Find hereabouts my 45th Dean’s List, a tradition that goes back to the first (yes, first) Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll in 1971, when I published the full top 10s of 40 working critics (fans’ lists were also tallied that year, but not reproduced) after appending my own top 30, not yet dubbed the Dean’s List, to an earlier Consumer Guide. In 1974, when I returned to the Voice from Newsday and resumed Pazz & Jop, I continued to publish a longer list of my own, which I expanded from 30 to 40 in 1979 and to an indeterminate length in 1981; the shortest subsequent one checked in at 49 in 1985 (by an odd coincidence, the year my daughter was born) and the longest in 2011, when I located 107 A records.
Clearly these varying lengths reflect my own diligence and workload: in 2019 the Consumer Guide was out of business all summer as I transitioned from Noisey to And It Don’t Stop, and I also sunk below 80 in 2014, when I was transitioning from MSN to Medium. But the earlier expansion from 30 to 40 and beyond was fundamentally a function of how much music was out there. In the ‘90s I began pointing out that there were more hours of recorded music released every year than there were hours in a year, and in the Soundcloud/YouTube age the disparity has become incalculable. In 2019, the 46th or 47th Dean’s List ended up honoring 76 A albums that include three EPs, and also 13 long-players released in 2018 and even before.
Leading the list you’ll find two albums I pegged as certain top 10s from the time I reviewed them in March and April, although their one-two finish seemed unlikely with most of the year to come: Billie Eilish’s flighty, electro, best-selling When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and Todd Snider’s earthy, primitivist, fans-only Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3. But down below things got messier. It took diligent summer listening for me to decide that Chance the Rapper’s The Big Day was a backlash victim and enjoyable winter listening to conclude that it belonged at number three. I was a late convert to my number-four Purple Mountains. And although I was on Carsie Blanton’s fifth-place Buck Up before it was officially self-released in March, I didn’t even hear Kalie Shorr’s ninth-place September self-release Open Book until 2020.
And then there was everything else. Of the 76 albums that made the cut, I’ve played or replayed all but a dozen since I began getting serious in December. When I did, some records bounced up (Ex, Tagaq, Mark) or down (Nassif, Saadiq, Capaldi); B plus Jamila Woods rocketed to 50 while A minus 6lack fell off the list altogether. And though these judgments have more muscle on them now than when I wrote my reviews, they’re unlikely to remain final. I’m diligent about not jumping the gun on the grades I parcel out, but albums do continue to grow or diminish for those they touch. They’re living things.
It should surprise no one that few of the albums in my top 10—Billie Eilish, Purple Mountains, and Kim Gordon, to be precise—made much of a dent among the deciders at Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, which with Pazz & Jop kaput now host the year-end album lists of record. Nor is it any surprise that only three of my finishers are under 30 and four are past 50. I’m 77, and while I identify with the young more than most of my cohort, my life issues are radically different from theirs. Without excavating the details, I’ll note that though there are plenty of women on my list, most of them aren’t on other people’s—Angel Olsen’s overbearing banality, to choose a prominent example, completely escapes me (although I reserve the right to end up upping Lana Del Rey’s September ***). It would appear that I’m not quite the big hip-hop fan I once was either, though I expect that blip to right itself once I bear down a little.
Then again, while time and again I’ve decried the paucity of political music in the most politically fraught year since Hitler took cyanide and then shot himself (you go, Adolf), there was more than I sometimes feared and I latched onto what I found. Snider, Blanton, Tagaq, Delines, Ex, McCalla, Sleater-Kinney, Furman, Rapsody, Woods, Slowthai, Priests, Saadiq, and Quelle Chris all focused their wit, rage, fellow feeling, and hooks on racism and sexism, the wages of wealth and the rape of the planet. It should also surprise no one that I hope there’s more in 2020, and that it makes a difference. Everyone reading this could use a happier newer year, and music alone can never guarantee that.