This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
As the year comes to a close, we’re presented with a gargantuan banquet of opinion. Kendrick Lamar released the best album! Grimes went pop! Sufjan Stevens made a lot of people bawl their eyes out! These conclusions are compiled into a definitive year-end list and, in true self-aggrandising fashion, presented as cold hard fact. It’s a big moment: for readers, publications, and the artists involved. Someone, somewhere, gives themselves a hernia because their favourite album of the year has been overlooked. Another person has their opinion validated.
These year-end lists seem crucial to tastemakers and music fans, yet as the gulf between what happens online and what happens in real life widens, how true are these platters of calendar-concluding content to the real world? That is to say, do people in smart attire (anything with buttons on) contemplate the merits of Future’s legendary triptych of mixtapes just like us, or do they not give a fuck? And if they don’t, what are their opinions on music? Do they even have any? Are they happier for it?
As we’ve learned from polling stations, questionnaires, and news segments where a reporter shoves a microphone in an unaware citizen’s face, the best way to find out is by asking the public. So that’s exactly what we did. To start, I printed out a dossier of 2015. Inside: photos of Drake, cut-outs from magazines, some press releases, the word #Shutdown, and a picture of Lil B—an emblem for the posi-energy I would need when sidling up to unsuspecting strangers for a “chat.”
Because nothing passive-aggressively barks experienced opinion surveyor like a dead-pan stare and a meangful looking clipboard, I printed the word “Real Music Opinions” on the front of one we had laying around the office. This way, everyone would know we were regulating important business. Then it was time to head out. Like all professional pollsters, I knew the best place to conduct my research would be in a small confined space where it would be socially awkward for people not to talk to me. So I ventured underground.
Londoners hate talking to each other on the train. It’s an unspoken rule: like huffing when someone can’t tap their Oyster Card correctly or circumventing your bus route so you don’t run into a colleague on the way into work. But given that he’s been a hot talking point in 2015 though, I figured people would be pretty happy to chat about Drake; in some ways, his smooth face could provide them with calm respite from their journey. How wrong I was. As I stood up, helpfully presenting examples of music’s sentient meme of the year, no one wanted to look me in the eye. “Have you guys heard of Drake?,” I asked, furiously wanting someone to acknowledge my existence as someone who was stood up in a tube carriage holding an important looking clipboard. “You know? The cell-phone song? The man who slam-dunked Meek Mill into a waste-paper bin? Guys?!”
We passed from station to station in this inconsequential carriage of despair like this for a while: me pleading for attention and answers, everyone else begging me to stop. Eventually my man on the left plucked up. “Who’s that then?”, he said. “Is he a rapper? Probably why I haven’t heard about him.” Well, actually, he’s kind of a singing-rapper, but thankful for this man's participation in my social experiment I stepped off the train. I guess people in the real world don’t have an outspoken opinion on the “Hotline Bling” video. Weird?! With a total of one response noted, it was time for me to visit the good ol’ banking district, my utmost favourite district of all the districts.
Finding something related to music here was admittedly very difficult. No one wanted to talk to a young buck with his hood up, and everyone I approached mumbled something about not having the “time to answer a quick question” (but enough to send our country into dire economic abandon, am I right guys?!). Oh well. I did some stealing of my own and rifled through their post instead.
Nothing. No magazines, no CD orders from Amazon, nothing that suggested the financial denizens even care about music, let alone suffer from black spots in their memory where they’ve spent too many hours contemplating whether or not Lil Ugly Mane’s been unfairly overlooked in every year end list. Alas, one guy said: “I like kids music, y’know. Like Little Mix and stuff”. Another told me he studied classical music at university but didn’t listen to anything anymore. I had hoped someone here would weigh in on whether Deafheaven’s New Bermuda is better than Sunbather or if it's just hype, but no one had even heard of the bands I was mentioning. A Vince Staple? A Tame Impala? A Neon Indian? The PC Music? Bruh, they had no clue what I was banging on about.
Pretty much everyone in the banking district couldn’t name more than two chart-topping bands when asked, so I figured if I wanted to get real answers on what the general public listened to, I needed to go directly to the consumer. I headed into a nearby shopping mall. These guys will be able to tell me what’s popular, I thought, recalling the heady and golden days of capitalism.
Inside, however, there was nothing that resembled the music lists I’d seen online. All I found were magazines with “vintage acts”. Strange, huh?
HMV was no help either, because it had closed down. So where else to head to? I was getting hungry, and given that the “restaurant” had put on a showcase at popular industry event SXSW in 2014, I trotted on down to McDonalds.
“I’ll have a medium quarter-pounder meal and a Diet Coke—oh, and what’s McDonalds most popular track of the year?”
“Your most popular track of the year—the one that staff and customers enjoyed the most”
“The one that sold the most?”
“Yes—if you like. The one that sold the most”
The McDonalds staffer brought in their manager, who referred me to the Head Office’s phone number. Here, he said, I would be able to find out their most popular track of the year. But my phone was as dead as the manager’s end of year spirit. As I picked the gherkins out of my burger, like a music journalist discarding any band that continues to use the cowbell, I knew if I was going to conduct legitimate research, I would have to talk to the streets. What do the public love? What are their musical opinions in 2015? Please, will someone, anyone, talk to me about music in real life in 2015?
Charged Up (reference for all my Aubrey Graham stans out there!) on my medium Diet Coke, I brandished my photo of Drake at a guy who, for some reason, seemed very happy to talk to me.
Unfortunately he didn’t know who Drake was (hence me showing him the video on my phone), but goddamn he was down with being in an article on noisey.com.
Exhausted with the lack of response I’d received, there was only one option left. If anyone wants to debate their top ten albums of the year, then it will be in the lair of The Libertines, Amy Winehouse, and Madness. The citizens of Camden love music so much that when you prick their skin the Strokes debut album starts playing.
On first look, things were great. There was a guy busking outside Camden Town station, someone handing out flyers for a club-night, and a guy selling headphones. Someone even tried to hand me a mixtape. Everything was on the up! Music was alive! Then I asked my guy to play me what he knew to be the best track of the year. I expected to hear some DJ Mustard remix that was released at the tail end of 2014. What did I get? Some very, very good bhangra. A bhangra banger.
Given that Camden’s history is intertwined with music’s history, I assumed they would have some of 2015’s biggest stars on T-shirts. I was looking for a Young Thug vest, a Drake baseball cap, a Kendrick Lamar hoody. Anything that suggested some music had happened in 2015. There wasn’t really much of that, but I did find a top emblazoned with an image of the hoverboard spokesperson Wiz Khalifa.
At this point I was so desperate for the general public’s thoughts on 2015, to see the year-end content on display in the real world, that I approached a guy with a high-vis jacket and a megaphone. We shouted, and we shouted for “Real Music Opinions” but no one came forward. Thankfully, my benevolent pedestrian angel did give me one opinion of his own: "I think, and bare with me here, that today's music is so asinine it is rotting away the minds our youth". Cool!
It even felt like 2015 had brushed past the jukebox at popular music pub-cum-venue The Hawley Arms. Tired out from a day spent toiling around London, I sat down and had a beer.
It didn’t feel like anyone out here cared about music. All the people out here just went about life, not even wearing headphones. How? I wondered how one can reach this state of enjoyment for natural ambience. My blood pressure starts to rise whenever I have to get on public transport without a fully-charged iPod. It seemed like the public-at-large had perhaps reached a level of enlightenment: a world where music wasn’t part of their day-to-day life and they were better off.
I felt like I was the only one on the streets who wanted to get into a long-depth discussion about how the two Beach House albums were neglected on every year end list, including the one published on Noisey.com. I started to question my own existence: Is the music I listen to important? Do I have taste? Am a lone wolf in a working man’s jungle of suited sub-species, insects, and Primarnian amphibians? Why doesn’t anyone want to talk about music in public?
So, what did I learn?
The real music opinion of 2015 is that, generally, most people don’t have one. The public-at-large don’t really care about music—at least not enough to debate it. So what does this mean for our year end lists? Are they irrelevant caches of content? By conducting this “experiment,” it actually felt like these end of year rundowns are perhaps more relevant than ever before. Without them, what would we be left with? The BBC Sound List? 1Xtra naming Ed Sheeran the most influential act in urban music in 2014? The Grammy Awards nominating Iggy Azalea for best hip-hop album? Adele selling the most records? Chris Brown as one of the biggest and therefore best artists in the world?
The best album of the year may hold very little semblance in the average life of a human, yet as time passes, so too will that record into the ears of those who choose to seek it. As the gap between the real, non-music listening public and the charts widens away from the culture of music criticism and fandom, these lists serve to preserve what’s been important for the future. So to hell with it: Here’s our end of year list. I am not ashamed in the work I have done.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter: @RyanBassil