Like many other No Depression readers who have checked out this year’s Top 50 Reader’s Poll, I have really enjoyed pouring over the results and seeing which artists were recognized. In part it’s an affirmation of the music that I’ve been listening to and enjoying, and it’s also a great way to catch up on what I may have missed or previously discounted. For example, take the the artist that took the top spot and who is the subject of an article from ND founder Peter Blackstock titled Best of 2014: Sturgill Simpson.
My initial awareness of Simpson came shortly after the Metamodern Sounds album was released, and I recall going to Spotify and taking it for a spin. As is usually my mode of operation, I sampled several of the tracks and waited for lightening to strike. It didn’t. A few months later, seeing more press clips begin to pop up, reading positive reviews and hearing the accolades, I did the same thing. And got the same result. So for me, this album being tagged as number one by the readers, along with Peter’s beautifully written piece, has motivated me to carve out time to sit and listen once again from end to end. I’m pretty sure that I’ve missed something, and I look forward to figuring out what that was.
Going down the Top 50 list offers quite a few other opportunities to check out new music unknown to my ears, and that includes Donald Benjamin, The War on Drugs, Sunny Sweeney, JP Harris and The Tough Choices, Hiss Golden Messenger and Lee Baines III and The Glory Fires.
As of this writing there have been over 27,000 views of the ND Top 50 list, which must be a new all-time record. My hat goes off to the new management team for moving forward with a format change that clearly is resonating with both old and new readers. For folks like myself who’ve been contributing consistently on this site since the beginning, it’s nice to know that the ‘Roots Music Authority’ tagline has some meat on it’s bones.
All lists and polls have some degree of statistical bias. It’s not a conspiracy or something done with malice, it’s simply a matter of numbers. A musician who can generate interest via press, publicity, airplay, streaming, sales, tour dates and social media buzz will likely attract a greater audience and eventually acquire more fans than someone who self-produces a digital-only album, has no presence in the marketplace and plays weekly at a coffee house or farmer’s market with an audience in double digits. So in the not-so-abstract world of music, there are the haves and the have-nots.
Last week the New York Times published their critics’ favorites…for both music and books. In talking about how they come up with their top ten lists for books, Janet Maslin wrote “It’s an explanation liable to make heads spin, but it’s born of necessity. We can’t make trustworthy ‘ten best’ lists because none of us reads everything, although we each read a lot.” Music critic Anthony Tommasini noted something very similar: “None of us remotely claims to have heard all recordings of note released this past year.”
The point they were making was that lists are simply recommendations of favorites. They are not meant to be definitive.
Just in case you missed it, ND also published a ‘complete ranked list of all albums that received votes’; starting at the very top with Simpson and ending at number 588. (When there were ties, the artists were listed alphabetically.) Beginning at around number 100, it becomes a list that I find in equal measure both fascinating and troubling.
The Fascination: There is a treasure trove of artists I’ve never heard of and I can’t wait to hit You Tube and Spotify to check them out. And some musicians I’ve enjoyed in the past released albums to little or no fanfare, so it was news to me to see what they’ve been up to. And it was also surprise to find albums from uber-popular musicians (Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Norah Jones come to mind) absolutely trounced in the poll.
The Troubling: When you have votes for 588 albums, there has to be a logical cut-off that reflects meaningful acknowledgment versus the musical equivalent to slowing down to see the aftermath of a fatal accident. In other words, to whom and what purpose does it serve to share that such and such artist came in at #408 (that’s a random number I picked) with maybe a dozen votes on the 2014 No Depression Reader’s Poll?
By going beyond a top fifty or hundred or even two hundred, and publishing every single title regardless if it received ten thousand votes or simply one, it would seem that it moves from a true poll to just a list. And inadvertently, it may do more harm than good.
With radio music directors, labels, promoters, booking agents and potential managers scanning the entire list, it could create a mindset that those at the bottom half juat aren’t popular enough to support. Which might result in some great artists not being able to get a gig, missing out on airplay or stumbling to raise enough money to make the next album. And while there are no doubt some musicians who are just happy to have their names mentioned, there might be just as many who would rather have been excluded.
Lists are fun and popular. They serve a need. But going forward, we might want to consider keeping them short and sweet.
Postscript: I just checked the master list and #408 is the great Chuck Mead. Here’s a song from his album Free State Serenade.