Pitchfork 2015: fewer albums reviewed, fewer of them terrible

Pitchfork Best Albums 2015Love them or loathe them, Pitchfork are still one of the biggest champions of the album format: Lots of words on lots of albums, that’s their strapline*. At the end of 2012 I wrote a piece on whether we could keep a check on the health of the album by analysing data from Pitchfork’s reviews since 2010. I did the same at the end of 2013 and 2014 and made some predictions based on the results. Below are the 2015 numbers, and the results of how those predictions panned out:

  • Total: Pitchfork reviewed 1192 albums albums in 2015 – down a couple of percent on recent years and largely down to the fact they published reviews on fewer days in 2015.1
  • Average: As predicted, in 2015 the average (mean) score awarded to an album was 7.1 – the exact same as in 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 (7.0 in 2010).
  • Brilliant: As predicted, less than 1% of new albums were awarded 9.0 or above (actually, less than half of one percent).
  • Well Below Average: I got this one wrong. Only 223 albums in 2015 were awarded a score of 6.4 or lower2. That’s 18.7% and what I thought was a blip is now looking like a downward trend from a six year high of 25.4% in 2010.
  • Perfect Score: As predicted, there was no 10 score given out to a new album this year. That makes it over five years since they handed out a perfect score (for Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy)

For 2016, I predict we’ll see the average score stay the same at 7.1, with the number of albums scoring 9.0 or above staying below 1% (I reckon between 5 and 8 albums). I’m guessing that we’ll see a similar number of publishing days next year, which should mean a similar number of reviews (i.e. slightly down on previous years), unless they make a lurch further into the pop market

Will there be another 10 awarded in 2016? I’m going to say no, because I think they’ve lost their nerve. But I’ll hedge a little here and say that If they do hand one out, it’ll either go to a fairly mainstream artist or a solo female artist. With Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepson clearly taking them by surprise in recent years and the fact that they are now owned by Conde Naste who see the brand as a way of “engaging high-value millennial audiences”, I think it’s safe to assume we are past the days where …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead could earn a 10 review. Shame.

Will we continue to see the percentage of albums scoring 6.4 or lower continue to shrink? That’s a hard one. The trend says yes, but my heart says no. It can’t be a good thing to squeeze everything into the middle, and, y’know…some albums are just a bit shit.

Pitchfork’s Best Albums of 2015
Pitchfork’s Top 50 albums list3 used to closely tally with their highest rated albums of the year (with a few albums that fall out of favour or are bumped higher up the list), but last year it appeared that they changed the way they compiled it. Not all the Best New Music tagged albums figured in the top 504, and the order they appear does not necessarily equate to their score. The golden rule is, don’t release a metal album.

  • Timing: For 2014 the best time of year to release an album was October followed by March: 11 of the top 50 albums were released in October, 8 in March. The highest average scores were awarded in October and December.5
  • Grower: Of the albums Pitchfork reviewed at time of release, Carly Rae Jepson’s E*Mo*Tion was the album judged to have improved the most this year. Despite only scoring 0.3 above the average of 7.1 back in August, it jumped from 529th place to secure the number 37 spot in the end of year review.
  • Permanence: D’Angelo / The Vanguard’s Black Messiah was the big winner here. Pitchfork changed the rules so that this album, released in December 2014, could be included in the list (footnote).  It was the reviewed on December 19 last year, got a score higher than any other album on the list (9.4) and managed to make the no.7 spot in the year end list .
  • Unlucky: Once again, metal albums were the big losers: Tribulation The Children of The Night (8.4), Baroness Purple (8.5) were overlooked completely.
  • Waning Charms: Viet Cong’s Viet Cong, (8.5 back in January) and Prurient’s Frozen Niagara Falls (8.5 in May) were the biggest losers, both failing to make the top 50, being beaten by behind 26 albums that scored lower. In the case of Viet Cong, it looks political (they were judged by some to have handled poorly a controversy around their name). In the case of Prurient, it’s probably guilt-by-association in that the release is on renowned Canadian metal label, Profound Lore.
  • Surprise: The inclusion of FKA Twigs M3LL155X EP at number 16 and Kelela’s Hallucinogen EP at 31 are the biggest surprises. For review purposes, Pitchfork has always treated EPs the same as albums. But they are not the same and they shouldn’t be judged as such.

Footnotes

*it’s not.

1Pitchfork review five albums a day each weekday excluding American public holidays, a summer break in August and and none during the industry down time of the last 2-3 weeks of December when practically no new albums are released. Plus, this year they didn’t start the new reviews until a week later than 2014 and may have taken some extra time off around the Pitchfork festivals, publishing reviews on only 226 days versus 2014’s 233 in 2014 (when they managed to score 1224 albums). Individual albums in a box set will often get individual scores, hence the slight variance in each year’s review numbers.

2I call a score of <6.5 ‘The Everrett True mark of failure’ after the music critic who ranted about “a world full of music critics lazily and cravenly praising everything in their path … for if they don’t, their editors won’t run the review or feature or article. Look around you. It’s already happened. How many reviews graded below 6.5 stars do you think Pitchfork runs?” His opposition to what Pitchfork does having coloured his views of a an easily verifiable fact. i.e. even Pitchfork thinks that a quarter of the albums they review aren’t very good and are unafraid to say so.

Here’s the breakdown for previous years:
2010: 307 / 1216 scored 6.4 or lower (25.4%).
2011: 294 / 1210 scored 6.4 or lower (24.2%)
2012: 314 / 1256 scored 6.4 or lower (25% exactly)
2013: 305 / 1226 scored 6.4 or lower (24.87765%)
2014: 275 / 1224 scored 6.4 or lower (22.5%)

3 Called ‘The 50 Best Albums’, and no longer qualified as “based on the impassioned and knowledgable opinions of our writers and editors” but “Presenting our list of the Top 50 Albums of the Year. Records released this year and records that made their greatest impact in 2015 were eligible.” Filed, as in previous years, under Staff Lists.

4 D’Angelo’s album missed out as it was released after the list was compiled. Don;t expect to see it next year as

5 The best time of year to release an album in previous years:

2014 – October, followed by March (17 of the top 50 end of year albums)
2013 – October and May (16 out of 50).
2012 – October and April (17 out of 50)
2011 June and January (14 out of 50)
2010 May and September (15 out of 50).

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