October 23, 2012

I Love Lists :: An Argument For Lists In Music

I love lists. Not the bullshit traffic-whoring kind compiled nonsensically by publications, à la LA Weekly's The 20 Worst Hipster Bands. Though that article is openly sarcastic, the context and content hardly make sense: not only is the overused signifier "hipster" left cluelessly undefined, but the majority of the bands included, like Fun. and The Black Keys, hardly make the grade as "hip" or culturally cutting edge. They get airtime on major radio stations. Another entry, Bon Iver, won a Grammy. A more apt title for the article would be "20 really popular bands that sell shitloads of records that we're going to lazily group together and poke fun at."

Lists embedded with big names get more hits. In a year-end list, it's easy to plop a few handfuls of popular Billboard-charting bands together and call it a day. In fact, a list like that might become exceptionally popular, but does it actually inject anything positive into the conversation? That's on par with ordering the "15 best" Michael Bay movies. Yes, The Rock is a comedic goldmine and Will Smith and Martin Lawrence crush it in the first Bad Boys movie, but do I really need to be reminded that there are not one, but three Transformer films? Fuck no. A list is not haphazardly regurgitating information and slopping together recognizable and agreeable names to sell hits and increase clickability. A good list is informative and nuanced; it facilitates discovery; sheds light on the character of the list-maker and on the state of music in general.

Barry: Oh, kind of a new record. Very nice, Rob. A sly declaration of new classic status slipped into a list of old safe ones. Very pussy. Couldn't you be any more obvious than that, Rob? How about the Beatles? Or fucking... fucking Beethoven? Side one, track one of the Fifth Symphony? How can someone with no interest in music own a record store?

So what's the purpose of a list in music? It's an organizational tool: a way of filtering out what's not important (the "bad," "okay," and even "good") from what's truly exceptional, worth remembering, and worth shouting about at the top of your lungs. For me, a music list is like a mix tape: a deeply personal reflection of taste and mood centered around a thesis of longevity. After extensive repeated listening, what songs and artists still truly resonate? What's still going to sound great five years from now? Ten?

There's an overwhelming amount of creative output dumped into the internet, especially in music: whether it's the countless press releases and song submissions sent to blogs, or the infinite number of tracks uploaded onto Youtube, Soundcloud, Bandcamp, and a million other streaming platforms. It's a daunting dark abyss that would prove nearly impenetrable, if not for the friends and strangers alike, that through recommendations, help separate out and elevate what's truly worth hearing. While blogs, Tumblrs and the like are much needed first steps in this sorting process, there's still no way any one person can process and recall a year's worth of music, even on just their own handful of favorite web sites: for me, that amounts to easily over a thousand tracks a year. If I really want to remember the songs and records that prove important to me, then I have to sort them out of this colossal pile into smaller more practical and manageable ones: I buy all the great records on vinyl, I make playlists, I make mix tapes, and at the end of the year, I make a year-end list.

Lists obviously weren't just invented just for the music-obsessed. It's how our brains function: we organize, compartmentalize, and store information. When you have a million tasks to accomplish, you write down the ten most important so that they take priority, and are not drowned out by the minutiae. It's a tool of necessity.

But of course, lists are not just about the list-maker. They also concern the people that read those lists and, if a list is good, all the new discoveries it enables the reader to make. Growing up, outside of the very limited rotation of artists on MTV and the radio, my two most viable sources for discovering new artists were my older sister's collection of cassette mixes and movie soundtracks. As Adam Scott's character Ben Wyatt recently remarked in Parks and Recreation, "I kind of look at [a soundtrack] like it's your favorite directors making a mix tape just for you." Though the writers were clearly poking fun at the nerdy fictional Wyatt, I too own Cameron Crowe's rainy Seattle grunge-drenched Singles soundtrack; Tarantino's surf and soul speckled Pulp Fiction; and the great Joe Strummer-curated Grosse Pointe Blank. Soundtracks, like mixes, are basically lists: it's someone's favorite songs compiled for a specific state of mind and setting. As a kid, that's how I discovered and became infatuated with artists like Paul Westerberg, Chuck Berry, and The English Beat. And that same practice of discovery continues to this day when I read lists compiled by my favorite blogs: discovering music isn't a solo venture, it's a communal effort, where you put trust in the taste of others. At the end of the year, I painstakingly go over a dozen or so site's best-of lists to make sure there wasn't a truly great artist that I might have missed, overlooked, or naively dismissed after a distracted first listen.

Lists are a second chance, for both the artist and the listener—a second opportunity to get acquainted and hit it off. Maybe the first date didn't go well: you both had too much to drink and called the evening early. But your friends urge a second try, so you give it another shot, and this time you notice all of the quirks and subtle eccentricities, the way that hook quietly simmers during the first chorus, and then unexpectedly reels you in the second time around.

In year-end lists, is there really a difference between the 15th, 16th, and 17th best songs? Of course not. Numbers and sequencing, in large part, are entirely arbitrary. Sure, in a list of 50 albums, a record that breaks the top ten is going to be more highly recommended than number 48. But really, if a list is ordered (and it certainly never has to be), the only number that really counts is number 1. That's the music fan's chance to shout to the world: "you have to listen to this album." That's your chance to hold your stereo over your head, and melodramatically announce: "listen to this record, it's going to change your life."

For the non-music nerd, lists are important. For people that don't have time to read and scroll through blogs every single day, a year-end list reads like a condensed thesis: it presents a year in review that emphasizes the essential highlights. It's CliffsNotes for the music lover that doesn't have the luxury of time or obsession. It's for your friend that works a shitty job and needs a few great tracks for his weekend road trip; for your sister that, because of convenience, only purchases music out of the iTunes bestsellers column.

A good list is strained over. It's ordered meticulously. Decisions are made then reversed, because the list-maker cares. Great lists spawn arguments, and the best ones introduce bands to new larger audiences: they make new fans, and maybe even help sell a few records. It's nearly impossible to sustain a living solely as a musician. At the end of the day, a list is a chance for fans to help enable the artists they love and believe in to stick around for just a little bit longer.

The Barreracudas - "Don't Roll Your Eyes"

Gentleman Jesse & His Men - Gentleman Jesse & His Men


  1. i always look forward to the end of year lists in case i missed something i might like and often the people who comment to say HOW COULD YOU LEAVE X BAND or X SONG OFF??? can be a jumping off point to another wonderful discovery

    1. Absolutely. Especially if it's a comment about a band you've never heard of. Probably means it's worth checking out.

  2. Still deciding between the Allah- Las and the Tough Shits but at the moment the sun is out here in Australia so it's the Allah- Las by a nose. Thanks very much.

  3. Still deciding between the Allah- Las and the Tough Shits but at the moment the sun is out here in Australia so it's the Allah- Las by a nose. Thanks very much.

  4. I happened to flip through SPIN's "Best of 2011" issue and stumbled upon Kurt Vile and a few other bands I wouldn't have checked out otherwise. I feel like that was a fluke, but it doesn't matter in the end. I also heavily rely on blog mixes to help me out when I don't know what to listen to next. When I'm in a funk, I can usually trust good blogs like this one to recommend some really good stuff.

  5. Your consistently well curated lists do just what you described above. Last year, for example, I never would have happened upon Moss of Aura. Thanks to you, however, it is in constant rotation on the record player and provided the perfect summer soundtrack to many a laid back porch session.