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What Happens When We Let Data Decide the Best Music of 2017?

Sampha performing in Atlanta in May 2017

For my 2017 list of the Top 50 Best Songs and Top 20 Best Albums, I let my stats on Spotify, YouTube, and Shazam–plus my vinyl purchases–guide me to the songs and albums I loved most this year. Some of the choices caught me by surprise.I started with the Spotify curated playlist, “Your Top Songs of 2017,” which showed me the 100 songs I played the most often through the app over the past twelve months.

Next, I subtracted any song from that list which was not part of an album released in 2017 and deleted artist duplicates (one artist released two albums this year; his two songs and albums made my lists). Next, I weighted my 2017 vinyl purchases based upon my “active listening” pile and wrote down my favorite song from each of those in order of preference. Then, I reviewed my Shazams and my YouTube playlists and added those to the Spotify songs list in approximate/equivalent order of plays. I also looked at this year’s Billboard Hot 100 charts (which tally sales, streaming and airplay) to add any of the pop singles I hadn’t added to my platforms because I hear them on the radio so often (such as the fun Bruno Mars song “24K Magic” or Logic’s moving “1-800-273-8255,” which made me cry). I also added the most-played songs from the other playlists I’ve made this year. I then added a few songs my daughter plays for me through her own YouTube account. And lastly, I chose the Top 20 Best Albums based upon my finished list of the Top 50 Best Songs, in the order the songs appear.

An artist on my Top 50 Best Songs list would not be eligible for my albums list if I had not purchased, downloaded or added their whole album.The count wasn’t even close for the #1 spot on my Top 20 Best Albums list: Neil Finn’s Out of Silence is a an unassuming masterpiece and has quickly become one of my favorites of all-time; in the #2 spot is U2’s Songs of Experience, which speaks to me on a deeply personal level; #3 is Sampha’s Process, which is the future of music – a mashup of technology and tradition that deserves all the attention it can get; #4 goes to Tom Chaplin (Keane), who put out two of the most heartfelt albums of the year (a beautiful diary of addiction recovery called The Wave and a gloriously intimate holiday album, Twelve Tales of Christmas, both of which feature his clear tenor); #5 is The XX’s beyond brilliant I See You; and #6 sees the return of pop’s beloved Nick Heyward (Haircut 100) and the deliciously melodic jangle of his Woodland Echoes album.In the end, I made more human decisions in the whole process than I originally anticipated.

Choosing the music we love simply can’t be 100% scientific. I was surprised at the variety of artists who made my Top 50 Best Songs list – from Billy Porter to LP to Randy Newman– but embarrassed to realize that one of the most beautiful songs of the year, Rodney’ Crowell’s award winning “It Ain’t Over Yet,” had fallen through the cracks and actually ended up lower on my rung than Harry Styles’s “Sign of the Times.” There are so many life factors that influence what music we choose to listen to, how often, when and through what devices – whether we have kids, spend a lot of time commuting, or just want to hear something that fits a somber or happy mood. I ended up making only one big executive decision, and that was to move Noel Gallagher’s album, Who Built The Moon?, up to number seven on my Top 20 Best Albums list simply because I love it (and due to its recent release date without a lead single months beforehand, it skewed the data). I did not add any music to which I had not listened often during 2017. If I had crafted a more “serious” list, I would have been tempted to listen to a whole range of things to make sure I was keeping rank with my colleagues; for example, I might have mentioned/listed Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN album, because I think he’s an important artist. But the truth is, I never used or added that album to my platforms this year.

We all want to seem well-rounded and politically correct, but this type of exercise will separate our tastes’ wheat from the chaff. The data may not know us as well as its coders think it does, but the raw numbers do a good job of telling us we aren’t as cool as we often think we are. (Or, conversely, they might tell us we’re hipper than we imagined.) I loved every song and album on these lists this year. I hope you enjoy them. Click on the links below to play on Spotify.

Neil Finn: Out of Silence

U2: Songs of Experience

Sampha: Process

Tom Chaplin: The Wave (Tie) / Tom Chaplin: Twelve Tales of Christmas

The XX: I See You

Nick Heyward: Woodland Echoes

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds: Who Built the Moon? (Tie) / Texas: Jump On Board

The Waterboys: Out of All This Blue (Tie) / Stars: There Is No Love In Fluorescent Light

Jamiroquai: Automaton

PVRIS: All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell

India.Arie: Songversation: Medicine

Liam Gallagher: As You Were

The War on Drugs: A Deeper Understanding

Billy Porter: Billy Porter Presents the Soul of Richard Rodgers

Billie Eilish: Don’t Smile at Me

Fionn Regan: The Meetings of the Waters

Blondie: Pollinator (Tie) / Hey Violet: From the Outside

Randy Newman: Dark Matter

Dhani Harrison: IN//PARALLEL

Robyn Hitchcock: Robyn Hitchcock

(Photo: YouTube )


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