Map Ref. 39° N 76° W Dec. 10: The homogenization of the indie rock year-end list

City Paper

The calendar has barely turned to December and already the first of the year-end albums lists has started flowing in—even though there’s almost a month left in 2014. This is the annual ritual of critics and music obsessives alike.

We recount the year, assess which albums had the most impact or staying power, and rank them. We consider what it means to rank one thing over another thing. We re-rank. The benefit of having other lists out before you make your own list is it gives you the chance to reevaluate albums you might have overlooked. You go back. You listen. Maybe you re-rank.

This is the highest ideal for the list: a publication riding hard for an album and helping it find a new audience, or maybe connecting a work with an audience that had written it off, critically.

But if you pay attention to the outlets that cover “indie”—your Pitchforks, your Pastes, your Stereogums—you’re more likely to find a circling of the wagons around a select group of bands. The only real difference is the order in which they appear. Check all the lists once they’re in and you’ll see, without fail: Sun Kil Moon’s “Benji,” The War On Drugs’ “Lost In a Dream,” and Parquet Courts’ “Sunbathing Animal,” just to name a few. Are these all deserving albums? Sure, but then the list becomes something to compare and contrast with a different list. “How could they rank that doofus Mac DeMarco over Sun Kil Moon?” Instead of really gaining something, you nitpick about placement, and the conversation, even among some of my non-music-writer friends, shifts from the art to an insider-y horse race.

In fairness, yes, I did make a list—it’ll be out next week in our Top 10 issue. And yes, a lot of the albums on there will be the consensus albums in the publications listed above.

And that’s another problem with list-making: While I did arrive to many releases on my own, I spent a great deal of time going back and listening to things I didn’t get around to because I had a feeling they would be on other lists. I at least need to give them a proper evaluation for my own. Maybe that’s a streak of completism on my part, but it also feels like there is a premium placed on sucking up voluminous amounts of music without taking the time to really let an album sink in.

Thing is, I’m certain I missed some things, just as I’m certain there are a slew of writers in New York who missed some of the great music coming out of our city, something that has more to do with a critical hive mind and public-relations apparatus than it does music. Future Islands and Wye Oak will certainly end up on a lot of lists, but many more local bands didn’t garner so much as an album review. A track by Nerftoss, the solo project of Dope Body bassist John Jones, had a nice write-up on Pitchfork, but there is nary a review of the full album, “Maiden Powers,” to be found. And Horse Lords had their album “Hidden Cities” premiere on a pretty prominent music blog, Tiny Mix Tapes, but it didn’t seem to get picked up elsewhere. The first album by Ed Schrader’s Music Beat, “Jazz Mind,” got plenty of national press, but the more focused, weirder second one, “Party Jail,” didn’t get nearly as much coverage, which can only be attributed to sites getting lazy and not doing their homework.

Truth be told, it was much easier for me to come up with my local ballot for our Top 10 list of albums and songs from Baltimore (also out next week). Not because bands in our city are inherently superior—though I do think many are great—but because the music scene is such an important part of the city’s ecosystem. The songs come to me in a more organic way, and that’s more satisfying than backtracking to the national flavor of the month from back in April.

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