The Art of the Year End Music List - Look Back Week


By Jordan Reisman

Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem at 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. Photo by Angela N.

Ever since I saw High Fidelity five years ago, my life has never been the same.

You know the popular trope “Life imitates art?” Well, from time to time I like to imitate John Cusack’s fictional persona, Rob Gordon. For the past few years, I’ve written my own little “Best of Two Thousand-whatever” list to sum up the year in terms of my favorite music. I see it as an opportunity to rank all the great musical events that were released in the past year, as well as reflect on them thoughtfully as pieces of art.

However, it is not so easy to just rank your favorite records in a numbered order. Emotions and memories get in the way. What if the record you listened to most is contending with the record that has your favorite lyric of the year? Well, this should clear up at least my own process of creating a “Best Of” list.

I break the process down into five steps: finding the music, finding the list’s personal touch, adding variety, determining the list’s length, and finally, ranking the records. If given the appropriate attention and introspection, it can be a really fun little project in the moments you have to yourself during the holidays.

When I get in the mindset to make the list each year, I have to make sure that I am really familiar with the assortment of music that was released; there is no list without the records. That’s why I like to be constantly updated with the music world via the Internet. Outisde of BTR, my weapon of choice has been the same since 2007: Their “Best Of” lists inspired me, in part, to make my own. The site lets users rank their favorite records and uses their votes to create one final “Best Of” list, making the whole process very democratic.

But reading websites isn’t the only way I find these albums. Going to shows regularly helps me find opening bands that I’ve never heard before. Every year, I try to keep in mind great opening acts and other surprising performing acts to eventually include on my list. It’s always fun to see how that band transforms over time. This year, for me it was a Pittsburgh pop-punk trio called Run, Forever.

Now, since the tools are established for finding music, the next step is processing all of it.

Like a composer finding the right orchestrations that sets the mood for a film, I try to associate a motif to my list. I used to say that I could rank the year’s best music by what I was singing along to in the car with my friends the most. I think back then I liked to speak with a Springsteen-esque romanticism, approaching music as my soundtrack to driving at night. While that is still true, this year found less aimless suburban drives and more destination-oriented, contemplative journeys, so the albums that meant a lot to me had songs that really resonated with personal circumstance. I find that the associations tied to music can sometimes be just as important as the music itself. Context is everything, but, variety is also important, you don’t want a total sap list.

Another important, yet completely superficial, aspect of list making is showing off one’s extensive music taste. On a lot of major publications’ year-end lists, they include things like Taylor Swift’s new album. While it might be a good album, I try to appeal to a certain niche crowd (and frankly, keep up my cred). I also don’t want to pick a #1 that was on every other list that I’ve read (ahem, Celebration Rock). However, I also like to sprinkle in a mainstream release with all of the others. In the past, I have chosen Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Childish Gambino’s Camp, just as a way to cast my approval of monumental pop events outside my immediate punk favorites.

After all of these considerations, I find myself ready to rank!

Even being the scatterbrain that I am, I place a certain amount of importance on numbered organization. Moses had it right with the Ten Commandments, and so my list shall be just as concise. Now, it seems that every year I do this; I change the number of albums I want to include. In 2010, I had 10 albums because of the synnergy — 10 for 2010 are a few nice round numbers. In 2011, picking 11 records seemed incomplete. I listened to more albums more closely that year, so I went with 15 instead. For 2012, I have 14 albums on my list. I added a few that I had previously considered (one that I thought was too much of an obvious choice, but hey, I love any band who dresses like they’re English peasants).

In ranking the albums, I find the order mostly does not matter to others until the top five. The other 11 can be pretty much arbitrarily ordered based on how much each was actually listened to. No one’s going to comment saying, “Hey! The new Ceremony LP should have been number 10 instead of 12!” I really wrestled with my number one spot this year, but in the end I gave it to The Gaslight Anthem. I have a long-standing history with this band, and although I could have gone with a more unknown choice, I really did love their latest record, Handwritten. Despite getting heat for taking on a more sentimental tone, it just flowed so well as a cohesive unit — let my punk cred be damned!

So now you have seen what it is like to step inside the mind of a semi-obsessive punk and pop appreciator. I’ve never really been the one to give long-winded end of the year speeches about “how much I’ve changed,” but making these things is fun, and if I can turn on a few people to my favorite bands, then I’ve done my job. Now that 2012 is behind us and we’ve enjoyed the sounds it has offered, let’s see what 2013 has in store.

Here’s my personal “Best of 2012” list:

1. The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten
2. The Avett Brothers – The Carpenter
3. River City Extension – Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Your Anger
4. Lucero – Women and Work
5. The Menzingers – On The Impossible Past
6. The Sidekicks – Awkward Breeds
7. Mumford & Sons – Babel
8. The Explosion – Bury Me Standing
9. Luther – Let’s Get You Somewhere Else
10. Run, Forever – Settling
11. Hot Water Music – Exister
12. Ceremony – Zoo
13. Masked Intruder – S/T
14. Joyce Manor – Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired.