What We Talk About When We Talk About Lists

noah | November 21, 2008 6:00 am

This weekend is going to be a bit shorter than usual thanks to Chinese Democracy coming out Sunday and the American Music Awards happening Sunday night, so I figured I’d leave you with a snippet of a discussion that I had with Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan, where I attempted to figure out why the indie-heavy stretch of that Blender albums list rubbed me the not-right way earlier today: “I guess maybe part of what I’m also trying (clumsily) to say is that I miss the days of the lost major-label gem? The good album that wasn’t by a megastar (either major-label ‘celebrity’ level or Jenny Lewis ‘covered by every music publication’ level—you can sub Lucinda Williams in for JL if you want) that was still worthy of recognition? That middle seems to have been lost in the great polarization between ‘music-related celebrities’ and ‘people who really mean it, man,’ and it’s a shame, because there are still tons of worthy albums out there that could have used the boost. (Maybe I’m drawing too much on personal experience here, but I do think these lists have some power, still, in this every-ear-for-itself age.)” But am I expecting too much from a wrapup that’s ultimately the result of a slightly massaged consensus?

I’d say yes and no. On the one hand, there are always those instances where “consensus picks” get where they are not because they’re great, but because they’re solid enough to be mentioned by a quorum of voters, and a list that’s essentially the result of groupthink kind of has to have those picks. And I know that some of my questioning this stuff is a result of feeling kind of alienated by Death Cab For Cutie being “approved” by people who I sort of consider my peers and Ne-Yo not. But what really surprised me was the lack of curveballs. Sure, this could be due in part to my immersion in these debates, but I was genuinely struck, at least on the Blender list, at how those albums that didn’t fall within the seeming “default” genre of critic-approved Authentic Music wound up being something of a default pick–Metallica was the metal album of choice, Taylor Swift country, Usher (inexplicably) the R & B selection, etc. Pretty much any example of deviation was in a way completely expected (save perhaps Randy Newman), an odd occurrence in a year that was marked by a lot of talk about how there was “so much music out there.” (And on another personal note, there are a bunch of albums that, to me, sounded interesting and existed sorta under-the-radar: The Academy Is… and Solange, to name two. Also that the Portishead album got ignored by both publications whose lists we covered today is something that, frankly, boggles the mind.)

Maybe I’m starting to feel that the big bolt-from-heaven omnibus lists, despite providing so much fodder for arguments and pageviews, need a little more contextualization, like how they’re put together or even just like some sort of “here’s what almost made it” sidebar. (Hey, being reminded of those just-below-the-radar artists would have the added bonus of jogging memories in a time when the promotion of most cultural phenomena seems to stop at 12:01 a.m. on said phenomena’s release date.) To its credit, Blender does have something like a billion song selections scattered throughout its year-end issue; hell, maybe the curated-playlist idea will trump the best-album-rundown one in the end, what with attention spans these days being shorter than ever.

I worry that this whole post is super-inside-baseball (even if people love arguing over the lists themselves), and I should back away from the computer since I’m going to have to return within 40-ish hours or so to talk about Chinese Democracy. But I suspect that someone out there might have an opinion–the Top Five Problems With End-Of-Year Listmaking, even? Ha ha ha.

Earlier: “Blender” Would Like To Remind You That It Really Enjoys Lil Wayne’s Music

(P.S.: Yes, I know that I use emphasis quotes too much. Sorry about that.)