My relationship with year-end wrapups is thorny at best. I love reading them; I've loved reading them since I was nine or ten years old. Back then, I took it on faith that these lists were as weighty as they seemed to think they were; around December, I'd begin to think hard - not to say "worry," or even "fret" - about which records would make the list, and which wouldn't, and whether the critics who'd made the lists were certain that they'd given ample consideration to (for example) Lynyrd Skynyrd's Street Survivors or Heatwave's Too Hot to Handle.
That wonderful albums might be left off the list, or that shitty ones might worm their way onto it and possibly even place in the top five: was the universe really so disinterested in justice? Wouldn’t such miscarriages inflame the passions of the deeply concerned masses, and wouldn’t their rage eventually result in the death of rock music or some comparably great catastrophe? Would I have endure yet another year in which none of these L.A. Times schmucks would attest to the excellence of Heart, or Toto, or of German Toto-clones Lake?
Such were the concerns of the eleven-year-old who grew up to pilot the Last Plane to Jakarta. Somewhere between then and now I arrived at the conclusion that year-end lists were total bullshit, especially if you were the kind of person whose music obsession extended to multiple genres. There are more and more such persons, I’m both happy and dismayed to report; it’s always heartening to see people refusing the myopia that often accompanies maturity. Comparing Dizzee Rascal’s Showtime to Joannna Newsome’s The Milk-Eyed Mender, though, and concluding that one is in any meaningful sense of the word “better” than the other, remains totally ridiculous.
Not that I’m against the word “better” — Christ, no. Dizzee’s better than Wiley, even though Dizzee himself doesn’t think so; Joanna Newsome’s better than, umm, all them other space-alien voiced women with harps who made records this year. (Keep your pants on, haters: I also dug The Milk-Eyed Mender, though the way some of you people started giving it the Bjork treatment — using words like “special,” or, worse, “sacred” — made me wanna spit bile just to maintain a little cosmic balance.) But any list on which both Dizzee and Joanna appear is in some ways a bullshit list, unless it declines to number its entries one through ten, which most editors won’t let you do.
This didn’t stop me from drawing up a list of my own when Neumu asked me to do so; the experience of writing that list is part of what led to the article you’re reading right now. My favorite albums this year were God Forbid’s Gone Forever and the Double’s Palm Fronds, followed very closely by the Dizzee album; how does one rank these three? On what grounds? Palm Fronds fails utterly as a grime record, but Showtime’s an even worse indie-psych attempt. Is there some sort of music listeners’ e-meter I haven’t been told about that’d allow me to privilege the experience of Showtime – thrilling, moving, shocking - over the experience of Palm Fronds: absorbing, hypnotic, transcendent?
Of course there is no such device; there exists no meaningful scale on which two such disparate attempts can be compared. To imagine so is somewhat reactionary, I think; we stopped arguing about whether apples tasted better than oranges right around the time we debunked the Great Chain of Being. Still, something in the obsessive musical-ephemera-hoarder’s heart yearns for a year-end reckoning-up, some descriptive gesture that encompasses his experience. I think that in the end this is a much less public yearning than it would seem. I think, rather, that the music-obsessive’s desire to rank the year’s albums, be they dance, drone, grind, crunk, or chamber, represents a desire for the critic to understand more about himself. Many of us whose love for music defines us broadly have often felt that in our experiences of listening, we find our most true selves: this can happen in public sometimes, as in a dance club, or in deeply private moments, such as listening through headphones in the dark late at night. It can occur when the music isn’t playing at all, but only running on a loop in one’s head somewhere behind the whirring background noise of an argument, or the workday, or an exchange of promises. It can occur as an amplified silence while the disc-changer switches from one album to the next. It opens onto spaces both dark and immeasurably bright.
And so it turns out, according to me, that year-end lists are the music-obsessive’s intensely personal version of those Christmas letters you sometimes get from an over-busy aunt in Massachusetts: the ones that sum up what-all happened in the family this year, all the deaths and marriages and births and divorces. One hopes they make for entertaining reading; they sometimes do; but as lists, they are meaningless. This may seem an obvious point. I’d hope that it would. But outside of personal blogs, I’ll bet there’ll be more lists that poise, peacock-like, above their subjects, pretending to be in possession of a secret machine that enables them to state the exact qualitative discrepancy that makes Antics a better or worse record than The Pretty Toney Album. It seems a fool’s errand, and that’s why you won’t be getting any lists here. I recommend Jess Harvell’s list, since Jess is always on the lookout for the broader picture, and I recommend Ethan’s list, since the one album I bought on its recommendation – Rapalot Presents The Day After Hell Broke Loose – is completely fucking awesome. But more than these, I recommend that we shy away from year-end lists when we can. Let’s leave such things for lesser arts, like film.
Ouch, stop hitting me.
TrackBack URL for this entry: