Let’s play a little game. I’m going to show you a table of four lists — two from large music publications and two from some of today’s biggest independent music critics — and your job is to see if you can pinpoint which list is corporate and which is independent, as well as to decide which one you most agree with. The lists display the top five albums of the 2010s. If you don’t recognize all the albums, that’s okay. Just do your best to see if you can figure it out. 

Got your guesses? Great. 

The first list is from Rolling Stone, the second is from Pitchfork, the third from Anthony Fantano’s YouTube channel The Needle Drop, and the fourth is from YouTube and Twitch streamer Shawn Cee. The former two are corporate while the latter two are independent. 

Did you get it right? It could have been tough to figure out, but there were some hints: Shawn Cee’s list consists entirely of hip hop albums, with all five albums released by male rappers, signifying a strong personal preference. Fans of popular music critic Anthony Fantano of The Needle Drop YouTube channel may have recognized five of the albums he gave a 10/10 throughout the 2010s in the third column, including You Won’t Get What You Want by Daughters, The Money Store by Death Grips, To Be Kind by Swans, and To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. 

Pitchfork’s top-five list includes a Frank Ocean album, which hints at a more modern, youthful appeal, and chart toppers such as Taylor Swift’s Red glare toward a basic, crowd-pleasing corporation like Rolling Stone.

Why do I bring all of this up? Modern music criticism has changed drastically in the last decade, with the advent of the internet affecting all critics and publications, like the aforementioned Rolling Stone being dwarfed by Anthony Fantano, who The New York Times’ Joe Coscarelli calls “The Only Music Critic Who Matters (if You’re Under 25).” Fantano has become a canonical member of YouTube lore, amassing 2.7 million subscribers in his tenured career of music criticism, making him far and away the largest independent music critic. 

Shawn Cee’s growth is nothing to dismiss either — the Detroit native is closing in on 900,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel and is one of the most revered hip-hop focused music critics. So what is the key to their success? Why do people seem to gravitate toward these individuals’ opinions and ranking lists of the music that they like? What has caused them to seemingly soar in popularity among the modern generation despite Rolling Stone and Pitchfork still pumping out content on the daily? 

The answer comes down to the uniqueness of each reviewer: when you watch Fantano and Cee’s decade end list, you feel like this singular person’s years of criticism and reviews have been building up to this moment, a climactic statement by someone who you’ve begun to bond with over years of shared music. 

Music is inherently parasocial — you become attached to your favourite artist through their art, despite not actually knowing them. This same effect happens with Cee and Fantano, as fans eagerly await their thoughts on an album, seeking validation and acceptance.

Both Rolling Stone and Pitchfork’s articles include a corporate disclaimer about how they came to these decisions, but 80 different staff members wrote Pitchfork’s list. 22 staff members wrote Rolling Stone’s. This creates discrepancy in opinions, and although it could lead to a list with a greater variety of albums from more voices, it also generates a lack of intimacy between the reader and the content. 

In today’s somewhat isolated and chronically online society, personable connections are difficult to come across on the internet. People search for relatable content and like-minded communities, giving a golden opportunity to independent creators; this is where Fantano and Cee have hit the jackpot. 

Both hold incredible influence over the impressionable minds of YouTube viewers, spreading praise and creating publicity for albums and artists that may not get the same coverage as the tycoons of the music industry. With music being more accessible than ever through streaming, Fantano and Cee can easily alter the career of any budding artist, a power few critics hold.