Ask me about my top five favorite Beatles albums in ascending order of excellence or make me repeat my “Top 10 Albums of 2013” list: I could tell you both off the top of my head (No. 1 being Abbey Road and Modern Vampires of the City, respectively). I’m a Lists Guy. I like ranking, organizing, judging, and sorting my music. I like comparing lists with music geek friends, and I like comparing lists with actual publications.
Even for me, though, Pitchfork’s recent “Decade So Far” series was too much. In three down-to-a-science lists, the staff ranked the 200 Best Tracks, the 50 Best Music Videos, and the 100 Best Albums of 2010 through 2014. That’s all fine and good; Rolling Stone already pretends it can rank the 500 Best Albums and Songs of All Time (unsurprisingly, 23 of those songs belong to the Beatles, and 40 percent come from the 1960s).
Like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork has its obvious biases. While Rolling Stone will always herald “dad rock” as the pinnacle of music, Pitchfork will continue to hold Kanye West in its highest esteem. The key to understanding rankings are understanding those biases and measuring for your self. (My lists always come up short on hip-hop and rap and lean toward singer-songwriters and indie rock.)
What confused me about Pitchfork’s newest lists was their timing: all three dropped on subsequent days in mid-August. Only halfway through 2014, I can hardly discuss with much authority the best albums of this year, let alone tell if they adequately represent the decade. I don’t know what awaits us in the next few months, when the fall contains multitudes of new music. In fact, I can’t even tell what in 2013 would make the cut.
The reason is this: when you evaluate the best albums of the year, and when you’re evaluating the best albums of the decade, you’re asking completely different questions. For the former, you want to see how the individual songs contribute to the singular product of the album. Nothing should be wasted. A No. 1 album, you predict, will become influential. For the latter, an album must have already proven its influence. Even if it’s flawed (I’m looking at you, White Album), a top album of a decade influences the music and world around it. You’re defining a decade when you rank the music in it.
But the year-to-year album-ranking game is an imperfect one. What stands out one year, or seems like it will be influential, might not stand the test of time. And just as a listener, your opinions of an album might change; even if you still listen to it from time to time, it might be your No. 5 or No. 7 album or an album that didn’t even make the final cut that ends up being your favorite from that year.
Just look at my own 2013 list. I spent a long time figuring out my rankings, taking notes throughout the year on what caught my ear, and writing down everything that might feel, by December, to be an important album. (“Important” is not the only qualifier you can use when ranking albums, but for places like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, it tends to be the ultimate decider.) As much as I love Modern Vampires of the City—and still do consider it to be, objectively, the best release from last year—in truth I’ve actually listened to more Laura Marling (No. 5) and Haim (honorable mention) than CHVRCHES (No. 3) or Neko Case (No. 10) in the time since. That’s not even counting the holes where Yeezus or Acid Rap should be.
I’m skeptical, then, that Kanye can claim one-fifth of the top 10 spots on Pitchfork’s list (although I can’t disagree with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy taking the No. 1 position). I’m skeptical that a Sun Kil Moon LP makes it so far, too, and would point out how few 2014 albums reach the Top 20. Not that there aren’t bright spots: Fiona Apple, Vampire Weekend, and Frank Ocean are all around where I myself would place them. But right now, a full four months before 2014 ends and the decade reaches its midway point, is not the time to make those judgments.
I can tell you which album is leading the pack for my upcoming 2014 list. I can tell you what song I can’t currently get out of my head (“I Wanna Get Better” by Bleachers). But I can’t tell you definitively, because the year is not over. And I can’t tell you what will stand out in a year, or five, or 10.
I will when we get there, but not quite yet. It’s just not that time.