I am often asked how I compile my annual list of the 100 best albums. Here is some background information.
What styles of music do I include in my listening? I listen to all genres and all styles of music. I like to listen to music that is fresh and different, and this spurs me to search outside the dominant commercial categories and hit releases. But I also listen to the heavily promoted albums from the major labels.
How much music do I listen to? I like to hear new music every day. In 2013 I listened to around 900 new releases. (The exact number was 886.)
Why do I compile this list? Like any music lover, I enjoy sharing my favorite music with others. But in the last few years, a different motivation has spurred me. I believe that the system of music discovery is broken in the current day. There is more music recorded than ever before, but it is almost impossible for listeners to find the best new recordings. The most creative work in music is increasingly found on self-produced projects and releases from small indie labels— to an extent hardly conceivable only a decade ago. Very little of this music ever shows up on the radio, where formats seem to get narrower and narrower with each passing year. Music fans once heard good new music at indie record stores, but most of them have closed. Or they could read reviews in the newspaper, but both the news- papers and the music reviews are shrinking or disappearing. And the big record labels are the worst culprits of all, picking acts for their looks or their potential appeal to fourteen-year-olds, or some other egregious reason, and in general jumping on the most trivial passing fads. On the other hand, the Internet presents an almost infinite amount of music and music commentary—yet where do fans even begin to separate the good from the bad and ugly? My personal solution to this dilemma has been to listen to lots and lots of music, and try to identify recordings of quality and distinction. I share my list because I know, from past experience, that many other listeners are frustrated with the broken system of music discovery, and are also looking for good new music.
What criteria do I apply? I have no axe to grind. My list is filled with music I enjoy, and suspect others will too—especially if they have a reasonably good ear, and an open mind. I like recordings that show some flair and creativity, a sense of style, solid musicianship, and an emotional commitment to the moment of performance. I appreciate it when an artist possesses a sense of musical tradition; on the other hand, I don’t want to see slavish imitation of the past. When music strikes me as too formulaic or contrived or cold, I start to lose interest. Like any critic, I want my readers to think that I am cool and hip and oh-so-up-to-date, but I learned some time ago that many of the best recordings are decidedly uncool and unhip. So if you want to laugh at me for honoring Tom Jones or Steve Martin, or making some other dorky move, feel free to do so.
Do I exclude albums if I was involved in their release? Yes, I do omit releases if I played any role in their creation or release. For this reason, I was forced to keep Cécile McLorin Salvant's WomanChild and Dave Brubeck & Tony Bennett's The White House Sessions out of my rankings. But these are outstanding albums, and I recommend them both.