Columns, Opinion, Reviews

SideTracked: Rating Pitchfork’s ratings

We’re closing in on the end of the year, and the end of the decade. It’s the time of year when every entertainment publication is devoting all of their resources to tell their readers the best X things in the last Y years. I intend to do the same, but I’m holding out for a few weeks while the last few stragglers release their records. Run the Jewels, Swans, and others could easily make the list given their track records, and I would be remiss to exclude them. In the meantime, I’ll dissect the opinions of another publication’s list: Pitchfork’s Top 200 Albums.

Pitchfork is one of the premier music publications today and they have an immense amount of power on our culture’s conversation over music. Artists like M.I.A., Bon Iver, and Arcade Fire owe their superstar status, at least in part, to being pushed by the publication. It also has an effect on the music choices, and to some extent the music taste, of millions of readers a month. At the time I’m writing this, a search on Alexa.com reports the website ranks 2,584th in global internet engagement. When Pitchfork says something, it means something. 

So, what are they saying?

Not a lot about metal, that’s for sure. At a time when the most popular rappers (and by extension, musicians) in the world are turning to metal for their aesthetics, it is a bold choice to all but entirely ignore the contributions of metal music to contemporary music culture. Of the 200 records on Pitchfork’s list, only three come from metal bands of any type. Even the three that make the list are not particularly lauded by the publication. Of the three, Deafheaven’s poignant post-metal epic “Sunbather” is the highest ranked at No. 123. Somehow more confusing than no metal bands breaking through to the top 100 is that Pitchfork actually gave “New Bermuda,” the 2015 follow-up to “Sunbather,” a higher score than its predecessor, but “New Bermuda” is absent from the list.

Similarly, critically lauded albums like Swans’ “To Be Kind,” or Sun Kil Moon’s “Benji,” which were both given a 9.2, were excluded as well (despite being .3 higher than Sunbather, and a full 1.7 higher than the #200 album, Ratking’s “So It Goes”). 

I’m not trying to insist there is some kind of objective canon to the best albums of the decade, or that Pitchfork owes it to anyone to put certain albums on their list. It’s just unclear what metric Pitchfork is using to choose these records and why they would turn their backs on an entire genre and records they seemed to adore upon release.

Country is also underrepresented on the list, especially given the success of “Old Town Road” this year. Many folk projects appear on the record, which occupy a similar lane to the genre, but there are still only three honest-to-god country records on the list. For a list compiled by countless writers and editors, the tastes here don’t seem to be all that varied. The vast majority of the list is hip-hop, pop, and indie music, which should come as no surprise to long-time followers of Pitchfork’s reviews. 

The single most confusing thing about the entire list is the No. 1 choice. “Blonde” is my favorite album of all time; last.fm says in the past year and a half I’ve listened to it nearly 100 times. That being said, I don’t see how it could possibly be the No. 1 album on this list, when “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is No. 2. “Twisted Fantasy” is the only album that Pitchfork has given a 10.0 – a perfect score – since the spring of 2002. Additionally, “Blonde” is rated lower than “To Be Kind” and “Benji,” which were both omitted.

Pitchfork has too much power and too much reach to be so inconsistent, and to have such a small amount of both variety and transparency. I understand opinions change over time and their lists factor in variables like cultural impact and how well the album has aged, but there’s something to be said for giving an album an exemplary score and standing by it.

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