List Off

List Off

by Jon Arnold

December can mean only one thing for the cultural sections of the nation’s media – the year end retrospectives, dominated by the inevitable best of year lists. Obviously some of the impulse for this comes from the natural desire to look back at the year’s end, to try and weave what’s gone on during the year into some kind of coherent ongoing cultural narrative (this doesn’t usually work except by imposition, though there will always be strands or movements where artists are responding to the work of other artists). But those easily cobbled together best of year lists and polls? Well, even journalists and opinion formers want to get off to the Christmas party or need to do their gift shopping like the rest of us…

The list article is the last refuge of the scribbling scoundrel, the reflex action to fall back on when there’s not so much as the last drops from oasis of inspiration in a creative desert. It fills what would otherwise be blank space, it provides a simple structure for the article and it often can be done with little thinking, maybe a sentence of two of justification at best. You can fill a huge chunk of magazine space with a hundred best album/film/book article. There will be readers who use these as guides – they can be valuable for novices to the subject, and for those novices these lists do have a function. Mainly though the audience will be people raging that their favourite, most loved cultural artefacts have been outrageously left out – it’s easy clickbait in the internet world where hit and comment count are prized by owners trying to monetise their websites. In short, these articles tick all the boxes for desperate hacks who need to fill a wordcount. Rarely do they do the job that an intelligent reader might wish, which is to clarify why they should engage with the works in question. At best there might be attached short articles of, at best, a couple of hundred words setting out why, objectively, this album or that one is the best thing you’ll experience all year. Ultimately though, it tells you nothing about the art itself, the purely commercially motivated is meaninglessly mashed in with attempted profundity, highbrow and lowbrow in one melting pot.

These articles are always early attempts to stitch these works into an eternally unfinished cultural tapestry, to stake a claim for cultural importance. It shows them as cultural artefact rather than actually analysing their merits. As such they’re useless, merely trying to carve places in the canon rather than telling you why the reviewer loved it and why you should. These articles often look ridiculous a few short months later, any claimed for legendary status forgotten almost as soon as the issues they’ve appeared in have left the newsstands. The awkward stitching that’s been attempted simply doesn’t hold.

Partly the uselessness of these end of year lists is a function of the passing of time – if albums have been released late in the year you’re going to be a hell of a lot less familiar with them, less sure of their merit than you are with an album released early on. For example, albums such as Bowie’s comeback, The Next Day, have a more certain status than those which have only come out in the last couple of months, the likes of Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire or even Britney Spears. You risk greater ridicule by sticking your neck out on an album that’s only just come out. It’s near impossible to make a proper judgement on those later albums, to have a full context on them – really, if you want a proper picture of the year’s music you need to wait a few months into the new year, but then no-one’s interested in looking back in springtime. It’s a consequence of an eternally producing, eternally hungry culture that we seem to want to package the cultural year up so quickly and move on, and a neat list is the easiest way to do that before January’s list of hot new things comes along.

The attempt at a forced placing in cultural context is also a flaw. Rarely will the significance of any work of art be immediately obvious – maybe in the case of the likes of something like Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but such cases are rare and usually the result of years of artistic evolution. Take, for instance, the infamous case of Q’s initial review of Oasis’ ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?’. The reviewer was lukewarm at best, giving it a three star rating with Blur’s ‘The Great Escape’ getting the full five. What that doesn’t account for is that while complexity and cleverness goes down wonderfully well with critics, what tends to sell is simpler stuff that echoes already familiar things. Blur’s album did just fine in sales terms but the Oasis album sold phenomenally – at the time of writing it’s fourteen times platinum in the UK and even four times platinum in the with multi-platinum sales in many other overseas markets. Yet Q’s always been reminded of that initial review and has always tacitly distanced itself from it, putting the album into their end of year top ten and voting Liam Gallagher the singer of the decade. It has fallen in line with cultural consensus. In fairness it was much the same story across the rest of the music press, even the long vanished likes of Melody Maker. And it all tells you precisely nothing about the music on the album but everything about the importance of context. The first reviews by nature lack any context, the later ones are hopelessly compromised by a tide of public money and the sound of Wonderwall and Don’t Look Back In Anger being belted out by blokes with their arms around their mates at closing time every night. Ultimately public popularity always trumps the tyranny of the end of year list.

In truth few works of art hold up a decade or two beyond when they’re produced – cultural context vanishes and those who didn’t hear it upon initial release need to look up the references. And this is a vital part of the point of list articles where albums, books, films and tv shows have no objective measure of quality to be judged by. Instead of providing that context the list article is incredibly solipsistic, more a reflection of the personal tastes and concerns of the person making the list than any art. And if it’s result of a survey of a group of people it tells you little more than the general tastes of that sample. I don’t mind making and discussing lists with friends, I like these people and, by definition of them being friends, generally want to know more about their personal tastes. But when it comes down to a random sample of the most recent albums some journos thought of in the pub? It says nothing to me about my life, or too much about theirs. Count me out.

1. Lazy
2. Dumbest form of article
3. Generally don’t tell you very much
4. Attempt to enforce taste
5. Lack cultural context

This column was originally published on the old Winterwind Productions site in December, 2013, prior to our switch to WordPress in 2020.

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