2014 Album Bracketology
More Than One Kind Of Madness
When I wasn’t draining outside jumpers and schooling Michael Jordan, I was creating lists of my favorite songs and playing out my charts on cassettes. As I grew older and started buying music in college, I couldn’t stop with meaningless competitions and lists. I held countdowns on my weekly radio show on the college station—the top songs you’d most like to hear if you were in jail; the best songs to sing in the shower; the top 31 songs about vegetation and foliage—but I never really had a true year-end list, because year-end lists are problematic. How could I compare an album I listened to in January on heavy rotation but then forgot about, to one in heavy rotation at the end of the year? Did I judge them on creativity and musicianship or on what album I couldn’t get out of my head? Most importantly, who really cares?
I never really answered any of these questions, but luckily for me, I also never really matured, so I kept trying to answer the question of who really cares. The answer is simple and incredibly vain: I do. Granted, this list was never something I thought I would publish, but was born more from a desire to have a historical record of what I was listening to in any given year.
ive years ago I decided to make my first truly comprehensive year-end list of what eventually came to the top 53 albums of the year. I still struggled, however, with how to choose. Some critic lists seem to veer towards being all-inclusive and making sure there is a country choice, hip hop choice, and death metal choice, and that is all very polite. In addition to the problem that I don’t listen to death metal and my hip hop listening goes in waves, the arbitrary selection process of a list rings hollow to me. That, in itself, isn’t a problem—I’m hollow, and I don’t mind being shallow, either. If I go that route, however, I’d like to keep myself interested during the process.
So I chose the method most familiar to me: a tournament. I found a random, 128-person double elimination foosball bracket online and printed it out. Some years, I don’t purchase 128 albums, so I put in however many I find, and then proceed to seed the tournament. Here are the guidelines:
• The tournament is seeded according to iTunes play count. The top seed is the album I listened to the most in a given year. In 2013, it was Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City. No. 128 was Deafheaven’s Sunbather. Yes, I still buy albums. I rarely stream, I don’t torrent, and I don’t buy a lot of singles. This year I reached 128 purchased albums partly because I won $500 digital credit in a contest.
• I advance the album I like the most (we’ll get into likability in the next segment). If I have even the slightest doubt of which album I prefer, I listen to both albums in their entirety back-to-back, with the higher seed going second. Again, this is double-elimination, so it’s theoretically possible that those same two albums could have a playoff down the road with different results (though that has never happened).
• This system is flawed because, well, every system is flawed. One issue with the tournament is that some albums can receive an easier draw. Funny as it may sound, just because I listen to an album a lot doesn’t mean that I like it. I may have loved it by play number eight, but tire of it by listen fifteen. It happens. Match-ups and a little luck is how champions are made. Every Final Four team had advantageous match-ups during their run.
• I tend to listen to music from artists that I’m going to see in concert or at festivals. So, if Parquet Courts are playing Pickathon (and they are), and I am going to Pickathon (and I am), then chances are that I will be listening to Parquet Courts leading up to the event. It doesn’t necessarily mean that I like Parquet Courts more than most bands (but I do).
• After an elimination round, I rank the eliminated albums. For example, when I reach the round of 32, albums 33-48 are eliminated. We should assume that album No. 33 lost on a buzzer beater. Album No. 48, while worthy, didn’t play its A-game.
• I decided the top 48 albums were what I wanted to document. I do like to account, however, for good albums that have bad draws. So I choose five favorite albums that didn’t advance to the round of 48, to make a random top 53. This year, that list is:
53. Valerie June: Pushin’ Against a Stone
52. Rhye: Woman
51. Sturgill Simpson: High Top Mountain
50. BOAT: Pretend to be Brave
49. Of Montreal: Lousy with Sylvanbriar
All of this leads to a fair question: Why am I talking about year-end lists in mid-March? Up until this year, I played out my tournament at the end of December. The problem is that I often acquire albums from the previous year in the first two months of the next year. In 2009, my list was done before I ever started listening to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, an album that, in retrospect, would have easily made my list. Granted, I will still discover 2013 releases in the coming years, but there won’t be as many. Plus, it’s March. The NCAA tournament, the biggest major-sport bracket alive today, plays itself out starting today.
While the tournament plays out this year, so will my brackets. As I reveal my bracket over the next three weeks, I will also pick out trends from the past year of music—or at least trends in what I was listening to. I will also try my hardest to produce lame sports analogies. Which surprise albums will bust the bracket? Which blueblood band—Arcade Fire, The National, Neko Case—will mirror Kentucky, Kansas, and Duke and maintain their dominance, and which one (and there is one) won’t even make the final 53. Which new artist will surprise all the pundits and make a deep Cinderella run into the tournament? Tip-off has begun.
Matthew Kauffman Smith is a freelance writer and music critic. Last year he made a case for Weird Al Yankovic's inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.