What's a list of the best music of the year worth in the era of the perpetual playlist? When even the songs we listened to most alienate us? Earlier this month, when one of the major streaming services sent its subscribers individualized portraits of a year's worth of listening, one consistent response I witnessed was bewilderment. Really? That's what I listened to? Some offered excuses (kids and other family members sharing a single account were popular enough scapegoats that the service started pitching its family plan in replies). Some felt insulted by the aggregate image of their own habits reflected back at them.
Spotify's "Wrapped" playlists were confusing for a simple reason: Everybody uses music differently. Motivation, consolation, seduction, reward, comfort, catharsis – there's not a filter or AI or algorithm through which you can feed the data points of a year of listening and get a complete picture. And yet, we – music fans and music critics alike – get to the end of each year and try. We argue about whether Lana Del Rey mattered more than Lizzo. We attempt to force the thousands of new releases into a shape that makes sense. We make best-of lists.
NPR Music is doing something a little different this December. In the past, we've made big, multi-genre lists of the best albums and songs of the year that reach for a picture of consensus, or as close as this disparate and opinionated group of writers, reporters, editors, podcasters, producers and playlist-makers can get. But a big swing at the music we all agree upon isn't the only way to tell the story of a year in music. (For one thing, it tends to favor the releases that we've all already heard, the ones that made news or had the biggest marketing budgets). So we asked each other what we would want from a year-end list. Turns out we wanted a lot.
What you'll find among the nearly two dozen lists here is our attempt to give you many facets of 2019's best music. Some of the lists grapple seriously with politics and social issues. Some just want you to put your feet up. You'll find lists to fit moods, snapshots of what happened in a wide variety of genres over the prior 12 months, portraits of emerging musicians and platforms, selections of songs and albums from around the world, the mainstream and the underground. Some lists exist on either side of a fulcrum – two oppositional ways of looking at a moment. Some are basically jokes. We needed more than one list to encapsulate the year in rap. Same with country music. One list offers a choose-your-own-Friday-night-playlist adventure.
You'll still find our top 25 albums and songs of 2019 – picks our dedicated but divergent listeners agreed upon after several rounds of nominations, voting and mostly respectful conversation. But there's a lot more. Not every list will speak to you. You won't agree with everything you read. But if you don't find what you're looking for, try another one. Over the last few weeks, as we've made these 23 lists, I've discovered a year's worth of great music. We do have our limits — if you happen to want a list populated by an omniscient computer, we don't have any of those here. But you probably already know where to look. –Jacob Ganz, Senior Editor