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Filtering the Filters: The Top Ten “Best Album” Lists

In the two days since the Grammy Awards, I’ve been surfing the web for “Best of 2006” lists with a more musically adventurous bent. One thing I noticed is how many “Best of” lists are filled with text about the albums but don’t feature any listenable music.

In the two days since the Grammy Awards, I’ve been surfing the web for “Best of 2006” lists with a more musically adventurous bent. One thing I noticed is how many “Best of” lists are filled with text about the albums but don’t feature any listenable music.

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Coming of age in New York City, I always looked forward to the Village Voice “Pazz and Jop Critics Poll,” an insert to the arts weekly that compiled the Top 10 lists of hundreds of music journalists. The winner of this year’s poll is none other than Bob Dylan.

Pazz and Jop’s website has some nifty features, but I couldn’t find a single mp3 to explore. (Digging deep, I did find a few podcasts, but nothing that offered instant point-n-click gratification.)

The online versions of other print classics from my youth are similarly devoid of streamable music. Spin Magazine’s “40 Best” (winner: TV on the Radio) and College Music Journal’s “Best of 2006” document their pics with well-written blurbs, but don’t link to any song files or videos. Edgy upstart Filter Magazine also presents a variety of Top 10 lists without any links to the music.

RollingStone.com, however, does have its own Rhapsody-powered listening service, allowing you to check out a song from any of the Top 50 albums of 2006. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the Rhapsody player to work on my Mac to check out Dylan’s #1 album, Modern Times.

Sticking with “old media” for the moment, I headed over to NPR’s website. Surely a radio company would embrace streaming music! And indeed they do. NPR’s listener-generated “Best CD’s of 2006” provides a link to a Real Audio clip for each of the Top Ten albums. (#1 on this list is the Decembrists.)

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Wanting more, I headed over to Amazon’s “Jackin’ Pop Critics Poll,” an expansive list of 1300 albums nominated by 503 contributors. The lengthy page of html had no links to band sites or streaming files. (Winner: TV on the Radio.)

Things got livelier at metacritic.com, a sort of higher-level “poll of the polls.” On one page, metacritic gives you a compilation of various Top Ten lists from mainstream and alternative media, slicing and dicing the picks into various meta-charts. Albums listed in yellow link to an internal page for each album, with outbound links to the artist’s own site and/or their MySpace page. (Metacritic’s users picked TV on the Radio as the best album of 2006.)

The most useful and interactive lists can be found at popmatters.com and pitchfork.com. Both sites feature multiple outbound links for each artist. Pitchfork’s “Top 100 Tracks of 2006” offers links to each artist’s homepage and MySpace page, a “buy it” link to the ampcamp.com store, and a link to an external streaming audio or video file, if available. Curiously, Pitchforks “Top 50 Albums” list does not include any outbound links. (Winner: The Knife)

Popmatters.com has a blog-style list with the most satisfying set of options. Each album can be further explored by links to Amazon, AmazonUK, Insound and the iTunes Music Store. Embedded YouTube videoclips offer instant clickable gratification, sometimes sending you in interesting directions like winner Gnarls Barkley performing live on the British “Top of the Pops” television show. Singer Cee-Lo wore an airline pilot’s uniform on that show as well as the Grammy’s. Who knew?

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