I make a lot of lists.
Some might call my list fetish unhealthy; some might call it OCD; still others might call it proof-positive that I’ll never get what some might call laid by an attractive female.
I call it none of those three things. [Zips up pants.] That’ll be all, Jenna.
When I make a list, I’m doing so to assign an order or rank to help me better define what’s seminal, outstanding or influential in my life. Best cars (Porsche 911). Best years (I have the last 22 ranked in order – 2009, so far, falls somewhere in the cream-filled center). Best lays (Katie … you’ll ask which one. I’ll say all of them). Best pairs of sneakers I’ve owned (My current pair of New Balance). Best movies (The Shawshank Redemption).
Lists are invigorating, controversial, cathartic and unique. No two lists are exactly alike. That’s why it may come as a surprise to you that I’ve reached the following conclusion:
Music lists are unqualified, haphazard, unequivocal bullshit.
Recently, a friend and I attempted to hash out a list of the “Top 20 Greatest Albums of this Decade.” Some heavy hitters appeared (Jay-Z’s “Blueprint”, The Strokes’ “Is This It”, Outkast’s “Speakerboxxx / The Love Below” all made appearances) and the rest were clearly judgment calls.
I realized that the vast majority of my judgment calls were wrong. Some were shaded by personal bias (How can I call it a ‘Best Of’ without including TWO albums by The National?), some were clouded by sneaking peeks at Metacritic (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was CANONICAL!) and yet others were merely included because they felt like they should be there (American Idiot, FTW!).
Then, I pondered answers to the all-important question WWPD (What Would Pitchfork Do?) and realized my list was probably too mainstream and also didn’t include four Radiohead albums. Then, I half-expected to hear Hal Sparks and Vicki Lewis and other C-minus List celebs bantering senselessly on VH1’s “I Love the Double-O’s” regarding such timeless classics as Rhianna’s “Good Girl Gone Bad” or Nelly Furtado’s “Loose.” I give up. I clearly know jack-shit about music.
Any time “Best of” is given the Music bent, you’re always left with a sour feeling in the cockles of your heart. No matter who’s No. 1 or what surprises (if there are any) appear, the lists feel pre-meditated, pre-ordained and pre-packaged. “Hey! The Beatles are the Greatest Rock Band of All Time! SHOCKING!” There are no revelations. There is no insight. There is only the feeling that the criteria is as confounding as attempting to lump genres together to determine the best work of art. (Hey! Ghostface Killah’s album is great! I’d slot it in right between the Dixie Chicks and Mastodon. ADHD! CATCH THE FEVER!)
Then I pondered a little more, and realized music “Best of” lists exist for just one of three reasons.
1. See how smart we are? We said these albums were the best when they were released … and lo and behold, they are! I bring up Pitchfork again. The self-aggrandizing, masturbatory indie-rag regularly features reviewers who treat their column-space like Steve Vai approaches 12-bar blues. Talented writers who double as purveyors of hipster cool over-extend themselves by constructing paragraph-length sentences about current obscure albums name-dropping musical influences stemming from past albums that are even more obscure! (The new Sunn sounds like Deerhunter mixed with The Field, with a dashing of Stars of the Lid and Atlas thrown in for good measure.) Hey, that’s helpful! Now, allow me to research all these bands so I can half-heartedly agree with you before my head explodes.
I digress. Reading a music list that falls into this bucket, you’ll discover simply a repackaging of old reviews, designed to manufacture credibility for a publication or website that desperately seeks it to remain relevant. It’s self-congratulatory and discounts trends in popular taste following the album in question’s release date.
2. We apologize for past transgressions in the reviewing process. Please allow us to retort. Rolling Stone will regularly give nearly every Bruce Springsteen album five stars. Me thinks it may be a glitch in the matrix. However, upon further review, perhaps Springsteen’s five-star rating was a slight bit undeserved. So, as it turns out, The Boss will undoubtedly be pushed down the ranks to, say, No. 81 in their year-end Top 100 – or maybe even shut out altogether. However, he’ll be replaced by Lady Gaga, who checks in at No. 9 with her stellar and saucy “Fame”, which may be a three-star effort. Wait, what?
It’s as if someone said “You’re right! My taste in music DOES suck! But I sure know yours doesn’t!” I think amended reviews in particular are hilarious. (See: Pinkerton, Weezer) Do albums really go from being bombs to classics over the course of 10 years? Does what sound great coming from the speakers change based upon what other people believe? “I know I really should like Portishead’s “Dummy”, so maybe this droning trip-trance that was outdated a half-decade ago will sound infinitely better now than every major media publication and my friends who “totally fucking get it” have professed its brilliance unto me.”
3. You know what would really ratchet up the page views? A totally predictable Best-Of List with A-List celebrities, TNA and bands all the kids really love these days! Get Britney, Gaga, Justin, Taylor Swift, Linkin Park, T-Pain, All-American Rejects and Lil’ Wayne out of my best-ofs. That shit belongs in the discount bin. (Actually, Mr. Timberlake is quite talented, and I debated putting his FutureSexLoveSongs in my Top 20 AotD list.) Banal lyrics, familiar and hookless writing, bland instrumentation and self-consciously modern production might net you triple-platinum, but it won’t win you accolades from any respectable music publication. Call it an offshoot of the Celine Dion correlary. She’s sold over 30 million records, but I don’t know a single person who owns even one of them.
This third reason underscores the conclusion I came to some time ago: Winning a GRAMMY is the most back-handed compliment of any award. “Yeah, you’re album was great, but if it were TRULY transcendent, it wouldn’t have even been nominated.” The Joshua Tree and Speakerboxxx / The Love Below are the only two creatively stunning full-lengths to have won the award in the past 25 years. I’m ashamed that I know this. They bump heads with soundtracks by the impeccable group “Various Artists”, Celine Dion, The Dixie Chicks, two MTV Unplugged albums and Santana’s epic miscarriage of a crossover attempt. Supernatural was the best album to drop in 1999? Even Creed fans should be pissed.
So I sit here and drink my Firefly Vodka and chomp on my noodles and attempt to rank and hash out what 20 albums this decade absolutely HAD to have in order to further the natural progression of pop music from the boy-bands and nu-metal of 2000 to wherever the blue blazes we’ve come to today. (YouTube mashups and Autotune?)
The only criteria from which I find logical to draw include (and in no order):
1. Influence (Did this album inspire or pave the way for copycat albums in its wake?)
2. Listenability. (Do I like this album?)
3. Commercial Success (Did other people like this album?)
4. Critical Acclaim (Did people with alleged musically-inclined brains like this album?)
And that’s when things get dicey. How do you weight the criteria? If I were to make a Best-of list using exclusively each of the four pillars separately, I’d get vastly different lists. Hell, I’m not even sure I’d like any of the lists which would stem from the four parameters individually. And to compromise and sacrifice excellence in one area for all-around above-averageness? Goddamn, this list is going to suck.
And listenability on its own gets dicey also. Would I listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the club? Would I listen to Get Rich or Die Tryin’ while schmoozing a girl in my crib? While slitting my wrists, would I listen to Kid A; or would listening to Kid A cause me to slit my wrists? Does Kayne West really exist outside of Pepsi Commercials and Top-40 Radio?
And then there’s the inevitable commenters who will punish and pummel my list with “You forgot (insert obnoxiously obscure album or overly commercial yawnfest here). You clearly don’t know music.” Yes, because I will graciously amend my list to feature your tastes, Mr. Person I’ve Never Met Who Comments On A Blog That Isn’t Even Nationally Recognized As Anything Other Than A Diary.” Stellastarr* is better than T.I., despite what you’ve heard.
And that’s when it hit me. Music lists are taxing to read because they’re taxing to create. You won’t please everyone, you won’t please yourself and you sure as hell won’t stop others from making a list that’s vastly different from yours. It’s a wonder why we often ask people we’ve just met, “What kind of music do you listen to?” The answer will always disappoint, and it’s as arbitrary of a personality barometer as asking someone “What kind of food do you most like to eat?” or “What’s your favorite color?”
It’s music, and for better or worse, it’s hard to state with complete conviction what’s better, or worse.
Maybe I should stop making lists.