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In 2009, the Pazz & Jop Poll went so resolutely indie that we made up a name for it: GAPDY, for Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, Phoenix, the Dirty Projectors, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. That year, those five bands had five of the top six spots on both the album and song charts. Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind” won the song poll but was the only hip-hop entry in the Top 10. Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II was the only hip-hop album on the album list, at No. 8.
Since then, hip-hop seems to have been granted honorary indie status. Twenty-ten saw Kanye rout LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, and Vampire Weekend, but only Big Boi made the Top 10, otherwise. Jay Z and Kanye had to line up behind tUnE-yArDs and PJ Harvey in the scattered 2011, but Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean beat Fiona Apple in 2012. Kanye would go on to win again in 2013 and trounce Vampire Weekend for Album of the Year. Twenty-fourteen saw Run the Jewels topping the War on Drugs, but the rest of the Top 10 was all either indie or Taylor Swift, save for the triumphant return of r&b titan D’Angelo.
It’s Kendrick’s turn again this year, and 43.5 percent of Pazz & Jop voters gave To Pimp a Butterfly a place on their ballot — easily the highest percentage of ballot coverage of the past eight years. But Courtney Barnett’s 34.6 percent is the highest No. 2 share by an even wider margin and would have been enough to win Album of the Year in any of the other non-Kanye years. Just over two-thirds of this year’s voters voted for Kendrick, Courtney, or both. The rest of the Top 10 leans heavier in the stylistic direction of Courtney than of Kendrick, with Grimes, Sleater-Kinney, Sufjan Stevens, Jamie xx, and Father John Misty in one groove and only Vince Staples representing the other. Carly Rae Jepsen gets the Taylor Swift memorial token pop vote, and Kamasi Washington picks up some D’Angelo voters.
The overall consensus is a little stronger at the top this year than last, with fourteen albums getting votes on at least 10 percent of ballots versus only nine in 2014, and eleven songs this year versus only five in 2014.
Even the fan/critic consensus is pretty strong this year, at least as far as the songs are concerned: Billboard‘s year-end No. 1, “Uptown Funk,” makes No. 8 in Pazz & Jop due to carryover rules (24 votes from last year added to 20 from this year). “Trap Queen” was No. 4 in Billboard‘s ranking and No. 7 here. “Can’t Feel My Face” was only No. 13 on Billboard‘s list, but “Earned It” and “The Hills” were both in their Top 10. Every one of Billboard‘s songs of the year got at least two Pazz & Jop votes, although Ed Sheeran, Wiz Khalifa, and Maroon 5 all got only two total. Albums are a different story, but more due to dates than tastes, as the top three sellers in 2015 — Taylor, Ed, and Sam Smith — were all mid-2014 releases.
As usual, other metrics reveal some potentially more interesting things:
• Enthusiasm scores measure the average number of points awarded by each voter; Pazz & Jop voters can give an album anywhere from 5 to 30 points. Kendrick’s 12.6 is the highest score among the winners, but five albums scored higher, including Future’s 56 Nights and the Hamilton soundtrack. The highest enthusiasm was for Beauty Pill’s Beauty Pill Describes Things as They Are, but the range is narrower this year than most, perhaps as the cumulative result of a few years in a row without any specific guidance about point-allocations in the voting instructions. Vince Staples at 9.9 is the only Top 10 record scoring below the default level of 10, and the only record to get lower than 7.5 points per vote from at least five voters is Green Lanes by Ultimate Painting.
• Kvltosis scores re-rank the albums with an inverse weighting by how popular each voter’s tastes skew, to deliberately look for albums with shared support from people who don’t otherwise follow the poll’s consensus. Often this involves noisiness of some loud form, but the winning noise this year is stranger than loud, the experimental-pop waver and groaning of the Grouper side project Helen. Baroness and Ghost are the token not-deeply-metal metal albums, and Killing Joke, Faith No More, and Wire all get survival points. The poll winners always score low on kvltosis by definition, but three other albums actually score lower than half the Top 10, so if you want to hear how indie the P&J collective tastes still sound, no matter how many times Kanye and Kendrick win, listen to Waxahatchee, Tame Impala, and Panda Bear.
• Hipness measures albums by how many of their voters took the time to vote for singles. There were 22 albums that were only voted for by people who also voted for 10 singles, the most popular of which was Rae Sremmurd’s SremmLife. Carly Rae Jepsen had the hippest of the Top 10 albums, which might make you wonder whether “hipness” is actually the right name for this, but then the least hip album this year was Dave and Phil Alvin’s Lost Time, which I think validates the name pretty well.
• It was a sad year for metal if you take the P&J’s word for it, which you shouldn’t. Tribulation’s The Children of the Night wins by metalism, which re-ranks the albums by prorating each voter’s votes according to how much metal they voted for, but is arguably the only non-crossover metal album on the list. Baroness, Deafheaven, and Ghost all fairly clearly count as metal, but with only six albums with metalism of .2 or more, we’ve reached a new historical low.
• Monolithity re-scores albums by the percentage of their voters who didn’t also vote for any songs by the same artist (but who did vote for songs). Sixteen albums got all their votes from people who didn’t also vote for songs by those artists, which you can take as an endorsement of the holistic coherence of those albums as albums, if that’s still a thing. The Hamilton soundtrack is the most popular of these, although Kamasi Washington’s The Epic was just short of a perfect score here. At the other end, essentially all voters for Future’s 56 Nights also voted for at least one of his songs, and Kendrick, Young Thug, the Weeknd, and Drake rounded out the rest of the bottom five. Hip-hop is antimonolithic.
• Singularity, conversely, re-scores songs by the percentage of their voters who didn’t also vote for an album by the same artist. Twenty-eight songs got all of their votes from people who didn’t also vote for an album (down from forty-nine last year). The most popular of these were Jack Ü’s “Where Are Ü Now,” Missy Elliott’s “WTF (Where They From),” and Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen,” which didn’t have albums. The least singular songs were Young Thug’s “Constantly Hating,” Jason Isbell’s “24 Frames,” Stevens’s “Should Have Known Better,” and Future’s “March Madness,” and about three-quarters of the voters for Kendrick’s “King Kunta” and Barnett’s “Pedestrian at Best” also voted for their albums.
• Vitality re-scores albums by the percentage of their points that came from this year’s 63 new voters (who represent about 13 percent of the votes). The winners by this measure are Ty Dolla $ign’s Free TC, Tobias Jesso Jr.’s Goon, and HEALTH’s DEATH MAGIC, which all got about half their points from new voters. Three albums got twenty-plus votes but none at all from new voters: Ashley Monroe’s The Blade, Mbongwana Star’s From Kinshasa, and Wilco’s Star Wars. Presumably, all living Wilco fans have already been voting in the poll for a while now.
• The 2015 voter with the ballot closest to the critical consensus was Dan DeLuca, who was No. 2 by this measure last year. He voted for Kendrick, Courtney, Sufjan, Grimes, Sleater-Kinney, and Kamasi Washington, and then Nos. 11, 13, and 22 before getting away with a fringe vote for Titus Andronicus’s The Most Lamentable Tragedy (at No. 50). At the other end, Kerry Dexter went with an almost entirely Irish slate and would have had no votes in common with anybody else were it not for her anomalous vote for Lee Ann Womack’s “Send It on Down.” Terrance Pryor also came close but included Jack Ü along with a pile of excellent and otherwise unendorsed punk/metal/noise records. There were eleven voters with at least fifteen unique album/song votes, and fifty-three with at least ten unique votes. At the other end, there were forty-five voters who were not the only voter for any of their picks.
• In Pazz & Jop matchmaking, the two closest pairs of ballots both fittingly involve Robert Christgau, as he, Michael Tatum, and Cam Patterson all voted the Courtney Barnett/Sleater-Kinney/Laurie Anderson/Heems/James McMurtry slate.
• The Pazz & Jop statistics site (furia.com/pjs) has much more data, plus both historical and composite data back to 2008 to explore. Among many other things, there are mathematically derived similarity lists for albums, songs, artists, ballots, and voters, calculated solely from the overlap patterns in the poll voting. Many of the most popular albums share voters, but not in the same proportions, and the voting blocs are easily discovered. Carly Rae Jepsen and Grimes seem to have converged. Vince Staples voters go for a lot more hip-hop than just Kendrick. Alabama Shakes voters go for Kendrick but no other hip-hop. If you don’t know what kind of music Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment play, you can probably guess from a similar-album list that begins with Old 97’s, McMurtry, Todd Snider, Wussy, and Loudon Wainwright III. Kacey Musgraves will get you to Brandi Carlile, Chris Stapleton, and Monroe. Adele will get you to Bob Dylan and Jack White.
• It remains puzzling to me that the occupation of music criticism and the physical discipline of typing do not complement each other more consistently. But thankfully, the right spellings usually win. For example, there were five votes for Predatory Headlights and only one each for Predatory Highlights and Predatory Heights. And lots of people took the time to spell Vulnicura correctly, so the one person who appeared to confuse this with some obscure Guatemalan state holiday? No worries. The robots knew what you meant. They usually know what you mean. Or at least they think they do.
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