Originally published in Seattle Weekly
1. Ranking things in order of how much you like them is a coping strategy of 9-year-old girls. I know people like to make top-10 lists because they’re fun and easy, and people like to read them for the same reason, but that’s Entertainment Tonight reasoning. Year-end top-10 lists are the unicorn stickers and glitter pens of music writing.
2. The concept of “best” is the enemy of individuality. I loved Dave Bazan’s record and I loved Portugal. The Man’s record. If I wanted to, I could put one on top of the other, but why bother? It’s the same as saying “I like this one record, but I would have liked it better if it sounded more like this other record.” Ranking things automatically presumes that the top-ranked thing is what everything else should aspire to be, and that’s not how we listen to music.
3. If you are too busy to discover new albums for yourself, the last thing you need is a list of more albums to buy. You should take a hot bath instead. I hear this from people all the time: They love top-10 lists because it helps them discover new music, as if discovering new music was some epic, heroic quest. I wonder–did they listen thoroughly to every record they bought last year? Did they listen to them all the way through, even? The people making records are still spending months and years on them, while the people buying them are munching through them like corn chips. Slow down.
4. Compressing your emotional response to art into a 1-to-10 scale is robbing yourself of the appreciation of nuance. Albums are complete works of art: flawed, human, beautiful. Even the worst album I listened to last year couldn’t be properly described in four long paragraphs. Reducing an album’s worth of songs to a “five star” rating and a pithy sentence is painfully dumb. I picture the writer surrounded by stacks of CDs. Pushing her oversized sunglasses up on her head and hugging her wheat-colored cable-knit sweater, she dives in: thumbs up, thumbs down. Her love of music slowly turns to ashes as she struggles to rate it all.
5. The proliferation of year-end lists is now a competition in itself. By January we will all have read 200 top-10 lists, which we will mentally rank in order of credibility until we develop an ironclad sense of how Mumford and Sons, Kanye West, Beach House, and Vampire Weekend stack up. Didn’t we hear enough about these people already this year? The top-10 lists are all vying for our attention, all conscious of each other, all trying to surprise us without venturing too far off the beaten path. It’s like being fed a huge dinner of pre-chewed turkey.
6. Albums come out all year long. How can one released in January and one released in December compare to each other? Most really great albums take time to soak in. We’ve all had the experience of discovering a life-changing record that we already owned but had never really appreciated before it popped up on our shuffle and blew our minds. Music is like a fine cheese, impossible to judge before it ripens. Maybe all the music made in 2010 is total crap! Maybe we should still be trying to make sense of the music that came out in 2008. Maybe we will never truly understand the year 1974. The records released in 2010 are not comparable to each other in any way other than that we haven’t had enough time to really listen to any of them.
7. Rating things and giving them awards does not reflect how we actually experience them. Some albums you can listen to while you’re having sex and some albums you can’t (I’m looking at you, John Vanderslice). Some music makes you want to drive in the desert, some makes you want to sit and cry in the rain. I’d be willing to bet that most music writers listened to Elliott Smith’s Either/Or more times this year than they did to Kanye West. The more obsessed we are with awards and lists–the further we get from truly appreciating things–the less we’re really living.
8. Lists always repeat themselves, this one included. Lists are boring–they’re for accountants and people on their way to the grocery. Arranging things in a list is a compulsive behavior, akin to touching every doorknob in your house before you go to bed. It may be frightening to try to apprehend the world without the comfort of lists, but lists cannot protect you. They can’t keep you from buying a bad album every once in a while, and they can’t ensure that you won’t miss out on something great. We’re all alone in the world and then we die.
9. Top-10 lists end up being a list of who has the best publicists. Maybe the Vampire Weekend record will stand the test of time and be widely admired in 10 years and maybe it won’t, but you haven’t been hearing about it all year just because it’s a great record. Good publicists had the resources to tell a good story that was backed up with some good music. Do you remember Tapes n’ Tapes? Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? Still listening to those records?
10. Top-10 lists seem harmless, but they really make the world a shabbier place. Ranking everything just makes it easier for people to sell us stuff. The momentum of modern life is always in the direction of calling things “The Best” and then trying to convince us that we should splurge. But what makes you think you even deserve to hear the best music of 2010? Marketers have so convinced us that everything is a product, we sell stuff to ourselves and call it praise. Stop selling stuff. Just listen.