On Making that Holiday Music List and Checking It Twice

Ah, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Shoppers rush home with their treasures and people are making their lists and checking them twice. While these lines might evoke visions of sugar plums dancing in your head, they make a particularly joyful noise in the ears of music geeks.

In the world of music fanaticism, the last month of the year is a time for 1) gathering the overlooked goodies of the last eleven months and 2) ranking, rating, and reviewing said releases ad infinitum in year-end best-of lists. For such aficionados, December is all about summing up the sounds of the year gone by. While Santa loads his sleigh with goodies, editors of every music mag known to mankind pack year-end magazine issues with plenty of treats. List junkies can expect their own fix for such addictions right here at PopMatters as guide you in their own trip down 2011 Memory Lane.

My particular insatiable urge for consuming and crafting lists has caused me to pollute the ‘net with a website, blog, and a Facebook page all devoted to music lists. All right, kiddos, settle in with your hot cocoa and egg nog and I’ll tell you a little story.

It began in September 1982. My local Top 40 radio station did a Labor Day weekend countdown of the biggest hits of the summer. I was inspired to scrawl my own list of favorites. I’m not convinced confession is entirely good for the soul – it certainly won’t boost my credibility – but I’ll admit that “soft rock” populated my list at that time. While my peers were spiking their hair to look like their latest MTV favorites, I spent the early part of my rebellious teen years headbanging to Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow, Olivia Newton-John, and Air Supply.

My initial “Super 70” list (that’s how many lines a sheet of notebook paper sported, front and back) ballooned into a weekly endeavor maintained over a dozen years. While my charts would never interest anyone else, they documented my musical journey from adolescence through young adulthood. Before I exited high school, my tastes gravitated to the arena rock of Styx, Journey, and Foreigner. College afforded me chances to dig into classic rock stalwarts like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and Rush as well as alternative fare like Squeeze and the Violent Femmes.

Some view institutes of higher learning as the place to educate one’s self on how best to get laid, get drunk, or get high. Some freaks out there consider it a place to get an education. For me, the university was the place to get more music. More than once, I hauled an armload of borrowed tapes from someone’s dorm room just minutes after meeting them.

However, music magazines and lists opened my ears to sounds beyond what blared from my mere dorm mates’ speakers. I made weekly excursions to the library to pore over Billboard magazine, the American king of charts. I regularly dove into issues of Rolling Stone, Q, New Musical Express, Spin, Blender, Melody Maker, and other tunefully-themed rags. As anyone knows who’s ever perused these publications, they regularly practice one-upmanship in trying to trump each other with the latest biggest and best-of-all time lists of anything noise-related.

Lists, however, are a polarizing thing. With the exception of Justin Bieber, there may not be anything in the music community which simultaneously disgusts and delights so many. Detractors whine about what is included or excluded. Elitists argue that lists devalue artistic accomplishments via subjective rankings.

The love-hate relationship fans have with lists is readily apparent with even a minimum of online browsing. Find a list on the Internet about, say, the best guitarists of all time. Scroll down to the comments section and you can bet it will be littered with insightful observations such as “This list sucks” or “How the hell is so-and-so only ranked #58?”

List bashers fail to recognize three things:1) a list is one person’s opinion (or a group consensus of multiple opinions collected under the banner of a specific publication); 2) there is a 100 percent guarantee that the list in question will not match the list basher’s personal tastes, and’ 3) IT’S A LIST. Relax.

Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting refraining from voicing contrary opinions. Far from it. Some of those who’ve lobbed the harshest criticism at my lists have earned my greatest respect. Why? Because they were informed opinions which challenged me to either justify my point of view or rethink it. Healthy debate is a good thing. Venting ferociously about the moronic quality of the list maker is as productive as flipping the bird at someone who cuts you off in traffic.

As for those who roll their eyes at the value of lists, I argue that lists offer musical history snapshots for those willing to do the homework. One of the earliest lists to reel me in was a book – The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989). The author, rock critic Dave Marsh, plugged obvious classics like like Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”. However, he also turned me on to unknown gems like Little Willie John’s “Need Your Love So Bad”, Clarence Carter’s “At the Dark End of the Street”, and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message”.

This was the real point. Seeking out and falling in love with that song at #68 which the reader had never heard becomes the justification for a list’s existence.

Lists operate on the same plane as compilation albums. Album purists bash such collections as misrepresentations of an artists’ work, but anthologies are often a casual fan’s first dip of the toe into the artist’s greater pool of work, prompting the listener to dive deeper.

I didn’t learn about the Velvet Underground, Joy Division, Gram Parsons, Television, Love, the New York Dolls, or Big Star because friends spun them at parties. I learned about them because music critics hyped them in best-of lists. When the names cropped up enough, I felt obligated to check them out.

So this holiday season, as you sing your ancient yuletide carols and curl up with your iPod in front of the chestnuts roasting on the open fire, try embracing the holiday spirit. At least remember Mom’s advice: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Remember the Bearded Guy in Red is watching and knows if you’ve been good or bad. If you’d rather have the Black Keys’ new album in your stocking than a lump of black coal, then be good for goodness’ sake.

By the way, if the holiday spirit has left you with an urge to shower me with gifts, there’s no need to buy anything for me but you can head over to DavesMusicDatabase.com or Amazon.com and pick up No One Needs 21 Versions of Purple Haze or The Top 100 Songs of the Rock Era 1954-1999 for that music fanatic on your shopping list.

I’d also light up like a Christmas tree if you hit my blog a couple hundred times and left comments. Make sure to check out the index of Best-of Lists on the blog.

These last two shameless plugs are brought to you by… well, me. Happy holidays.