Year end lists

by Rob Horning

28 November 2005


There are some obvious problems with the publication of year-end best-of lists for books and music and films, the most obvious of which is that many years don’t produce anything that deserves a superlative. Such lists impose a horse-race approach to entertainment commodities, as though they are all striving to finish in the money. I tend to think that sales figures are the real measure of a commodity’s significance, but critics will continue to try to correct the expression of the popular will with these annual interventions, telling us all what we should have been buying and listening to. You might protest that what is popular and what is good shouldn’t be conflated, but these lists always serve a promotional purpose; they are trying to make neglected albums more popular; they are shoppping guides.

What makes something “best” too is always a pretty random matter, which is why I would prefer to see a list of significant records or films, works that made a cultural impact of some sort, rather than a list of what some critic preferred. The criteria for significance seem much more rigorous than those for being “the best.” Alos, there is the problem of forcing comparisons between incomparable things. What is the sense of evaluating 50 Cent’s record against some obscure independant release? The history of their production and promotion is so different that that really have nothing in common. And 50 Cent is a cultural fact that one must reckon with is one hopes to understand the climate of popular entertainment; obscure artists are not social facts, they are of local importance at best and tell you nothing in and of themselves of the zeitgeist—they are only significant in the aggregate with other obscurities, pointing to “underground” trends. And then there is the fact that no one actually listens to all the albums that come out in year or read all the books—with film it might be possible but it is becoming less so.

My main problem with composing these lists for albums is that I’ve spent most of 2005 listening to pop music that came out in other years. My top 10 for 2005 in terms of the albums that meant something to me, that crowded their way into my life, looks like this:

1. Thin Lizzy—Fighting.
2. Donovan—Open Road.
3. Nas—Illmatic.
4. Bee Gees—Mr. Natural.
5. Buckingham Nicks.
6. Emmitt Rhodes.
7. MIA—Arular.
8. Tegan & Sara—So Jealous.
9. Iron Maiden—Killers.
10. Blind Faith

Not a very useful list, one that is entirely specific to me, one that would only become less interesting if I elaborate my reasons. It’s really a personal thing, oriented to a narrative of my life how it unfolded over the year. A list of the best records of 2005 that I could come up with would be little more than a list of records that I listened to more than once. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Compiling such a list, I’m tempted to include albums I’ve merely heard of, albums I never even listened to, just beause I liked the band in the past. This may be why these lists end up so predictable; everyone is filtering in terms of the same hype and hearsay.

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