It’s getting to be that time of year: weeks of progressively colder weather, nostalgia and food; half of the music on the radio from now until January will have sleigh bells; higher gas bills; car accidents; ham. But most of all, it’s the time of the season for lists.

The end of the year is a consolidation of tastemaking. Over the next month, writers from O Magazine to Impose will compile lists of the year’s music, lists of the “best,” the “favorites” and maybe the “worst.” They’re guaranteed to get read, they’re fun to make and there will probably be one in the Daily in a month’s time.

But I have a love-hate relationship with lists. On the one hand, I think they’re an engaging way to share tastes and bite into that communal spirit of pop music. On the other, they’re cheap, narrow attempts at preserving a brand image, sometimes pushing a bottom line.

Lists can serve many purposes. I like to think of them as trading cards, or a scrapbook. Every once in a while it’s fun to reflect on favorites and proudest finds, then argue with other people who don’t think the same way and wax lovingly with those who do. There’s a satisfying sort of communion when you share favorite albums or songs with other people. Because the question is bigger than what you liked or what you listened to. It’s a chance for us to ask, “What does this music say about me? How can I present myself through taste? What do people think of me?”

For a magazine or newspaper staff, making a list can be an entertaining and frustrating experience in posturing, community and cronyism. It’s hard to deny the impact of hip sites like Pitchfork or Gorilla vs. Bear’s tastemaking. When they put out a “Best-Of” list, everybody’s paying attention. But the Internet has afforded us not only a wider mine of music to explore, but an even wider mine of opinion. Tastemaking is infinite now. For some sources, it’s a chance to push a financial agenda, and keep customers biting for more. For others, it’s a chance to say, “Look how cool I am.”

Lists, especially when they start to repeat themselves, can lock out lots of music that gets ignored. If you’re casually digging through the albums of past decades, what’s the easiest way to find some taste-tested classics? Lists. Easy way to affirm a flimsy opinion of “your” favorite album? Find it on a list. Back it up with a “high score.” When we settle for lists, without engaging in the music itself, we’re doing nobody favors. When songs, artists and albums become numbers, badges and cudgels with which we wield our subjective pretension, it’s not about the music anymore.

To a certain extent, that’s what lists are. A chance for us to take individual stake in the music we had no part of. A chance to express ourselves. But lists should expand our horizons, not close them. I’ve found some of my favorite music in lists. I have fun thinking them up. But I try to remember that a list is a list, and it doesn’t come close to listening.

My 2010 list will never be finished. Some of the songs aren’t written and half of them didn’t come out this year. My favorite music of the year was the music I dug and “discovered” and that found a place in my life. Some of it came out last month, some of it 50 years ago. Some of it I can’t play on a stereo. Songs I wrote, songs I sang and songs I heard other people play — it’s the music that meant the most to me this year. Does it make me cool? No. Does it lock me out of the conversation with the “bests” and the “classics?” Maybe. But I’m okay with that. Because maybe Sgt. Pepper’s was always overrated.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.