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An Argument Against Year-End Lists

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Dusted senior writer Ben Tausig explains why he hates the music industry’s favorite time of year.

An Argument Against Year-End Lists

End-of-year music lists are viscerally disgusting, though not for any structural reason. They’re overdone, but that’s not their fault. There’s no rationale for their timing, other than the vague imperatives of an annual news cycle. The calendar year has little or nothing to do with when bands record, tour, practice, break up, or anything else. Late December isn’t meaningful as a chronicle; it doesn’t mark much. It’s just an agreed-upon excuse to make another list.

And lists, for many of us, prod compulsive pleasure centers. We delight in conquering unruly mounds of material by cataloguing the shit out of them, and then conducting an aesthetic data sort to separate wheat from chaff. With art, the results are inherently moot – and we know they will be – but taste can be fun to read about. At worst, lists are gnat-like – ubiquitous, pesky, and pretty much all the same. At best, they’re a chance to share.

So why are we so likely to roll our eyes at them? Because they’ve become so conservative, rarely penned in the spirit of sharing, despite their calendric timing. We experience this conservatism in several ways. For one, we know the lists are coming long before they arrive. Their annual appearance is all but ritualistic in the music press. Some people spend all year preparing for them. And their contents rarely surprise us. For most critical sources, the end of the year is just a chance to distill and reiterate whatever they’ve been pimping for months. If any choices on a writer’s list are, by global comparison, even mildly idiosyncratic (The xx edging out Animal Collective or something), the gesture, however intended, is condemned to be a cheap provocation, so unforgiving are the expectations of the feature. Readers will either numbly agree, or fight with the writer in their heads. Barf city, USA.

For another thing, and I apologize if this causes tsunamis and solar flares, but albums aren’t the only way people listen to music. This is not wild-eyed technological optimism, nor a denunciation of communities where the album format still obtains. There are just so many different outlets for hearing exciting things. I would personally be much more curious, for example, to read a smart writer’s “10 best YouTube musical compositions of 2009” or “10 best songs obviously written to be ringtones” or “10 best bands from the early 1980’s I heard for the first time this year” than his or her best albums of 2009 list, if only because there is no preexisting consensus for the former three. The further a list’s conceptual underpinnings are extended, the less we can anticipate its contents, and the more likely we are to receive it as useful information rather than an argument crafted, essentially, by rearranging a bunch of checkers.

There is no reason to abandon year-end lists, but there is every reason to reform them. For the sake of readers, critics shouldn’t get away with writing lazy features, of which the album-of-the-year list has become exemplary.

By Ben Tausig

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