I do not consider myself a record collector. Stats are mostly lost on me. In other words, please don’t ask me to be your partner in trivia because you think I’ll be a huge asset when it comes to the music category: Despite the fact that I write a lot about music, I won’t be much help. And please don’t ever ask me to give my year-end best-of picks, a phenomenon that epitomizes much of what I find obnoxious about what passes for critical discourse these days.
Just because I’ve written a 1,500-word feature on an artist, and even if that artist is one of my all-time favorite musicians, don’t assume I’ll be able to cite the complete discography or even remember the actual title to a song I’ve listened to a hundred times. But that doesn’t mean I love music less than all those statisticians diligently rattling off lists of vinyl-only B-sides, or the set list from some legendary show.
Truth be told, I really don’t care for rankings in general, but that ubiquitous compiling of the best albums of the year specifically irks me because of my special love for the form. The practice is entirely antithetical to the way I experience music, and around this time of year those lists are unavoidable; indeed, I begin receiving friendly reminders from publicists as early as October, in the hope that I’ll include their many deserving clients when I compile my yearly exercise in reducing an entire year of record releases to a numbered list.
With end-of-year bests, the promotional style of marketing blurbs triumphs. But the best music writing actually describes sounds. Rather than applying sub-sub-sub-genre descriptions, or referencing some obscure ’80s Japanese noise-pop band in order to convey the way some other band plays—a codified and specialized language that prevents anyone but aficionados from participating—I’d rather read about the way the bass line undulates beneath a three-part harmony.
And how am I to pick the top 10, or even hundred, of the year when there are many times that number to choose from? I’m not a D.J. at a college radio station or a professional music critic (in that I work a day job in something other than music journalism), so I simply don’t have time to pore over the endless new releases and give enough listening time to make that kind of judgment call. At the same time, I refuse to be a specialist. What kind of music do I like? I like good music.
Even if I did have the time to listen non-stop to new releases, or considered myself an expert in a genre or two, I still loathe the idea of pitting albums against each other. Just as my brain freezes when I’m asked about my favorite musician or record, I do not care for declaring one album’s supremacy over another. Maybe I prefer one for an overcast and damp fall day as I drive to the supermarket. Maybe another is the most appropriate for listening to with headphones when I’m trying to get in the right frame of mind to knock out a draft, or for a dinner party with multiple generations of family and friends. And of course even the right album for each of those moments is always subject to change.
End-of-year lists may push a few gems from cult success to wider acclaim, but many others, some of them sleepers, miss the lists and go relatively unnoticed while the already over-hyped receive another push.
In the end, these artifacts mostly serve the echo chambers and attempt to quantify the messy splendor that is the world of pop music, allowing for the glorification of a wholly unsatisfying approach to listening and appreciating diverse sounds, creating yet another realm of smugness in which fanboys and music snobs can pontificate in coded language.
The end of the calendar year is itself an artificial and arbitrary moment to reflect, and the lists marking this non-event are generally devoid of true reflection. Give me an epic mixtape, preferably one not confined by year or genre, any day. Write about the music, about what you really hear. If you must compile a list, some nuance would be nice. Eliminate the year, for starters: How about the top ten albums for a particular occasion or mood, like the go-to ones for when baking a pie, or the perfect listens for just after a messy breakup?
In the end lists defile what makes music so special: its ability to contain multitudes. All they seem good for is perpetuating self-importance in those who create them and promoting a smug attitude in those who consume them in the hopes of being able to rattle off the names of this year’s It bands. In their place, I propose the exercise of composing a thoughtful reflection on one album that had a particular resonance for the year. That would be much more meaningful to me and more respectful to the musicians these lists are meant to celebrate.