Yes folks, it's that time of year. Time to fret about what you're getting for a present or what presents you're going to get your friends and family. Even worse, it's time for scribes to school you about the best music of the year. Yes, the top 10 lists that individual writers, publications and polls bombard you with. It's a yearly ritual among us music scribes but what purpose does it really serve?
First of all, it's an inescapable entrenched tradition by now. No self-respecting publication can avoid this nowadays. I admit that even I'm doing one for my own zine and I've already participated in several polls. It's December so there has to be some way we can sum up the year and tell you what we thought was the best music out there.
Dare I say that ego is involved somewhere in here too? If we've already spent the previous 11 months cheering on our favorite music, how are we going to pass up a chance to toast our heroes one more time, all in the winner's circle together? Our choices are reflections of ourselves, our tastes, our prejudices, etc.. It's all on display there and by now, if we have the guts to already put our two cents out there for public scrutiny, we might as well declare what we think was the best music that this year had to offer. Also, most writers actually don't have the print space or time to detail all of their favorites so this is a chance to make amends for that.
(A well-kept secret is that many writers also fret over their list because they want it to look like they've chosen the right albums. That might mean being too comformist or non-comformist depending on how you'd like to carve out your image. Personally, I admire someone for voting for the same albums that appear in say the Pazz and Jop poll because the writer honestly, really loves the music rather than a crank who picks some obscure, off-chart albums just to look cool- you look at some year-end lists and can't help but think that the later had happened sometimes.)
There's a 'public service' angle also. In the most altruistic sense, the reason that we're writing about our favorite music isn't just to boost and further the careers of the artists we love (though hopefully that's part of it) but also to turn on our readers to this great music so that it enriches their lives. Sounds corny but in some sense, it's true. This is our way of saying either "Yes, the music you love is legit" or "Take a listen to these fine albums that you maybe missed." It works for writers too, giving us some idea of what we ourselves might have missed and need to at least hear ourselves not just for our own gratification but also for us to keep up with what's going on now- I have to say that in terms of catching up, the Pitchfork poll was helpful. Still, It's questionable how many readers are then going to run out and get everything you recommend that they don't already have but part of that goes back to the ego thing. Also, many polls are so predictable that you can easily handicap them beforehand- i.e. if you've been paying attention to what a publication's been covering for the year, you can pretty much figure out what's going to top their poll (and that includes Pitchfork).
Part of the reason for year-end polling is also the zeitgeist angle. It's a way to take the pulse of the scribe community and make some kind of statement about what happened (and didn't happen) this year. Right now, the still-active Pazz and Jop poll from the Village Voice and the brand new Idolator poll are the ones coraling the most writers now (most likely many of the same people though it'll be interesting to see how many people vote or don't vote in each) but even the publications scanning a smaller group of writers will still take a crack at making observations about the year, the industry, trends and such.
The one thing that always galls me about these polls are the limitations. As I've complained enough about the Voice's poll limiting itself to only 10 albums and singles now, the Idolator poll is wiser as it gives scribes much more breathing room, asking them also for not just a reissue listing but also "artists of the year" (one of mine was Dubya, but that's another column...). Both polls have been wisely flexible though about what they consider a "song"- it's not so much a philosophical as a format debate where album tracks, Youtube videos, MySpace demos are all fair game (hmm, actually that might make it a philosophical debate about what we'll consider to be a "song"...).
But again, the magic number for these things is almost always 10 (though occasionally, it's cut down to 5). Yes, it's the first double digit number and it's been a measure for all forms of media and non-media things. What this means for some writers is that you have to wrack your brains to either find enough albums to fill out a list or cut down a huge pile of contenders to just 10. I always fall into the later group and that's a mixed blessing. It means that while too many writers keep complaining about how bad the music is out there now, I'm still flush with enough good new music to keep me busy (and note that these complaints happen EVERY year). But I also fret because I don't get to vote for some records that I love. I'll pick 10 albums I love but god, that doesn't mean I don't love a batch of other records.
As an example, here's the list of albums I'm in love with this year:
Granddaddy "Just Like the Fambly Cat"
Steve Reich "Phases"
Tom Ze "Estudando o Pagode"
Sonic Youth "Rather Ripped"
Original Soundtrack "Dave Chappelle's Block Party"
Greg Dulli "Amber Headlights"
Exene Cervanka & the Original Sinners "Sev7en"
Ghostface Killah "Fishscale"
Lobi Traoré "Lobi Traoré Group"
Dion "Bronx In Blue"
The Fucking Oceans "Le Main Rouge"
Clipse "Hell Hath No Fury"
Duke Spirit "Cut Across the Land"
Hold Steady "Boys and Girls In America"
Mountain Goats "Get Lonely"
Lorna Doom "The Diabolical EP"
Lil Wayne and DJ Drama "Dedication"
Nas "Hip Hop Is Dead"
Coup "Pick A Bigger Weapon"
Tim Hecker "Harmony In Ultraviolet"
"Run the Road 2"
Jaheim "Ghetto Classics"
Jah Mason "Princess Gone"
Pearl Jam "Pearl Jam"
David S. Ware "Balladware"
That's more than 10 records, isn't it? So when I pick out 10 of these, I don't have a say about all the rest and it looks like I don't support them. OK, to most sane people, that seems pretty petty but for anyone who really loves and cares about music, this kind of thing can be heartbreaking. To help alleviate the stress about this, I let writers at my zine pick 15 albums. For some of them, this was still too few but for some of them, it was too many.
And then there's the problem of timing. The Idolator poll asked for ballots to be handed in by December 18th while the Voice asks for them at the end of the month. Some others (i.e. Harp Magazine) wanted them in by the end of November, which assumes that you've already heard and gotten the promos for all the December material (which I definitely didn't). Even assuming that you did get all the late-year releases beforehand, you still need time to let music sink in. As I'm writing this just before Xmas, there's still not only December releases that I'm trying to get a handle on but also things that I've now found out about from earlier in the year that I'm only staring to listen to now. I'll bet that when the calendar turns to 2007 (or even 2008), there are still going to be plenty of releases from 2006 that I'll find out about way after the fact that I would ideally liked to have included on my list. And what also happens is that your taste and opinion changes so that some music you love now doesn't sound as fresh months or years down the road (conversely, some music you didn't like now might sound better with time).
So in the end, your top 10 list is at best a snapshot of your favorite music of the year for THAT PARTICULAR DAY YOU VOTED. How you'll feel about the same albums or different albums tomorrow or next week or next year is up for grabs. It's not unhealthy to have your taste and opinion evolve and change but let's not kid ourselves about how definitive these lists really are. What I'd be interested to see is a 2006 poll in 2016 and a comparison of the two. That would be a real marker of our taste, our opinion and our evolution.
Oh and the list of albums I picked above... That's only applicable for today.