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The Mire: Tangents, threads and opinions from The Wire HQ

Suffering through suffrage: Compiling The Wire's Rewind charts

Tony Herrington

Consensus is mendacious. A composite of multiple, often conflicting individual realities, consensual reality projects an image that doesn’t exist. Which is another way of saying that all democratic processes are predicated on the paradox that they will produce a result that few of its individual participants will recognise, in terms of it being an accurate reflection of their own reality, but which most will agree to collectively believe in, or at the very least, to live with(in) its fabricated image.

And with that thought I commend to you The Wire’s Top 50 Releases of the Year for 2011, which arrives as a consequence of a democratic process in which an electorate made up of the magazine’s staff and contributors were franchised to vote for their top ten individual releases of the year across all known forms of sound and music activity, votes which were then collated into the chart that is enshrined in the annual Rewind feature in the new January issue.

(By the way, that's 'Releases of the Year' as opposed to 'Records of the Year', as with previous Rewind features, a release being classified here as any self-contained audio entity, be it a vinyl LP, 12" EP, cassette, CD, download, mixtape, etc. We made the change in a spirit of 'all formats acknowledged' democracy, but while a few up-to-speed contributors took us at our word and ran with it, submitting Web 2.0-driven charts containing YouTube uploads and tracks given away via Twitter, the bulk of the electorate continued to cast their votes for old fashioned albums, records or otherwise. And as a footnote to this aside, we ourselves obviously forgot that spirit when we were writing the cover lines for the January issue itself, which still bears the legend, 'Records of the Year'. LOL.)

Anyway, sitting conspicuously at the top of The Wire’s Releases of the Year chart for 2011 is James Ferraro's Far Side Virtual, by dint of the simple and maybe even bleedingly obvious fact that more staff and contributors voted for it than any other release issued this year. But what does that mean exactly? Because when you look closely, the individual wills that gave rise to such an outcome (The Wire's contributors say James Ferraro's Far Side Virtual is the best thing released this year) start to appear rather peculiar in relation to it, ie: out of an electorate of 60 voters, only seven actually voted for Far Side Virtual in their individual top tens - that's less than 12 per cent of the total electorate; and none of those electors who did vote for it actually had it as their individual top release of the year. Yet all are now implicated in a process that fetes a release that almost 90 per cent of them didn’t vote for, and who knows, wouldn't even give storage space to. Because Far Side Virtual is that kind of release: you either swoon over the conceptual audacity of its deadpan appropriation of late capitalist-era corporate mood Muzak, or you think it's the worst record Dave Grusin never made.

But that's democracy for you.

Now you could say that the triumph of such a potentially divisive release (which is playing now via my laptop's internal speakers and sounding like the kind of background noise your Second Life avatar might screen out as it moves through a simulacrum of the 21st century mediascape) is entirely appropriate in a year in which the abundance of choice brought on by digital technology reached such a tipping point as to make genuine consensus impossible. (That or the fact that there was no single 'flagship' release issued this year that cut across aesthetic divisions sufficiently to unite large portions of our cussedly diverse electorate, although admittedly this usually only happens in a year in which Robert Wyatt has put out some new music.) But what kind of authority does it bestow, when something can achieve such (ahem) high office on the back of such a miserly mandate? A highly compromised one you might think. (Is any of this sounding familiar?) But how was such an outcome arrived at? Well, brushing ethical issues aside, but in a spirit of transparency, though at the risk of dishing out too much information...

The Wire's Top 50 Releases of the Year chart is collated, or assembled into consensual reality, by way of a two-tier process. The number of individual voters voting for a particular release is the most significant factor: the more voters that vote for a release the higher up the final collective chart it will appear. In addition to this, a basic points system is used to allocate a value to each individual vote in each individual chart. So if a voter votes for ten releases, the tenth placed release in that chart receives 1 point, the ninth 2 points, the eighth 3 points and so on up to ten points for their number one choice. If a voter only votes for, say, five releases rather than ten (as some of our contributors did, obviously becoming paralyzed part way through the patently absurd process of having to isolate just ten individual releases from the mass of new music issued over the past 12 months), their top vote only receives five points, their second four and so on. These points are then applied to any release which two or more voters vote for. So if two voters vote for Release A, with one putting it at number one out of ten, the second at number ten out of ten, that release will have a total score of 2/11, ie two votes and 11 points. Likewise, if two voters vote for Release B, both putting it at, say, number six out of ten, that release will have a score of 2/12. So Release B will be higher up the final chart than Release A. However, at the end of the count, if Release A and Release B have the same number of votes and points, then a third tier comes into play: whichever release receives the highest placing in any of the individual charts that included it, then that will prevail. If even after this process both Release A and Release B have the same score, the returning officer can toss a coin and to hell with democracy.

And that's it.

More or less.


At such a level, the example given above seems a reasonable outcome or compromise, but it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which such a system starts to break down catastrophically. For instance, say 59 out of 60 voters all vote for Release A as the number one release in their individual top tens, that would give it a score of 59/590. But if in those same individual charts all 60 voters voted for Release B as their tenth release of the year, it would receive a score of 60/60. In other words a release that all the electorate thought was the tenth best release of the year would trump a release that all but one of them (there's always one) thought was the best release of the year.

In such a situation, there might be a case for moving the electoral system over to a wholly points based system, in which case Release A would trump Release B by the massive margin of 530 points. But then so to would a release that only seven out of 60 voters voted for, rather than 60 out of 60, if say, all seven voted for it as their number one in their individual top tens, thus giving it a total points score of 70.

The triumph of Far Side Virtual on such a low mandate is unusual in the history of The Wire's Rewind charts, with past Releases (or Records) of the Year usually having to garner votes from at least 25 per cent of the electorate. But even in years of low consensus we have tended to sideline any ethical concerns over the fairness of what is a mutated form of first-past-the-post as opposed to an alternative system that is possibly closer in spirit to a crude form of proportional representation. But for the sake of argument, if a purely points based system had been used to calculate this year's chart, the top ten would look like this:

1. The Beach Boys The SMILE Sessions 2. James Ferraro Far Side Virtual 3. Michael Chapman The Resurrection And Revenge Of The Clayton Peacock 4. DJ Rashad Just A Taste 5. Rustie Glass Swords 6. Laurel Halo Hour Logic 7. Lou Reed & Metallica Lulu 8. Eliane Radigue Transamorem - Transmortem 9. John Wall & Alex Rodgers Works 2006-2011 10. Hype Williams One Nation

As opposed to the actual Top Ten, which looks like this:

1. James Ferraro Far Side Virtual 2. Rustie Glass Swords 3. Eliane Radigue Transamorem - Transmortem 4. Hype Williams One Nation 5. The Beach Boys The SMILE Sessions 6. Michael Chapman The Resurrection And Revenge Of The Clayton Peacock 7. DJ Rashad Just A Taste 8. Laurel Halo Hour Logic 9. Lou Reed & Metallica Lulu 10. John Wall & Alex Rodgers Works 2006-2011

So the same ten releases would still appear in both charts (albeit in a wholly different order), which means, for instance, that a points based system wouldn't necessarily allow any of the lower placed entries in the Top 50 to suddenly storm the top tier (although it might in another year).

The collating of our 2011 charts was potentially further complicated by the fact that this year we asked the electorate to vote in a second chart, their personal Top Ten Archive Releases of the Year (replacing the previous A-Z lists of reissues and compilations, which, as remains the case with the annual genre charts, were compiled from the individual nominations of certain contributors, rather than a universal hierarchical voting system, which is why they were presented alphabetically, and why the genre charts still are).

The main Rewind chart commemorates music issued for the first time in 2011, whether it was 'new' music or 'old' music (which accounts for the #3 slot being occupied by an Eliane Radigue synthesizer piece that was realised in 1973 but only released this year). The Archive chart commemorates music that had been previously issued in one format or another prior to 2011, and that had then been reissued at some point in the past 12 months, whether as a straight like-for-like re-release of an original document, or as part of a single-artist anthology, or a generic or curated compilation, etc, etc. To complicate matters further, music or releases that had previously appeared only as bootlegs were not counted as having been previously issued, and so if they were put out in 2011 in some kind of 'official' or sanctioned capacity were considered as being issued for the first time, which accounts for the placing of The Beach Boys’ 1966 SMILE Sessions, one of the most bootlegged 'records' ever but only issued officially for the first time in 2011, at #5 in the main Releases of the Year chart. Again, if you scrutinise both charts closely (and no doubt plenty of you will) you can identify examples that don’t easily slot into this rationale, such as our top two Archive Releases of the Year themselves, Dust-To-Digital’s box set of John Fahey's early recordings and Albert Ayler's Stockholm, Berlin 1966. Neither of these is a straight reissue of an earlier document, and both are split more or less evenly between previously unheard and previously issued material. So why are they in the Archive chart? Because it felt right that's why. And because all democratic voting systems are full of holes, so what you gonna do?

Despite directions on how to 'correctly' vote in both charts, many of our contributors, being for the most part a bunch of unclubbable mavericks (which is just the way we like them), ignored all such entreaties and voted for first time releases of old music in their Archive charts, and vice versa. At which point, the chart return officer (yours truly) consulted the electoral reform society (whoever was in the Wire office at the time) and a decision was arrived at: if a voter voted for a release in their main chart, but whose status meant it should actually have been voted for in their Archive chart, that vote was moved across to the correct chart, and vice versa.

But if you are of the opinion that such distinctions are completely arbitrary and that all the year's releases should be judged against each other, then if you combine the votes cast, and points applied, in both the main and Archive charts to get 2011's ultimate Releases of the Year according to The Wire, you would get a top ten that looked like this:

1. John Fahey Your Past Comes Back To Haunt You: The Fontone Years (1958-1965) 2. Albert Ayler Stockholm, Berlin 1966 3. James Ferraro Far Side Virtual 4. Bill Dixon Intents And Purposes 5. Rustie Glass Swords 6. Theo Parrish Ugly Edits 7. Eliane Radigue Transamorem - Transmortem 8. Hype Williams One Nation 9. The Beach Boys The SMILE Sessions 10. Michael Chapman The Resurrection And Revenge Of The Clayton Peacock

I have it on good authority that many operations out there, from high-profile independent retailers to print and online magazines, compile their end of year charts via a form of tyranny, imposing the corporate will on their respective electorates via repressive dictats and vote rigging (at least The Wire doesn't actually tell anyone what they can or can't vote for).

But in light of all of the above, can you blame them?

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I'm less surprised by the appearance of James Ferraro at number one than I am by the acclaim given to Lou Reed & Metallica. I don't think I read a kind review of it anywhere.

Jesus. Christ. All that to decide a shitty James Ferraro record is the best release of the year?

.. its a sad day that muzak sax and sitar prevailed...a

why isn't byron coley among the writers polled?

Nothing makes me more happier to see Ferraro at the top. I realize no one thought that it was the #1 album, but the only others I can think of that are even remotely near it's wonder are Pan Am Stories or Replica...

Is there a good reason reason for all this back-treading? You risk, as you say, "dishing out too much information" to make the point that Far Side Virtual may in fact be considered the 2nd or the 3rd best release of the year according to your electorate. The difference between these placements is marginal, and very fact that this article was written speaks far more clearly to an insecurity in your electorates collective psyche than to any apparently real justification. It seems even faintly embarrassing on your part to have felt the need to justify such minor discrepancies. Unless, of course, I've missed something and the your reputation as institute does in fact justify this in-depth disavowal of one record's pride-of-place.

i think its a testament to both the spread of vapid journalism as well as the sad state of music that Ferarro's tomigotchi farts and Lulu's spoken word uncle-rock are even mentioned in the same planet as the words "best" and "music"

@Navarre I don't think we'd call it "back-treading" or "justification" - it's about transparency and fairness in the process we use. That shouldn't be a reason for us to be embarrassed, should it? Different publications develop their end of year lists in different ways, and in the past we've been criticised on the grounds that we must be creating our chart purely via an editorial strategy. This is a way to open up the process to show how it's worked out. Would you rather we didn't tell you how James Ferraro got to number one, or that we fabricated a bunch of votes so that his placement was more convincing?

We can't predict the result of the voting process, and the lack of consensus was not a done deal when we started writing this post. At root, it's important that the way we do our chart is about as fair as we can manage, regardless of whether there's a consensus or not. As for an 'insecurity in our electorates collective psyche' - you seem to be equating a collection of opinions with an insecurity in our writers. The Wire covers a broad selection of music, and given that many of our writers are also specialists/professionals in certain areas of sound/music, surely it's to be expected that there's a more granular distribution of votes than there might be at other publications. Most of our writers are freelancers who have lots of different opinions, which didn't tally up into one collective opinion this year, but why should they?

@famesgerardo I don't agree - music is not in a "sad state", and I don't think The Wire counts as being a part of any perceived spread of "vapid journalism" you mention. You must not be looking in the right places.

"So polarizing was its placement though, that editor-in-chief Tony Herrington felt obligated to crunch the numbers." -

"The sheer volume of complaints leveled by the cranky avant-gardists and EAI partisans who constitute a large percentage of The Wire’s readership prompted editor Tony Herrington to publish what amounted to a retraction, explaining that a statistical oddity had vaulted the album to the top spot." -

@Jennifer Allan, The point is that the very impulse to provide your readership with transparency this year, despite the fact that consensus is apparently often not reached:

"That or the fact that there was no single ‘flagship’ release issued this year that cut across aesthetic divisions sufficiently to unite large portions of our cussedly diverse electorate, although admittedly this usually only happens in a year in which Robert Wyatt has put out some new music."

speaks to a need to justify rather than enlighten. As the quotes at the top of this post attest I'm not the only one who has picked up the insecurity that this post attests to(i think my earlier comment may have made it seem like your top ten attested to an insecurity, but really it is the very need for a post like this one that brings The Wire down as a publication in my estimation - that it worried about the appearance of taste over the very fact that this post achieves nothing: the top 10 is identical no matter how you crunch the numbers.) Perhaps transparency would mean more were it used for less political ends

Just to set the record straight vis a vis that last comment. The Wire DIDN'T receive volumes of complaints from readers about the James Ferraro record taking the top slot. We received ONE letter, which was sarcastic at worst, and which we published in the Feb issue (thanks for the disinformation Tiny Mix Tapes). My blog WASN'T a retraction of the chart, nor did it demonstrate any 'insecurity', and frankly I couldn't give a toss about notions of 'taste', good or bad - we stand by that chart as representing the collective will of the people (or at least, that of The Wire's contributors) as we do any other end of year chart we have published. There was no political agenda in writing the post, unless you count my caveat that ALL such 'democratic' processes are inherently compromised and throw up results that many who take part in those processes will not accept or have faith in (which was the point of the entire post, not that anyone noticed). That was a comment on democratic processes in general, not just this one. There was no 'need' for the post. I decided to write it BEFORE any votes were in, just to explain the process by which we compile the chart, because I thought people might actually be, you know, interested, and also to have a bit of entertainment and a laff at our own expense, ie at the serious way we go about it. Maybe you didn't get the jokes - hell, maybe they weren't even very funny - but I'm talking about trying to inject a bit of humour here too! I'm amazed that anyone can think that an organisation that tries to be a bit open about what it does can actually be brought down by that process at the same time. Next time, try parking your cynical preconceptions at the door and judging things by what is actually in front of you. You might be surprised by what you find.

I missed this posting originally, but two years later it's still a very useful summary to reference. I particularly appreciate the larger implications of what you've laid out here in terms of understanding democratic processes and what we all think we want from them. I've been guilty myself of finding this, that or the other release's presence on the charts irksome or unwarranted. This holds up a mirror to myself, however, and increasingly I am becoming aware of my projections and what I should do with them.

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