Critical Backlash: Year-End Lists, ‘Best’ vs. ‘Favorite’ and the Perils of Consensus

A few truths I hold to be self-evident:

In defense of the word “Best”: The word “best,” when applied to art and specifically to year-end lists of pop albums, does not mean “Best of all the thousands of possible releases of the year.” It means “The best albums this particular critic was able to or chose to listen to this year.” Part of the job of being a critic, if you consider yourself one (and I do, and measure myself by that standard), is to decide what you will listen to, through what filters you will hear more and what you will avoid in the very limited time there is to listen to, absorb and pass judgment upon said releases. There will always be good albums and artists which fall through the cracks; however, if a critic does his or her job, frankly, there shouldn’t be that many. In other words: “Best,” coming from someone who gives a shit, ought to come pretty damn close.

In defense of “Best” over “Favorite”: Art contains both subjective and objective elements — some, of course, has more of one than the other. A singer’s timbre may be alternatively irritating or endearing depending on the listener. Within genre comparisons, one can approach objective judgments, but the inescapable — and necessary! — element of instinctual feeling and emotional reaction means, ultimately, no two people will ever agree on an all-encompassing hierarchy. In other words: There is no Platonic ideal for what makes a great song or a great album. (Except for maybe the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”) This is what’s incredible about music: There are infinity ways to write and arrange and record and create it and an equally infinite amount of ways to enjoy it. My point here is that we as listeners create standards for what we enjoy based on culture, context, listening history, natural response, etc. Based on my personal standards — which are the only standards anyone can honestly have — the albums that I love the most are by default the ones I consider the best of the year. It would be nonsensical to classify them otherwise because there is no such thing as everyone’s best album of the year. Would you even want one? My favorites are my best.

Here’s where I think people get hung up:

Wanting to favor more complex or ambitious or virtuosic albums as ostensibly “better” than ones with less fanfare. This is not a question of objective superiority — it is a question of execution vs. goals and of listening priorities. For instance: Does the Radio Dept.’s remarkable execution of a more limited sonic palette trump Kanye West’s execution of a broader, more complex one? I would say yes. You may disagree. But a Kanye album, or a Radiohead album, for that matter, is not by default better than any given twee-pop record or noise cassette, no matter how obvious the equation looks on paper. For another example: What’s the most important part of a song? Melody? Guitar tone? A singer’s emotion? Lyrical quality, whatever that means? There’s no objective answer — there’s only your personal answer, and I suspect it changes depending on the song.

Also irksome here is the idea that not liking a well-reviewed or beloved album comes from not “getting it” or some personal failure, and thus that decision of the canon must be better than your own instincts. There can be a “best to the broadest amount of people,” yes, which is where names like the Beatles or Elvis come in, but what are you, the listener, judging here? The best album of all time as chosen by Western civilization? (We’ll come back to this.) Or the best album you’ve ever heard? Trust your taste — it’s the only one you’ve got.

So: When someone says “best,” everyone should be aware that they mean, or ought to mean, “best” within their personal life/taste continuum, and it is totally within their rights to say it. Otherwise, we’d have to ban the word entirely and, frankly, that’d make doing these things a lot less fun. (Which is why we’re all doing them in the first place, right?)

Re: what lists are supposed to do and what they have become: For the last few decades or so, critics have historically had access to and time to listen to more music than the average person. Thus, when a magazine released its top 50, a casual reader would open it, find a list of albums that the average reader of that magazine would consider worthwhile, go buy a bunch of them and maybe even re-evaluate his or her feelings about the ones he or she’d already heard. This sounds like generally a good thing, right? In 2010, if you read blogs or message boards or even do a cursory skim of Pitchfork regularly, you’ve already heard nearly everything that was considered worth talking about this year. Lists by Rolling Stone or SPIN or any print product still hold value because they are not being made for you: they are being made for people with subscriptions to those magazines, who are presumably not downloading five albums a week on Mediafire. So take that into consideration before pointing and laughing.

What lists from major publications do is serve as 1) Cred-building — we like these cool things! We’re cool, too, cool people (and cool advertisers)! 2) Valiant attempts to create an approximation of a canonical, objective best-of list and 3) The simple act of telling you what they like and whether or not you should thus consider them worth paying attention to based on, yes, what you like. The list of, say, Paste magazine is only predictable because they have a specific taste and that, in and of itself, is basically a good thing. With this in mind now, I read lists — preferably from individuals — looking for some through-line, some fully formed aesthetic, so I can learn something about why someone likes certain things and why I might like them.

Re: Consensus lists and mass voting: The goal of this, by bringing together multiple people with different but ostensibly “good” — by which I really mean “knowledgable” and “socially acceptable” — taste, is that you wind up at a list approximating what the most generally important albums of the year is for the common listener and for the historical record. Typically, though, the less interesting, most widely liked albums rise to the top by virtue of voting math, which is why you have a record like, for example, Arcade Fire’s or LCD Soundsystem’s — that everybody generally liked but fewer people were passionate about — in a lot of top tens. (The Awl’s 2010 No. 1s list, which I contributed to, is pretty fascinating for an attempt at the opposite of a consensus list.), These lists become Albums of the Year 101 — a survey course. With exceptions (YEEZY), the really good stuff’s up in the upper-division classes. Criticizing these lists for being, well, what they pretty much set out to be, much like pissing on the  Grammys, is a pointless endeavor, though we should reserve the right to point out the most ridiculous choices by both. (Hi, Katy Perry!)

“Good” taste vs. “bad” taste: To go into a bigger issue here for a moment: “Good” taste really means “taste I agree with” or “extensive.” “Bad” really means “taste I disagree with” or “someone who doesn’t care as much as I do about music.” We use judgmental terms such as “good” and “bad” to create connections or divides betweens ourselves and others to bolster our self-images or cultivate social status. And because they’re easy, and it’s easier to pretend that music and art appreciation is basically black and white, awful or 10.0, than grapple with grey areas and minor flaws. (Nobody wants to talk about a 3-star album.) Social status is indelibly linked to our music listening habits: we tend to connect with people who like what we like for obvious reasons, and the communal experience has a value of its own. (The people at the Gathering of the Juggalos, whatever you may think of them, are almost certainly having more fun than you are listening to Deerhunter on headphones.) This is why 16-year-olds on Tumblr are arguing over whether or not Green Day is still cool — why it matters if, in fact, they are.

While group fandom does tend to inflate a performer’s value, the most rewarding listening requires separating music from its fans and sometimes even its creators: I wouldn’t go to a Paramore fan’s house party or shop with them at Hot Topic, but that doesn’t decrease my enjoyment of the band’s albums. On this note, it’s important to realize that we like different things for different reasons — i.e., ice cream cones and salmon tempura each have different but positive values — and liking something because it does one perhaps unhip thing well does not delegitimize the rest of one’s affections. Ke$ha and Warpaint have different goals — why should they be compared by the same artificially raised standards? The insufferable pose of indie elitism basically says, “I want to have fewer life experiences and do not have an open mind; somehow, I believe this will improve my quality of life.” It’s easy, and generally accurate, to draw broad generalizations by genre or artist — nobody’s saying Nickelback doesn’t really suck — but to entirely ignore the possibility that music you might enjoy might spring from unexpected sources means you care less about music than about conforming to your chosen society. (One could make similar arguments about the limiting factors of any dogmatic, all-encompassing school of thought, from Communism to Christianity.)

Long story short: If Kanye West (or Lady Gaga) showing up next to a band of white males playing guitars on a list really offends you, it might be time to re-examine your life decisions.

Finally, a note to readers: It is not my job to know what you like. It is your job to know what you like and find people who also like what you like, whether via blog, message board, Twitter, iPad, whatever, and use your collective listening power to find more things you will like. Hopefully, that’s where us list-makers can help you out. I blog, and am posting best-of lists, because music matters to me more than pretty much anything and these will be the songs and albums and bands mattered to me the most this year. I hope some of them matter to you, too — whatever your reasons.