The Geography of the Year in Music
It’s time for the annual best-of lists, so I thought you might enjoy this urbanist take on the year's best songs. It’s based on the recently released list of the year’s top singles from reviewers and critics at the music site Pitchfork. So yes, we're starting with a subjective assessment, one that is heavily skewed toward English language acts in the indie, alternative, and hip-hop genres. It's also admittedly one that's on occasion been mocked as out of touch or overly snobby. Still, it’s as useful a barometer of what’s hot at the leading edges of popular music as any. And for our purposes, it turns out to be quite amenable to locational analysis, too.
MPI alum Patrick Adler, now a doctoral student in urban planning at UCLA, used allmusic.com’s database and press coverage to assign a locational "base of operations" for every act and artist on Pitchfork’s list save one, a mysterious German group called "Tiger and Woods." Then he counted up the number of hits (or hit-making acts) per city. If an artist had two hits, they were counted twice. If there was a collaboration involving artists from different cities, their hit was divided between those cities.
Greater New York (including the five boroughs and immediately surrounding suburbs) took the top spot, generating more than one in four of all 2011 Pitchfork hits. Three of them come from my home state of New Jersey – two from Jersey City’s Real Estate and one from Nutley’s Clams Casino (also the birthplace of Martha Stewart). London is next with 16 hits and Los Angeles is third with 10. In fact, these three super-star pop culture capitals account for just about half of all of Pitchfork's 2011 hits.
My adopted hometown of Toronto is close behind with seven (including one for nearby Hamilton), followed by the San Francisco Bay Area with six (four for San Fran and two for Oakland). Atlanta has four, and Vancouver, three.
Next Adler controlled for population looking at Pitchfork best of 2011 singles per 100,000 people. Now tiny Eau Claire takes the top spot (with 1.2 hits per 100,000 people). Check out our slide show of the other cities in the top ten:
Kurt Anderson argues provocatively that the world is going through a period of cultural and aesthetic devolution, with pop music in particular stuck on replay, endlessly recycling its greatest hits. Whether that’s the case or not remains open to debate, but what’s for sure is that while New York, London, and Los Angeles continue to dominate the upper critical reaches of popular culture, its geography is a lot more global than it was in back in the so-called glory days.