In 1977, writing on the death of Elvis Presley, Lester Bangs made a prediction that rings true when thinking about this year’s so-called best popular music. Wrestling with the disappearance of shared tastes amid wider cultural divides, the late rock critic longed for big-bang American musical moments of the kind that begot jazz, country, blues and rock and roll but predicted that “along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other’s objects of reverence.”
For Bangs, it was the music of Iggy Pop that mattered; for others, it was Joni Mitchell or whomever. Bangs believed our collective tastes would “continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’. But I can guarantee you one thing; we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won’t bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say goodbye to you.”
Putting aside the truth that we as a polyglot American culture ended up agreeing on Michael Jackson’s music way more than we agreed on Elvis’, or that a few years after Presley’s death hip-hop changed everything, Bangs’ farewell three decades ago captured an idea that is now for better or worse a reality.
So much music flies at us from so many directions within so many little micro scenes that few music fans can agree on anything resembling a national play list, and the lessening effect of old school top-down filters such as FM radio, MTV, music magazines and newspaper critics has exacerbated this vanishing conversation. That’s old news, though. What is new is the rise of tastemakers both of the human and artificially intelligent variety that have filled this vacuum, tech-savvy tastemakers that tweet, blog and Facebook their way into a fan’s head, and software-engineered creations whose impressive algorithms calculate tips based on past listening, shopping and buying habits.
Maybe in 2011 we agreed on Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” as an undeniable force, and perhaps we had no choice but to hum along to Foster the People’s ditty about a killing spree, “Pumped Up Kicks,” or collectively want to stab our ears out each time we heard LMFAO’s ubiquitous party rock anthem “Party Rock Anthem.” But these massive hits existed merely as taller trees among a flowered meadow of millions of songs arriving daily via iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, SoundCloud, Pitchfork, Amazon, Google Music, Bandcamp and eMusic, to say nothing of the millions of undocumented tracks flying from cellphone to cellphone and foregoing the Web altogether — each a portal into equally overwhelming volumes of music.
These filters are entire musical realms unto themselves. The iTunes main page, for example, right now is suggesting I download a free Tony Bennett Christmas song, while its “Genius” tool is predicting I’ll dig a 2010 dubstep track by Slugabed called “Donky Stomp.” Pitchfork’s in a tizzy about Sepalcure’s new album, eMusic is hot on Laura Veirs’ “Tumble Bee,” and Amazon is recommending I check out the soundtrack to the film “Girl With the Pearl Earring.” Spotify? It suggests (bafflingly) the new Cranberries song and the Roots’ “Undun.”
So many disparate tip machines are running, though, that the algorithms offer only the illusion of guidance, and they tend to cancel one another out until what’s left are music fans shopping for tip services the way they shop for the music itself — finding kindred spirits whose top 10 albums of the year feature enough signposts to suggest similar though not identical tastes, someone who seems to be in the know or software that’s right more than it’s wrong.
And year-end top 10 lists have become an important part of this puzzle, whether they arrive via the website of your favorite radio station or record store, your geeky music friend’s Facebook page or the list from the witty and insightful Times pop music critic. No longer grand declarations, top 10 lists are essential tools for wading through the thicket of amazing music. Without these and other filters the recorded music landscape would be even less unwieldy than it currently is.