It’s that time of year again. 2019 is coming to an end. Wintertime is fully upon us. The sun, if it is to be seen at all, seems to wave goodbye just as soon as it shows up. Holiday preparations are in full swing, and work slows to a crawl. Plans are made — out of togetherness, obligation, or both — to spend time with family, friends, and loved ones. And if you love music or are even tangentially connected to the music industry, you already know: it is Year-End List Time.

How’d we get here, anyway?

The inclination to tally music in list format can be traced back to 1936 (that’s 83 years, for those counting) when industry institution Billboard, a magazine at the time, published a “hit parade,” a roundup of hot-selling singles tabulated by record labels of the day. Four years later, Billboard launched their first Music Popularity Chart. By 1946, they launched their Year-End Charts, which looked retrospectively at the best-selling music of the year, based on various source data.

Billboard's first Music Popularity Chart circa 1940

Billboard’s first Music Popularity Chart circa 1940. Image courtesy Billboard.

Since then, year-end lists and charts have become an evergreen phenomenon in music — and practically every other relevant medium for culture and art, too. Over time, accelerated by the pace of digital media, year-end lists have become an industry unto themselves. And for some, the process has become overwhelming, suffocating even, leading to a steady stream of “I can’t stand year end lists” articles and essays at the end of the year.

Somewhere along the way, the cultural function of year-end lists changed

Perhaps what’s most interesting is the way that year-end lists have shifted in meaning over time. Early on, when Billboard’s charts ruled the roost, they were primarily objective — that is to say, they were generated from sales data, and subjectivity (i.e., which music is “good” vs. which isn’t) was secondary, implied as a function of the hard numbers. Then the 21st century rolled around, and in less than a decade, nearly everything we took for granted in the music business turned upside down.

These days, hardly anyone buys music anymore — we stream it. Billboard hasn’t missed a beat, developing music streaming charts, but somewhere along the way, the cultural function of lists and charts shifted altogether. Subjectivity now matters above all: because music (and films, and books, and all culture in general) is produced at a genuinely dizzying rate, keeping up with what’s new and what’s hot is all but impossible for even the most clued-in among us. 

And so we publish and share year-end charts to tell each other about killer records that slipped under the radar, or buzzy artists who haven’t quite broken through yet. Like them or not, they’ve become an essential vector for many listeners to discover (or revisit) new music. For some, year-end lists even function as a kind of music-specific “virtue signaling”: “Look at how great our taste is. Maybe one day you’ll be on our level.” 

What if year-end lists, but too much? 

Such is the state of the union for year-end lists as we move into 2020. Culturally and individually, we’re awash in so much data it’s hard to figure out what any of it actually means. Subjective opinions are a dime a dozen, even from considered critics, and it can be difficult to discern how genuine they are, anyway. What are we, as music industry professionals, supposed to do with all these numbers and rankings and lists and charts?

The answer, like with much else in life, is to take what you need and throw away what you don’t. You’ll never be able to keep up with it all, so pick a few data points that resonate and focus on them. Bigger publications’ lists tell you where the market’s at right now; smaller niche publications’ can tell you where it’s moving towards. Spotify Wrapped has atomized the year-end list, getting individual listeners in on the action — keep an eye on your fans’ and community’s own lists to discover trends and new artists. And if you or your organization need social media fodder, beefing with a given list makes for guaranteed conversation. (It might get heated.) 

Last but certainly not least, if you’ve got the time and energy, put your own list together — and don’t feel limited to music. Get creative and be playful. Year-end lists are exhausting, but endlessly compelling. Somewhere in between lies the sweet spot. If it feels like it’s all too much for you, fret not — the season’s almost over.