What Use Are “Best Of” Lists, Anyhow?

Dec 2nd, 2008 // 38 Comments

As has been mentioned in several recent year-end wrapup posts, the merits of putting together arbitrary listings of the year’s “best” musical phenomena are somewhat negligible beyond their ability to create some controversy among music nerd types. For me, the ideal when I’m filling out one of the ballots proffered to me is that someone out there might check out one of the albums listed that the world at large hasn’t shared my particular enthusiasm for up to that point (The Myriad’s You Can’t Trust A Ladder, now in stores!). What I’m wondering is this: Has reading any of these lists actually inspired you to make a music purchase this year?



I’ve been a bit slow on the African import game lately, and the title of the Kasai All Stars’ disc (in the 7th moon, the chief turned into a swimming fish and ate the head of his enemy by magic), which was on the Mojo list, was enough to get me to give it a shot. Once I saw the album is part of the Congotronics series, which included the Konono No.1 disc I still enjoy, I was inspired to pick up the disc. Sure, the amount of enjoyment you should expect from the album is relative to your appreciation of electric thumb piano, but I’m glad I coughed up the cash.

Have you had any luck yet with the mysterious albums that seem to populate the middle of these lists? Is that Girl Talk disc everyone seems to list any good?

  1. Michaelangelo Matos

    I’m so inundated w/stuff already that I tend to be careful about how I spend my $$ or even downloads (especially now), but yeah, I definitely get things based on lists. For example, going over some of the lists on Largehearted Boy I saw a few jazz writers’ lists and through W. Royal Stokes’ ([www.jazzhouse.org]) found out about both Art Blakey & the Giants of Jazz’s Live at the 1972 Monterey Jazz Festival, which I copped from eMusic (still need to listen) and Mosaic Select: Boogie Woogie & Blues Piano ([www.mosaicrecords.com]), a 3CD box that I will start looking for soon. I like to find things that are a little more out of my usual path through year-end lists as a rule.

  2. Anonymous

    Such lists usually help me discover things that I didn’t know about before. Using the list, I usually visit music sites on-line where I can sample some of the songs for free and see if I like them. It’s one of many ways that I scour the Web for new (to me) music, and has frequently yielded some really great music that I’m glad I didn’t miss out on. Girl Talk is good at times. Wanna hear some samples? Go to the band’s myspace page: [www.myspace.com] or try doing a search on imeem.com.

  3. Michaelangelo Matos

    And yes, I like the Girl Talk album, though it’s not a casual listen by any means.

  4. PhishsBrevity

    I wouldn’t say bought, but my hard drive is a little more full than usual. The longer lists (like Paste’s) are a nice amalgamation of some things I may have missed over the year, but there should be more “underrated gems” and “slipped through the cracks” type lists out there this time of year. That’s good listenin’!

  5. Anonymous

    Well, it’s not obscure by any means, but seeing as everyone had so many opinions about Fleet Foxes on the year-end lists, I finally got off my ass and bought it. So far my feeling is….well….consensus opinions often fail to reflect any one person’s best judgment.

    Slightly more obscure, and definitely one I wouldn’t have picked up if not for a year-end list was Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. And what fun it is.

  6. Captain Wrong

    I expected Girl Talk to be something more than what it is. It’s somewhere between John Oswald and, I don’t know, Z-Trip, but not quite as interesting as either.

  7. Audif Jackson Winters III

    This year? Not yet. Past years? Sure.

  8. westartedthis

    yeah, it’s early yet. past years have been fruitful. i probably never would have given Paramore a chance if it hadn’t been on the year-end lists of people who are not teenage girls (hey, i have an idea – let’s have a big argument about why i shouldn’t be allowed think music writers have more trustworthy opinions than teenage girls. please – let’s do that right now.). i’m sometimes spurred to give albums i dismissed another shot based on year-end lists, sometimes with a change in my own attitude. i’m pretty much over being over year-end lists. i like making them. i like reading them. i’m tired of hearing it loudly declared that one does not give a shit about them.

  9. Tauwan

    @westartedthis:

    “i like making them. i like reading them. i’m tired of hearing it loudly declared that one does not give a shit about them.”

    ME TOO!

  10. Rock You Like An Iracane

    They help me find new stuff. Fleet Foxes showing up everywhere means I’ll have some on my computer at some point; same with The Hold Steady’s fawned-over CD from this year.

    Now, “purchase” is far less likely.

  11. Al Shipley

    @eriq78: Seriously. I tried to fill that out today to kill some time and really regretted it. I had to pretty much settle for the 5 things I heard/liked at all in those categories to find stuff to vote for, and in every write-in space would put stuff like “what the fuck is this shit?”

  12. galactushungers

    @eriq78: yea, that pitchfork list is weak.

    I really like those half-year lists in June that some sites do. I learned about Thomas Function from the one on Raven Sings the Blues.

  13. Lax Danja House

    Decibel’s year-end list has already turned me onto a bunch of stuff that had slipped by my radar.

    We’re in the process of drawing up our year-end consensus list at the webmag I edit and, though a lot of my picks won’t make the final dealie, I have fun digging other people’s lists and seeing what ones do it for me.

  14. PhishsBrevity

    @D.R. Mosby: Ug… Yeah, I know what you mean about Burial. I liked it for a day and in retrospect, I don’t know what I was thinking even trying to like it.

    I’ve been meaning to give Fleet Foxes another whirl, but that’s another one that left me cold.

  15. Anonymous

    @westartedthis: Teenage girls are probably the best source for unbiased reviews. They don’t care if you think they’re cool. They may be the only people who still love the music they love.
    Year end reveiws remind me of the albums I meant to buy but didn’t have time or money at the time. As of yesterday, I am finally the proud owner of some Fleet Foxes, MIA, and Kworny West.

  16. T'Challa

    I do find myself listing at least a couple of CDs that I’m pretty sure most people haven’t heard. Finding those CDs this year is proving pretty tough. Damn internet…

  17. Anonymous

    Perhaps another publication should do what Stylus did a few years back with the top 101-200 albums of all time. Basically telling the writers it would be a normal list then just throwing away the top 100 vote getters, which resulted in a much more interesting list.

    The City Paper here in DC uses a system I vaguely remember as – each critic has 50 (or maybe 100) points, give as many as you want to release, so you could have 9 albums with 1 point and one album with 41 points, which is a nice way to totally skew results toward more interesting albums.

    Both of these will result in more unappreciated gems.

  18. Maura Johnston

    @M–N: i love that idea!

  19. the rich girls are weeping

    I second that shout out to the Quietus list, btw.

  20. Anonymous

    I think that, like many many aspects of the music industry, the idea of year end lists inspiring new musical finds is fading into the dustbin of history. I remember when I was in high school and Spin year-end lists would help me discover great little oddities like Cornershop or Quasi. But of course musical saturation on teh internets makes “discovering a great little oddity” less and less likely. Blogs hype certain bands all year, and then those bands show up on blog year-end lists, and on and on through the cycle.

  21. D.R. Mosby

    I checked out Steinski, Fleet Foxes and Burial around about the middle of the year when they were all very highly ranked on Metacritic. I got hooked on Steinski – I’ve listened to the What Does It All Mean? probably twice as much as any other album this year. Fleet Foxes I had orginally written off because I didn’t dig “White Winter Hymnal” all that much, but I gave it another chance, and I found I really liked the rest of the album. Burial – uh, I tried to like it, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. So, two out of three isn’t bad.

  22. Josh Mock

    I originally got into TV On The Radio because they got so many plugs for Cookie Mountain on year-end lists. And now I’m a big fan, so it’s worth it for me. That’s just an example.

  23. AL

    I’ve definitely discovered a lot of albums via Pitchfork lists in the past. These days, since I’ve probably heard a little bit of whatever will make their list, I find I turn more toward specific critics’ year end lists. Last year I noticed that Jess’s top 10 included 4 or 5 albums that were also among my favorites, so I checked out the others and found a few I liked (Jesu is one that particularly comes to mind). I also like Eric Harvey’s year end mixes.

  24. Lawson

    i pretty much scroll through them looking at stuff i’ve already bought either to, a) confirm my ‘finger is on the pulse’ or b) actually read something interesting about music i already know and have listened to. i think it’s hard to get someone to just listen to something off the bat solely because it’s in a list. maybe a good review or discussion is what is needed…

  25. Dick Laurent is dead.

    @Audif Jackson Winters III: This.
    @Tauwan: Also this.

    Though The Quietus’ list I was glancing through this morning may change things.

  26. LiquidHeaven

    I haven’t bought anything (and don’t and won’t) but the gorillavsbear list gave me some new stuff to check out.

    Maybe I’ll attend one of the artists’ concerts down the road or something.

  27. RaptorAvatar

    I usually go through sometime around early January when there isn’t much coming out and use that as my catchup time. Having a pile of lists can really help bring things into focus in terms of stuff I might have missed.

  28. Anonymous

    @Lawson: ditto here, i also just look to see if anything i’ve bought ends up on a random list, but even then i don’t put much stock in any best of list.

    on another note, i just did the pitchfork reader survey, and what a load of crap that was. you can only pick 5 albums out of a pre-selected pf4 approved list of 75 (maybe it was 100), with one write-in. and then for selecting best single, the choices were even fewer. it should be called what it is: out of the songs/bands that pitchfork likes/hypes who do you align with and agree to shit upon a year or two later when they’re no longer fashionable. definitely NOT a user interactive survey by any stretch. oh i miss the days of their snarky surrealist reviews – too bad they’ve gone so legit. soon they’ll be rolling stone.

  29. Anonymous

    I do, I’m pretty sure I have every year for the lat few, mostly CD’s that I thought at the time that I should get them promptly forgot about when i couldn’t find it at my local record store (which I should add is in Korea), usually I use them when I head home for a holiday / go on an amazon /i-tunes binge.

    But just end of year lists about the last years music, endless lists I skip.

  30. westartedthis

    @Murk: good to have you back. where’ve you been, dude?

  31. Murk

    “i’m pretty much over being over year-end lists. i like making them. i like reading them. i’m tired of hearing it loudly declared that one does not give a shit about them.”

    Who cares? I can’t imagine giving a shit what some pseud on the internet thinks were the best albums of the year – or what he thinks about lists of any kind, for that matter.

    Year-end lists are boring. For the most part they reflect the ways artists were packaged throughout the year, a phenomenon whose apogee is reached by the heavy-breathing tin-eared scribes of Pitchfork (how’s that Clap Your Hands Say Yeah record holding up, gents?).

    What’s sometimes useful are individual ballots – I’ll check out what Xgau, SFJ, Matos, &c, thought, since their tastes have often tracked with mine.

  32. Murk

    >>i probably never would have given Paramore a chance if it hadn’t been on the year-end lists of people who are not teenage girls (hey, i have an idea – let’s have a big argument about why i shouldn’t be allowed think music writers have more trustworthy opinions than teenage girls. please – let’s do that right now.)

    Actually, genius, the argument would be about how you’re afraid to value mass culture unless it’s legitimated for you by people you allow to dictate your thinking.

  33. westartedthis

    @Murk: and btw, i think this would be an interesting argument. since i’d like to know if you limit “mass culture” to the disney channel pop you parade about as trophies of your off-the-shelf “poptimism” or if you also enjoy, you know, pro football and NCIS and putting your money in failing banks and stuff. because i know i do.

  34. LiquidHeaven

    legitimated lol

  35. westartedthis

    @Murk: “who cares? who cares?”…you’re a child. it’s not like i’m gonna make you read my top ten list. dumbass.

    for the record, it was J. Edward Keyes’ top ten (or however many) list that got me into Paramore (and to be honest, i hadn’t really heard of them from any teenage girls at that point either). try as i might to get him to render a verdict on every piece of mass culture i think i might like, but lack the intellectual capacity to decide about on my own, he hasn’t gotten back to me yet on “24.” you’re probably better off not watching it until we know for sure.

  36. joe bananas

    well, this is certainly flattering.

    I tried on 24, but I think it’s just not for me. I came to it too late in the game, perhaps.

    LOST, on the other hand…

  37. manyjars

    Tiny Mixtapes is running what appears to possibly be kind of a parody of the Pitchfork year-end reader survey, maybe:

    [www.tinymixtapes.com]

  38. Murk

    I enjoy 24, does that count? Or, better: who the fuck cares?

    The OED is yr friend, LiquidHeaven.

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