Music Monday: The Making of TIME’s Top 10 Albums and Songs of the Year

Music writer Claire Suddath on the task of compiling her list of the year's best tunes

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Every December, TIME releases a barrage of year-end lists — everything from the best books and movies to the best viral videos and travel moments — that neatly summarize everything that happened in that calendar year. For those who think these are just toss-offs, we actually put a huge amount of thought into these lists. In the month leading up to their release, you’ll hear arguments around TIME’s newsroom such as: should the Penn State debacle go in our “Top 10 Scandals” list or “Top 10 Crime Stories?”  Which Ryan Gosling-themed Tumblr is better, the feminist theory one or the one about fonts? Just how many items can we have on Herman Cain, anyway?

(MORE: Top 10 Everything of 2010)

I’m responsible for two lists, TIME’s top 10 albums and top 10 songs of the year. I select the entire lists by myself and it takes me a long time to decide on me top choices. So how do I do it?

Step One: Listen to as much music as possible.

First, I listen to every single song on every album released this year, even klezmer compilations and mixtapes that random people try to hand me on the street. (This actually happens in New York). Just kidding! Nobody can listen to everything.

I start with a list of all the albums and songs I heard this year. From that, I highlight a few that really stand out — the stuff that I keep listening to long after I’ve finished reviewing it. They will almost certainly make it on the final list. Then, I make a second list of everything I’ve sort of heard but can’t really remember: albums I listened to once, albums I listened to only halfway through, artists I found on Spotify, stuff that has been sitting on my desk for months that I have been rudely neglecting because I’m a terrible person. (Sorry, David Lynch!)

I have a habit of making monthly playlists of songs that I like. There’s no theme to them, it’s just a hodgepodge of new and old music with only one thing in common: that I listened to it all during the month of May, or whenever. I look those over again to see if there’s anything I’m forgetting. It turns out that I really liked Washed Out in July and August but I haven’t listened to his album, Within and Without, since then. Should I re-listen? I should probably re-listen.

So that’s what I do. For several weeks, I add album after album to my iPod and listen to as much new music as I can. It takes a long time. I’m really glad I’m not our book critic, Lev Grossman; I wouldn’t be able to re-read enough books to come up with the Top 10 Books list.

Step Two:  Come up with a preliminary list that’s way too long and not very helpful

After I’ve heard as much music as I can, I come up with a list of about 25 songs and albums.

When left to myself, I mostly listen to indie rock and hip-hop, so I always have those genres covered. I’ve got to add some country to the list. What about folk? Dance music? Soul? Americana? R&B? I try to cover as many bases as possible. In past years I’ve noticed that my lists featured mostly male artists. For some reason, this year it leaned heavily female. Is that OK? Should I even it out? Nah, I like the ladies.

Step Three: Double check that the Beatles are still broken up

Yep, still defunct and half dead. Can’t put them on my list. OK, moving on.

Step Four: Trim each list down to my top 10 choices. Change my mind and do it again.

I do this about seven or eight times. The top four or five spots are usually finalized by this point, but I find myself moving songs and albums in and out of the bottom spots almost at random.

Step Five: Second guess myself

This year, I’ve added a very mainstream pop song to my top 10 songs list. I love this song; I’ve been listening to it several times a week for the better part of the year. But it’s just a pop song, I think. Is it really one of the best pieces of music released the year? It’s not Lady Gaga or Beyoncé or anything, and I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me about its selection. Maybe I should pick something else.

Step Six: Second guess my second guess

No, it’s a great song. It stays.

Step Seven: Somehow, during all of this, a final list comes together

As I make and remake the list, I slowly settle on choices. The top five spots are filled, then six, then seven. Finally, I find myself debating over the last item. I know I’ve chosen my list when none of the leftovers seem compelling enough to spur me to make room for them on the top 10. When this happens, I quickly email the list to my editor so that I can’t fiddle with it anymore. And only a week past my deadline! Not bad.

Step Eight: Now I just have to write it.

We’ll skip over this part because it requires a lot of work, and work is boring. I definitely refine my procrastination techniques during this time. If you add any photos to Facebook during the weeks that I’m writing my year-end lists, I can almost guarantee that I’ve clicked through them. Your 2008 trip to Maui looked really fun, by the way.

Step Nine: Publish the list.

This will happen soon. Be patient.

(MORE: The Top 10 Songs of 2010)

(MORE: The Top 10 Albums of 2010)