The Proper Etiquette for Approaching End-of-Year Music Lists

‘Tis the season to get bombarded by lists of the “Best” songs, albums, and other accolades in what has become an annual ritual in the musical world. As much as the practice may feel perfunctory by some musical outlets, or tedious by others—or perhaps even insulting as a whole from turning art into a form of competition—the simple truth is this end-of-year list exercise is very fruitful for everyone involved. That is the reason so many participate.

Through these end-of-year enterprises, listeners are likely to be turned onto something they otherwise may have missed over the year. Artists find new fans from the practice, especially if a consensus builds around a particular work as being “critically acclaimed.” An artist and their representatives can leverage placement on these lists into bigger opportunities, bolstering a performer’s bio. And of course the outlets that publish these lists themselves usually see an elevated level of attention as folks come to see who landed where.

But over the years—and it seems especially in 2023—there is a lot of discounting of certain end-of-year tabulations just because someone is left off or someone else is included, completely misunderstanding the importance of the practice, the underlying truth that grading music is very subjective, and the fact that the music space has never been this crowded ever before.

The question you should be asking is not what a list forgot that you already know about, but what the list covers that you’ve never heard before. There’s no value in an outlet reaffirming what you’re already aware of, though this is often what readers turn to the media for. The value is in finding something new. And for every album or song you think someone “forgot” or “snubbed,” there many be a a dozen or more that got covered that you’ve never heard. In that overlooked batch may be a song or album that will connect with you and speak to you deeply, if given the opportunity.

Few if anyone can appreciate just how much music is being released into musical the marketplace every week, especially during the busiest times of the year. In 2023, all previous records and benchmarks for the amount of music releases in a given week were blown out of the water. Consulting Saving Country Music’s release radar, in a five-week period starting in September, we saw 120 albums released into the country/roots/Americana realm. For context, Saving Country Music reviews about 120 albums a year.

September 8th = 26 albums
September 15th = 30 albums
September 22nd = 17 albums
September 29th = 23 albums
October 6th = 24 albums

And that is only the albums that Saving Country Music prescreened to be considered for review, meaning there were others out there that for whatever reason weren’t considered for review, and others that Saving Country Music just wasn’t even aware of, including some that still got reviewed. And that’s just in country and roots music. According to the Grammy Awards, the “Americana” category (which covers much of actual country music these days) is one of the biggest genres per volume in all of music.

Making it even more difficult to know what to review, and what to populate end-of-year lists with is the amount of killer albums being released right now. When people criticize these lists for omitting certain names, they never think of who they would have to take out of a list to add to it. The parody account Reginald Spears run by Farce The Music recently tweeted out,

“If your top 10 albums of the year list doesn’t have Pony Bradshaw, Jaime Wyatt, Isbell, William Prince, Bella White, Gabe Lee, Turnpike, Tyler Childers, Lydia Loveless, CWG, Zach Bryan, Nicholas Jamerson, Deer Tick, Zach Russell, VNE, and Wyatt Flores, what is you even doing?”

But a lot of people missed the irony that the Top 10 albums had 16 names. He went on to add, “Also Brent Cobb, Amanda Fields, Marty Stuart, The Wilder Blue, and Lucero.”

This is the ultimate problem. With so many great albums out there, any Top 10, or even Top 20, Top 50, or Top 100 is going to feel like it’s leaving someone out. And wherever you draw the curation line in regards to a number, someone just on the other side of that line is going to feel like they’re getting screwed. At the same time, not every album is going to be worthy of coverage or inclusion on an end-of-year list. The point is to be distinguishing in such a crowded musical space.

Even if you included or reviewed every single album, what is a reader to do with 26 album reviews in a given week, chased by another 30 album reviews the next one? It’s hard enough for professional journalists to keep lists of the releases in order, let alone give everything enough undivided attention to publish a meaningful feature on it. Stuff is simply going to fall through the cracks.

But that brings us back to the importance of these end-of-year exercises, and for everyone to bring the right approach and attitude to them. You personally might have stumbled upon a song, album, or artist that you think is brilliant. Maybe they’re from your hometown, you know them personally, or your were referred to them via word-of-mouth directly. (PS: Beware of getting too hyped over the hometown hero. You’re more likely to consider someone who you know personally in a favorable manner.)

But instead of lashing out at the outlet for not covering your favorite, speak up and share this knowledge. And don’t preface it by saying, “you forgot” or “why did you snub so and so?” Some readers have completely sworn off reading certain outlets just because they did not include one of their favorite artists in an end-of-year list. This is missing the point.

The way grassroots fan bases work is through active participation. Just like seeing some song or album on a list and falling in love with it, the more you talk about and lobby for your favorite performers, the more likely someone with a platform or an opportunity to bestow will pay attention to them.

This is one of the reasons Saving Country Music starts it’s end-of-year cycle by nominating albums for Album of the Year, and then opening up the discussion in the comments for readers to leave their opinions and lists of omissions. This ultimately feeds into a more complete “Essential Albums List” that gets published at the very end of the year. No Depression has a reader’s poll, which is also a great way to engage the public in the search for consensus.

One practice that does deserve scrutiny is publishing “Best Of” lists before November has even concluded. Though the release cycle definitely slows down in December (and this is when Billboard closes their books on charts), there are still important releases. Zach Russell released a debut studio album on December 1st called Where The Flowers Meet The Dew that many consider a top release in 2023. But by this point, many major publications had already published their lists. Willie Nelson’s 90th Birthday live album doesn’t come out until December 15th.

With so much music out there, stuff is going to get missed, especially with the siloed nature of social media echo chambers. The best journalists and critics will always be attempting to zoom out and look at the bigger picture, and not let their personal tastes corrupt the process. They’ll also spend ample time out in the field experiencing music in the wild, looking for the next up-and-comers, and contextualizing artists and bands at shows and festivals. You can’t just reside online and think you’re getting the full picture. You have to get off the computer or phone, touch grass, and gauge fan reaction.

The dilemma of finding your next favorite album, song, or artist is only going to increase as the creative economy expands, and the burden of entry for people to become “artists” continues to fall thanks to technology. This doesn’t make journalists, critics, influencers, and other musical sherpas less important. It arguably makes them more vital to guide you through.

Everyone needs to appreciate the embarrassment of riches we find ourselves in with music in 2023. Millions of songs are constantly at our fingertips, and thousands of new songs are being uploaded every hour. No end-of-year list is exactly right or wrong. It is simply the perspective of the author or authors. And even though our tastes may vary widely, it’s common that we can all discover something great from someone else.

So instead of playing “Where’s Waldo” with your favorite songs or albums the next time an end-of-year list passes under your nose, consider what you haven’t heard before and may enjoy, and then share what you think the author has forgotten, with respect, and understanding of just how difficult this is becoming due to the volume of music coming out today.

© 2023 Saving Country Music