— Alison Fields
The year end lists of most major music and culture magazines are often the most highly read and studied features of the year. People who don’t regularly check in for daily, weekly, or monthly features will buy a copy or surf by the site just to see the rankings, and invest a significant amount of money so their record collections will reflect the critical consensus. Working at a record store, you watch these folks arrive every year about this time with a short stack of magazine pages and printer paper, cross-referencing Pitchfork and Magnet and Wire and whoever the hell else, frantically grabbing up copies of Sufjan Stephens (2005) or The Arcade Fire (2004) or the latest in minimalist Scandinavian electronica (pretty much any year since 1998). “I wasn’t going to buy this,” they say, at the register. “But now that I see that it’s the BEST, I know I have to love it.”
And what I am to say to that? I could mention to the customer that his previously outspoken opinions on Christian musicians might infringe on his ability to get behind Sufjan Stevens. Or that the Arcade Fire isn’t the most obvious choice for a die-hard Hank Williams fan. Or I might hypothesize that I doubt even the critics got all the way through the much-lauded minimalist electronica record. Or I could simply state that the only list that has any real fact behind it is probably the Billboard Hot 100 (or for the literary world, the NYT bestseller’s list), which has absolutely nothing to do with what anything sounds like and probably includes not one record listed on your favorite publication’s year end list, unless of course Radiohead or Outkast have released a new album in this calendar year.
There’s really no accounting for taste. And if you think about it, that’s how it should be. We increasingly live in an age where, with specialized blogs and internet radio and My Space and freebie Mp3s, you don’t really need some faceless dude plugging away at his computer to sell you the illusion of an authoritive BEST. After all, the only difference between a music critic and the average consumer is that the former has more promo cds and is more inclined to cite Foucault and invent phrases like “fractured, angle-rockability” or “the vast cacophony of sonic negation” to say (in 750 words, or less) that he really digs whatever Joy Division cover band is coming out of Brooklyn this year. And maybe you do fuck up every now and then, buy a crap piece of wax on the strength of a single, lose thirteen bucks, and wish you’d spent the money on beer instead. The critics most certainly make mistakes. And I’ll bet you one used Clap Your Hands Say Yeah record, two Arctic Monkeys eps, and the entire Fiery Furnaces catalog (used) that come March, nobody will give a fuck about half the bands on your favorite publication’s year end list. Their second album will falter, because the critics will have moved on to the next big thing and the audience will have tired of whatever sorry old shtick the band had tried to pretend was original the first time around. The band will break up after the guitarist enters rehab and the bass player’s parents stop making payments on the tour van. And twenty years down the road, some obscure British label will re-release the long-out-of-print record that once sold all of its less than 100,000 copies due to its placement as #3 on Pitchfork’s year-end list to the tiniest ripple of hype and a whole new generation of self-important asshats inclined toward verbal masturbation will call it “seminal” and “groundbreaking,” inspiring a new batch of untalented hipsters to rip off the sound, release a new batch of overrated records, and thus it has and will go on.
One could argue that the desire for a codified best and worst list is really just a quirk of being human. On some level we really want to believe there is an unimpeachable Best or an abysmal Worst that we can all agree on. Or at least that all smart, sophisticated, and culturally literate souls can agree on and pity the ignorant rubes for not appropriately appreciating. And I would counter by saying this is impossible. Best and worst, in more or less every conceivable arena is informed by subjective measure, and none more so than in Aesthetics, the broad umbrella under which pop music criticism kind of, sort of, sometimes (maybe) belongs. In a pinch, you could always pin the blame on the much-maligned Kant, whose measured assertions about the subjective and universal qualities of taste and judgment probably sounded significantly less dunderheaded when the critical community at large wasn’t being called upon to address the finer points of Justin Timberlake.
It is my secret theory that lists are made for express purpose of provoking argument. You can choose to tow the established line (no matter how theoretically disestablishment that line may be) and defend your favorite top ten, or you can sit around and grouse about the fact that they clearly got it all wrong. This is probably the best thing about a year-end list. For a few days after publication, everyone has a chance to be a loud-mouthed, ranting critic.
For my part, though, I’m staying out of it. I’d be happy to tell what I like if you ask nicely, and I usually can’t help telling you what I don’t. I might even be inclined to tell you why. But I’m not going to tell you it’s the best, because I’d be lying, and I tend to think you’re better served figuring that out for yourself.