, appraisal of things.

The changes reflected in these updated Best Albums lists are not only due to the simple fact of having had the chance to listen to more music. The idea of the ‘definitive’ list isn’t simply an asymptote to be tended towards. Likes and dislikes, appreciation and understanding, all change, evolve and mature over time, and this plays an important part in updates to these lists. But additionally, in the case of the older lists changes are also due to the fact that i’ve subsequently introduced a number of rules in the way my Best Albums list is created.

The Rules

  1. No reissues, re-recordings (including live concert recordings) or releases that are not widely available can be featured on the list – though limited editions are generally allowed.
  2. A composer, artist, performer, ensemble or group may only appear once on the list in the same capacity (i.e. a soloist can appear more than once if also performing as part of a group or ensemble; a composer can appear more than once if featured on, for example, a portrait disc and a compilation).
  3. The definition of an ‘album’ is determined not primarily by its duration but the nature of its content. However, in general, to qualify for the list a release should be of at least 20 minutes’ duration.
  4. No recordings or arrangements of music composed prior to the 20th Century can be included on the list – unless there’s a very good reason for doing so.

While something like this had been in my mind for several years beforehand, i only actually formulated these specific rules when creating the 2018 Best Albums list, and there are therefore plenty of examples from previous years when there are glaring exceptions to them. In particular, prior to 2017 i automatically deemed anything shorter than 30 minutes to be an EP and therefore unsuitable for the Best Albums list. (Those of you who’ve followed 5:4 for a very long time may remember i used to create a Best EPs of the Year list as well – hence the original distinction between albums and EPs.) Furthermore, there have been many occasions when an artist appeared more than once, most glaringly in 2009 when a bout of, in hindsight, somewhat ephemeral and misguided enthusiasm led to no fewer than six releases by the same artist all sharing the top spot, in addition to two more entries further down the list. For numerous reasons, all very ridiculous.

So those are the rules, but then there’s the small matter of how to whittle down one’s listening to, in my case, a top 40. To do this requires two things: remembering everything i’ve listened to and, more importantly, remembering what i thought about it. In a typical year, the number of new releases i listen to is somewhere between 200 and 300 (the total number, new and old releases, is around 600 – though due to the extra time afforded by Covid-19, in 2020 that number is fast approaching 1,000), so remembering all of this is clearly a problem. My music library is stored in iTunes, and everything i listen to is rated using its system of 0 to 5 stars. But that’s just the start: since 2009, my approach to creating the Best Albums list has been based around what has subsequently become the mother of all spreadsheets, which i call The Complete Playlist.

The Complete Playlist

This is where my geek credentials might get ramped up a notch or three. Very simply, everything that i listen to – new or old – is entered onto this spreadsheet, where i record the following facts about each release:

  • year
  • type (album, EP or single)
  • total rating (i.e. all the individual track ratings added together)
  • number of tracks
  • highest rating any track got
  • number of tracks that got that highest rating
  • worst rating any track got
  • total duration

(This sounds like it would take a while to do, but it actually only takes a few seconds.) From these facts, the spreadsheet works out a few other things, the most important of which is the average overall rating.

Based on all these data and calculations, i then sort The Complete Playlist according to the following criteria (from highest to lowest, in this order):

  1. average overall rating
  2. highest individual track rating
  3. % of tracks that got that highest rating
  4. worst individual track rating
  5. total duration

This sorted list therefore shows me what is, in essence, the first draft of my Best Albums list. i remove anything that doesn’t conform with The Rules and what remains is the second draft of the list. i then go through this second draft carefully and make adjustments, but albums are only re-ordered when they share the same average overall rating. For example, at the top end of the list, there are always several albums that have an overall rating of 5/5, so i use my judgement to finalise their order as seems most appropriate. This process inevitably involves re-listening to lots of these 40 albums, which in turn usually involves changes to star-ratings and quite a few more re-calculations and re-sorts and re-drafts.

That description may not adequately express how much fun all of this is, but it really is, and the process of seeing the final list gradually emerge is genuinely exciting, and always throws up a number of surprises.

Best Album lists tend to start being published anywhere from late November onwards, and another self-imposed rule is that i never read any of these lists until after i’ve published my own, as i don’t want to be influenced by them. The reason that i don’t publish mine until the very end of the year is due to the simple, very obvious fact that a great deal of music is still being released throughout December. Publishing a list like this any earlier would therefore be a definite mistake – indeed, it could be argued a best albums of the year list ideally ought not to be published until at least the start of the following year – and i want to allow myself as much time to listen to as much music as i can. These lists may be provisional, but they are also definitive, and i want my list to be as definitively definitive as possible.

So there you have it, the process by which the 5:4 Best Albums of the Year list is created. One final thought: i’ve seen people publish best album lists and make some kind of semi-embarrassed apology for doing so, sometimes even suggesting that such lists are somewhat meaningless. Which is, at best, just wrong – all critique is subjective, yet that hardly makes it meaningless – and at worst, plain stupid. All of us are trying our best to navigate through ever more densely-populated waters of diverse, eclectic music-making, and lists of this kind offer suggestions for possible ways to do this. Some sources opt not to put the albums into a strict order, simply grouping them together, an approach i have some sympathy for. But ultimately, for me nothing beats a list that loudly celebrates the most exhilarating things to have passed into my ears during the last 12 months, counting down from the best to the best of the best.

As things currently stand, with two weeks to go, i think i know which album will be my Best of the Year. But a lot can happen in two weeks, and there’s plenty left on my ‘to listen’ list…

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Tom Armstrong

Simon, how ON EARTH, do you find the time to listen to 600 albums in a year? And in the kind of detail that allows you to write convincingly about them?

Spiros Bousbouras

“Professional listener” , I like this. It is a reminder that music listening can be done in a very focused and committed manner.

I’m impressed with your musical memory , Simon. Not only you comment in detail on your latest listening but sometimes you juxtapose it with details of something you listened to years ago. Do you have any techniques to aid your memory or is it just naturally good ?

[…] albums of the year. For a reminder of the process and the rules behind the 5:4 Best Albums list, go here; and now for the music, each one of these ranks among the most brave, brazen and brilliant albums […]

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