And now for my favourite year end post: the data. I’ve been maintaining a Google Sheets document throughout the year, tracking every new album that I’ve listened to and classifying them by genre as well as rating them on a three-tiered scale. According to that document, I have listened to a total of 405 albums released in 2018. Included in this post is a detailed breakdown of the overall numbers, featuring breakdowns by rating, by genre, and by a combination of the two. Stay tuned for my albums of the year next week!
[NOTE: As releases have continued to trickle out towards the end of the year, I have continued listening to new albums. For the most up-to-date data, please click the charts for the Interactive Google versions based on current data. These releases haven’t changed much of the landscape overall.]
As mentioned above, I listened to 405 albums released in 2018. I don’t have the exact data for 2017, but I believe the number of albums I listened to was right around the 250 mark. Why such a massive leap? I think there were a number of contributing factors, the first of which is that I simply kept better track this year. Last year I was only careful to record albums that I wanted to come back to to consult for my year end post, and a lot of the more forgettable records probably slipped through the cracks. Speaking of records, I also got my record player last year, so I naturally spent a bunch of time listening to vinyl and trying to build up my back catalogue with classic albums and well-loved records released before 2017. Finally, I think the fact that I was planning to make a post like this also psychologically factored in to my listening habits, and encouraged me to check out more full albums rather than just singles or one-off tracks. But what does all this data tell us?
This first chart demonstrates the breakdown of albums based purely on the rating that I gave them. I used a three-tiered rating system, categorizing albums as: Meh, Good, or Great. Meh doesn’t necessarily mean a bad album, but it’s an album that I had little interest in coming back to as an album. Maybe I saved a song or two, but it didn’t captivate me as a whole. The Good category is for albums that I thoroughly enjoyed, but that didn’t push the envelope or experiment as much as I would have liked to make them truly unique and innovative, or that somehow fell short of those ambitions in their execution. If I was trying to break down the ratings on a more traditional 10-point scale (which doesn’t really work, hence why I avoided it), Good would probably include albums ranging from the mid-7’s to the low-8’s. This leaves Great. The Great category was reserved for albums that I ear-marked to return to when trying to put together my year-end rankings. As a result, all these albums are albums that are somewhere near contention for my top-10 or top-15 albums of the year. Think mid-8’s or higher on a 10-point rating system.
I ended up with around 65% of albums ranked meh, 25% of albums ranked good, and just 10% of albums ranked great.
This is my favourite chart of the bunch, since I think it reveals a lot both about the state of the contemporary music landscape, but also about my personal preferences and listening habits. Unsurprisingly, the broadest category (Rock) has the most albums. That also fits with my general indie rock leanings. Following up in a close second is another fairly broad category of Hip-Hop/R&B. This makes sense given both that I am an avid lover of rap and that hip-hop is currently enjoying a mainstream popularity far beyond anything the genre has previously experienced. In a distant third is the dubious combination of Electronic/Experimental. One of the reasons for this combination is that I was trying to file each album under only one genre (to make this sort of data visualization/analysis more straightforward) and a lot of what is happening in experimental music these days features technological innovation and experimentation. This does, admittedly, lead to an interesting category, where Marshmello ends up in the same genre as Fire-Toolz. I’ve never been a huge fan of slapping genre labels on art, but it is somewhat necessary when aiming to analyze data like this. These sorts of idiosyncrasies are becoming more and more common, which I think is a good thing and I don’t think much good comes from pigeon-holing artistic creation and expression into rigidly defined genres.
Rounding out the genres with the fewest releases are Pop and Jazz. I tried to stray away from classifying albums as “Pop” because I don’t feel that it’s particularly descriptive, which somewhat explains the sparse showing (an album would be classified by publications as the ubiquitous “Pop/Rock” would probably appear under Rock here). The relative dearth of jazz records is interesting because for anyone who has read this blog before or knows me it’s no secret that I love jazz. I think there are just fewer jazz records being released presently than in more mainstream genres. In addition, jazz scenes tend to be smaller, localized and are often focused on live performance, making learning about and tracking down albums from these various scenes much more tricky than with other genres.
This third chart shows all of the albums (as a percentage) from each genre that received a Good or Great rating from me. Despite the overwhelming number of albums that I listened to this year fitting into either the Hip-Hop/R&B or Rock categories (over 2/3’s) they account for fewer Great records in raw number than the Electronic/Experimental genre. In addition, only 26.9% of rock records and 35% of Hip-Hop/R&B records received my top two ratings. In contrast, 58.82% of Jazz albums and 48.24% of Electronic/Experimental albums received high ratings.
Takeaways: What Makes an Album Great to Me?
What are the takeaways from this? On a personal level, it suggests that I enjoy jazz and experimental music more than mainstream hip-hop and rock, which I would agree with. Generally, though, it suggests that in genres where many artists are concerned with marketability and mass appeal, there are fewer innovators and stand-out albums released. This also makes sense to me, and I think a lot of the albums in the Hip-Hop/R&B or Rock categories that I rated as Great certainly also feature heavy amounts of experimentation/innovation. This just further emphasizes my point about the silliness of classifying albums by genre in the first place.
That being said, the only way to make it on my much-revered and elusive Great list is not to completely redefine a genre. I’ve tried to avoid talking about specific albums in this post, but albums like Pusha T’s DAYTONA and Camp Cope’s How to Socialize and Make Friends don’t reinvent their respective genres (gangster rap and indie rock, respectively) but fit firmly within the Great category. Instead, they push the envelope in more subtle ways while executing the hallmarks of those genres consistently at such high levels.
Pusha T’s album is a great example of this. The seven-track album features really beautiful production from Kanye West, but that’s nothing new (Kanye produced 5 seven-track albums dubbed the Wyoming Albums this year) and Pusha T talking about selling cocaine (also nothing new). What elevates DAYTONA above its peers, then? A return to the genre’s roots in some cases (soul samples, the viciousness of Pusha’s attacks on other rappers, the meta element of looking at the scene he helped create) blended with Pusha’s charisma, innovative production flourishes, and some high-level wordplay. Essentially, an aversion to trend-chasing or what I call rear-view mirror writing. Pusha doesn’t try to make or copy the best album of 2017, but instead uses the genre’s history as well as his own unique voice to make his mark on 2018.