While Emma Ruth Rundle topped my year-end list for the second time in three years, I didn’t see her on any list published by a major music website, which I tracked for fun through Metacritic and this spreadsheet by Rob Mitchum. In and of itself, this is no big deal. A lot of music I love doesn’t appeal much to others and I would never expect it to be on anyone else’s list. But Rundle is different: my success rate with recommending her music to people is extremely high and I’ve converted many people I talk with about music into fans. And while many artists I love are languishing in complete obscurity, Rundle is on a reasonably well-known label (Sargent House) and has a passionate, growing fanbase who sold out her shows on her last American tour. I also don’t feel that her music is all that impenetrable; it’s unique but has its roots in hook-heavy rock that is in a similar musical space as many albums on these sorts of lists.
It’s ridiculous to say an album must make everyone’s year-end list, but given just how many albums get charted at the end of each year, it’s odd to me that Rundle has been completely shut out by all critics after delivering consecutive incredible albums. I really don’t think it’s strictly a matter of me having different taste. I’m convinced she’s victim to certain biases in the music media that have caused her great music to be undervalued or overlooked completely. Maybe it’s a waste of time to think or care about this, but I feel like the best thing I can do with this tiny platform is try to correct what I perceive as wrongs by these larger outlets.
The more I think about it, the more I think Rundle’s biggest issue is that her career arc is… untidy. Part of what the music media likes to do is frame narratives about artists by crafting these arcs, and they like to start young so they can have control over the story. The artist’s first album is the “breakthrough,” then the second is their Best New Music “statement” and the third is their “magnum opus.” Then they “decline” from there and the media moves on to a new crop of young artists. Obviously this pattern doesn’t always hold true and it’s a large generalization, but I think anyone who pays attention to music criticism has witnessed something resembling this cycle repeat itself over and over.
This year, I noticed a lot of really young songwriters who are in the same musical ballpark as Rundle and seemed to be early in that media cycle — I’m talking about artists like Lucy Dacus, Snail Mail, boygenius, Soccer Mommy, etc. They’re on their first or second album, which means they’re getting promoted as “exciting new voices.” They’re talented artists, but it’s hard not to view the hype around them as being linked to their age and relative inexperience, which lets the media tell a new story with unlimited possibilities while appealing to a younger demographic. (I also want to stress that this doesn’t mean people who love these artists are being “tricked” into liking them or anything — I just think these artists were given a chance to be heard that wasn’t afforded to many artists with similar talent.)
Then there is Emma Ruth Rundle, who played in like three different bands and released several albums before finding her voice (in my opinion) on 2016’s Marked For Death at age 33. I liked all of her music even before that album, but I feel she has taken a massive step forward with her solo works. And the path she took to those albums was a real joy to listen to because I could hear her improve and figure out who she was over a course of several years. But the media doesn’t have time or patience for that kind of story: they want artists to come out of the gate fully formed at a young age so they can be out in front promoting something that feels fresh and hip. I strongly believe that if Rundle were 10 years younger, the reaction to her music from the media would be much different.
The problem with that is Rundle needed to make all those albums before she could arrive at her sound on Marked for Death. The typical musician narrative where they peak right away in their early 20s is wildly unrealistic and just untrue most of the time. It’s caused a lot of young artists to be hyped too soon and has caused a trend where artists deeper into their careers are consistently taken for granted. Every artist is on a different path and not all are going to follow the same tidy arc that is applied to everyone.
Of course, this is something I want to believe, since I’m almost 30 and feel like I’m still improving at my craft all the time and have barely even lived yet. And I think that’s part of why I am relating more to artists who have taken more winding routes to success. Now I really enjoy hearing artists at different stages of their journeys, whether it’s Rundle or someone like Melody Prochet, who took six years to release her second album that completely blew away my expectations (and also, believe it or not, was left off almost all year-end lists). There are inspirational stories to be found in those albums, even if the media isn’t telling them.