Just as a new year brings excitement for the possibility of starting over, the end of the year brings excitement to list the bests and worsts. The top 25 worst album covers, 15 overlooked artists, the 100 best songs — take your pick. End of year lists are there to draw attention to the musical pillars left standing after another year’s rainfall of albums.
Similarly to how movies wait to be released as summer blockbusters or winter must-sees, most bands push for their albums to be released in the second half of the year. And whether it’s intentional or not, January, February, and March wind up being the least significant months for music.
MetaCritic, a website that compiles critics’ ratings of movies, music, games, and TV, tracks the rankings of nearly every released album, regardless of genre or popularity. Out of the 25 highest rated albums from 2012, only two were released in the first three months: Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas (Jan. 31) and Julia Holter’s Ekstasis (March 8). Increasing the spectrum to the 50 highest rated albums of 2012 leaves only eight that were released in the first three months, Cohen and Holter now joined by six other musicians (The Men, Cloud Nothings, Earth, Sharon Van Etten, Damien Jurado, and First Aid Kit).
This is all due to the formula. New artists release music in the first quarter of the year since it’s the least competitive, and major label musicians battle for release dates in the fourth quarter in hopes of being the last band standing before the slates are cleaned. But in 2012, this standard formula was challenged.
The top two albums, Frank Ocean’s debut Channel ORANGE (July 10) and Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore good kid, m.A.A.d city (Oct. 22), are not from longtime musicians. It’s true the two performers have released mixtapes and singles prior to these records, and Ocean had been rapping with Odd Future, but strategically speaking, these albums should have dropped in that first quarter, not in the third or fourth. That daring leap is what blew these records up online and in discussion amidst expected precision from big names Fiona Apple, Swans, Grizzly Bear, and Bob Dylan.
Yet end of the year list snubbing doesn’t begin in January. The final two to three weeks of the year in December are also often neglected, as seen with The Roots’ 2011 album undun.
A conceptual rap album that follows the short and tragic life of fictional Redford Stevens, undun received an 8.8 from combined critic scores and a 9.2 from users (as gathered on MetaCritic). The Roots were once again crafting their finest, even roping in a track from indie folk god Sufjan Stevens —“Redford (For Yia-Yia & Pappou)” off Stevens’ 2003 record Michigan — which serves as the first of four beautiful movements to close the album. Due to its December release date, however, undun was too hot to be digested in time for most 2011 lists, and technically not released in 2012 to make it on the following year’s.
Release dates can leave albums such as undun transcending multiple end of the year lists, guarantee big names like Dr. John a spot in the top 10, or highlight newcomers like Julia Holter if heavily promoted early on. The issue at hand is the level of effort required to treat every album with equal respect. Barely two weeks into the new year, let us make a conscious effort to dive into the music scene.