For all their ills and continued problems, the 2010s were a revolutionary time for music criticism. The increasing acceptance of poptimism, which rejected the accepted superiority of “authenticity” and anti-commercialism inherited from early rock critics, created an entirely new critical lane about pop music made for mass consumption. It also produced a trickle-down effect that reshaped the critical respectability of previously maligned genres like emo, pop-punk, and soft rock. Female critics and people of color wielded influence in a way that did not happen in previous decades, when the critical conversation was almost entirely controlled by the kinds of white men who would put The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Young Rascals in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while leaving out Fela Kuti and Dolly Parton.
So it seems strange that despite the fact that we have a more diverse group of critics and a broader understanding of what constitutes “good” music than at any other time in pop history, the era’s biggest accolades are the exclusive property of its biggest stars. The aggregation site Album of the Year compiled 24 End of Decade lists by everyone from Rolling Stone and Billboard to Crack Magazine and Gorilla Vs. Bear. The results shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who consumed their share of music media this decade:
1. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
2. Beyoncé - Lemonade
3. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
4. Robyn - Body Talk
5. Solange - A Seat at the Table
6. Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d. City
7. Frank Ocean - Channel Orange
8. Frank Ocean - Blonde
9. Rihanna - ANTI
10. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
11. Lorde - Melodrama
12. Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City
13. David Bowie - Blackstar
14. Kanye West - Yeezus
15. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
16. Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour
17. SZA - Ctrl
18. Beyoncé - Beyoncé
19. Beach House - Teen Dream
20. Carly Rae Jepsen - E•MO•TION
I’m not here to criticize any of these records, all of which are deserving of the praise they’ve received from critics and fans alike. But it’s hard not to notice the fact that the majority of these artists were already superstars when they made their decade-defining albums, at least by the standards of what constitutes fame in the 2010s.
This is something of a departure from decades past. While Rolling Stone, Stereogum, Pitchfork, and Tiny Mix Tapes all agreed that Radiohead’s Kid A was the best album of the ’00s, their top tens were defined by artists who made early-career impacts: Arcade Fire’s Funeral and The Strokes’ Is This It, Broken Social Scene’s You Forgot It in People and Sigur Rós’ Agaetis Byrjun. SPIN’s top albums of the ’90s, released in 1999, is almost entirely composed of artists who made their debut (or, in the case of Björk and Dr. Dre, their solo debut) in that decade: PJ Harvey, Beck, Pavement, Hole, Radiohead, The Chemical Brothers. Even Rolling Stone’s 1989 recap of the ’80s is varied enough to include Tracy Chapman and Richard and Linda Thompson alongside Prince, Talking Heads, and R.E.M. in the top ten. Now, the most noticeable difference in the lists are in genre diversity, reflecting the shifts in criticism we’ve talked about — again, a shift that’s for the better. But still, it’s hard not to notice that the biggest winners were the artists who, by nature of their bank account and global celebrity, had already won.
For any of this to mean anything, you have to first accept the basic argument that a Best Albums of the Decade list is precisely that: an empirical list of the best albums of the decade. Even if that’s what a list’s creators purport to be doing, the consensus-driven model of the staff list negates the concept out of hand. 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.
Instead, it’s helpful to think of an End of Decade list as an argument, a first attempt at canon-building, a way of articulating that these are the records that mattered to people in this distinct period of time. As such, it can’t really do anything other than confirm to us in the present that, yes, these are the records we spent the most time talking about this decade. This is why decade lists created years after the fact are always more interesting — they inherently challenge the way the time period at hand thought about itself.
The opening of the Overton window for music critics means that we no longer have to pretend that forward-thinking rock is the most dynamic, innovative, or authentic style of music around, something that was always a fallacy and that enabled groupthink among critics.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the critic who puts together their decade list in mid-2019 isn’t the same critic who first encountered, say, Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor when it was released in 2010. Taste and personality are constantly in flux for all people, as are critical priorities. As anyone who’s ever revisited a high-school mixtape knows, the way you hear an album today that you fell in love with nine years ago is necessarily conditioned by the way you saw yourself nine years ago and the way you see that version of yourself today.
This is especially relevant when thinking about the music of the 2010s, a decade in which both the philosophical and financial priorities of music criticism changed rapidly and dramatically. To continue to pick on The Monitor (an album that I love, please don’t bother me about this), it’s hard to imagine it making the kind of impact today that it did nine years ago, when Paste, Consequence of Sound, and Pitchfork all put it in their year-end top ten. The shift in thinking over the intervening years has revealed that what at the time looked like a universally appealing album to white male critics like myself was in fact a rather niche product. (In retrospect, an obvious thing to note about a lo-fi punk record that features readings from the letters of Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln and peaks with the line “I’ve destroyed everything that wouldn’t make me more like Bruce Springsteen.”)
This is a good thing. The opening of the Overton window for music critics means that we no longer have to pretend that forward-thinking rock is the most dynamic, innovative, or authentic style of music around, something that was always a fallacy and that enabled groupthink among critics. Criticism — and music generally — has become deeper and more interesting as a result, with increased attention paid to micro-genres and far-flung scenes that would have remained overlooked in previous eras.
This decade has brought us incisive writing about the resurrecting power of the YouTube algorithm for Japanese ambient and classical artists in The New York Times. Vice traced the ways vaporwave was co-opted by the right. African record labels of massive influence that would have gone overlooked in the North American press in previous decades got feature guides on Pitchfork. Vulture, NPR, and Pitchfork all used the newest Dave Matthews Band record to quietly make the historical case for the once-reviled jam band. Korn were favorably reappraised by The FADER; so were Sublime. Alice Coltrane and Yoko Ono, two artists whose brilliance was once shadowed by the legacy of their famous husbands, received much-needed reevaluations from The New Yorker and Vulture, among many other places.
Bandcamp Daily offered an essential guide to the streaming platform’s wealth of sounds, including seemingly oxymoronic scenes and genres that seem like they could only exist on Bandcamp. Even as alt-weeklies died out on what seemed like a monthly basis, The Chicago Reader made special efforts to document the city’s perpetually shifting sounds; this might be the only proof we have that seapunk ever existed. Throughout the decade, and particularly in the latter half, the most popular music sites made it easy to be confronted by music from a time or place you’d never considered before, or needed to consider again.
But this year’s End of Decade lists make it clear that all of this deeply reported work serves as nothing more than a kind of filigree decorating the framing around the work of established superstars. This is the case no matter where you choose to get your news. Almost no publication, regardless of its previously established editorial voice, seems capable of resisting the temptation to participate in the continued hyping of event releases — at least, not if they want to be able to pay the editors, writers, and photographers that keep them going anything like a decent wage. Countless music publications shut down this decade, with the survivors tilting toward an all-inclusive, generalist perspective. The end result is a post-poptimist music culture that still hasn’t done away with the idea that some albums can be everything to everyone; they’ve simply decided that it’s something only the richest and most headline-grabbing artists are capable of.
It’s never been easier to connect with people who have similar taste, and whose own journeys as listeners would be far more interesting to read about than another toothless ranking.
So where do we go from here? If we’re willing to cherry pick, we can go to Twitter, where some of the most interesting decade-end lists I’ve seen this year came from individual writers posting screengrabs of TextEdit docs. But even an expertly assembled list lacks the kind of nuance needed to sum up ten years of close listening, which should theoretically be the End of Decade list’s goal. 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? The critical stance we’ve inherited demands that writers function as an all-seeing eye that stands outside of the world, taking it all in. 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? Rather than opening dialogues and cultivating interest, listmaking and -reading flattens both by limiting the conversation to topics we’ve already talked to death.
Which is a shame, because this is an amazing time to be a music fan. It’s never been easier to connect with people who have similar taste, and whose own journeys as listeners would be far more interesting to read about than another toothless ranking. What was your favorite critic’s priorities? How did they change over the span of the decade? What, if anything, united their listening? I don’t necessarily share Amanda Petrusich’s enthusiasm for Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, but I identify deeply with what led her to fall in love with it. “Refining or perfecting an old tradition is a lovely and useful impulse,” she writes in a stock-taking piece in The New Yorker. “But this decade (with a few exceptions), I found that I mostly wanted to be startled.”
Me too. I’ve learned that being a dedicated listener in this decade of abundance means embracing change. It means having your faves challenged constantly, digging deeply into forgotten eras or new-to-you scenes and setting up camp for a few months, then heading out again.
My decade was marked by categorical shifts and micro-obsessions. I followed my nose from my Apple Music recommendations to Dublab playlists to whatever my Shazam picked up the night I saw Cut Chemist play Ethiopian records at a bar in L.A. I walked away from indie rock and still saw Parquet Courts a dozen times. I can’t tell the story of this decade without thinking about the six months I was incapable of turning off Boulevards’ “Sanity,” or the depth of calm I felt listening to Gun Outfit’s “Gotta Wanna” while my wife and I drove up the Oregon Coast. I lay on the floor of a black-box theater in Chicago while Tim Hecker played cuts from Virgins and felt my body hum. For about a week, I was convinced that a blond Icelandic rapper was going to become the next crossover star based on the early-morning sweetness of one of his songs. I encountered mourning and grief for the first time, and Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree guided me through the darkness. Not to mention the hours and hours I spent with albums that happened to have come out before January 1, 2010. Pitting all of these experiences and the memories I associate with them against one another feels vulgar, and it runs counter to the myriad ways I experience music.
Maybe this means I’m not cut out to be a critic; that’s OK, there are worse outcomes. In a decade of shifts, that may be the biggest one of them all, my move away from the need to make a name for myself via performative expertise. I came fumbling into the 2010s trying to wrap myself in authority’s cloaks, hoping the aura they gave off would be enough to, I don’t know, help me land pitches or gain Twitter followers — or at the very least, help me keep alive the vision of myself I had in college as the resident campus music guy. But I’m leaving this decade feeling like I don’t know much of anything at all, that the world of recorded music is so vast and beguiling it could never be put into any kind of order, much less a definitive one. And yeah, in the end I tweeted out a list of my favorite albums from this decade, too, partly because I wanted to make sure Cornelius’ Mellow Waves didn’t get lost to the swells of time, but also partly because I didn’t want myself to get lost, either. Still, I’m trying to stop looking out for number one.