Pet Grief: Lessons Learned from Year-End Lists

Jeff Terich
Treble's editor airs his grievances

For at least two years, I’ve been hearing about how the growing trend of listmaking has been slowly killing music journalism. And for two years, I’ve been rolling my eyes. Lists have existed just as long as long-form thinkpieces — possibly longer. They predate LOLcats, animated GIFs, viral videos and chillwave. In fact, it goes back to the Bible — the Ten Commandments was the original list, and Exodus the O.G. thinkpiece. The content has changed and evolved, but the organizational tactic remains the same. As human beings, we’re addicted to order and hierarchy, whether it applies to our morals or the best albums of the year.

But it goes deeper than that, really. We don’t just want order, we crave competition. We rally behind champions, root for underdogs, and seek out every opportunity to drunkenly debate and discuss with friends or rivals. And when the calendar page finally turns over to December, we have an innate desire to crown the year’s winners — the best movies, video games, Google search terms, the word of the year, the most adorable cats, the best cronut and so on. And with music, that goes essentially 100-fold. The wave of top 50 lists has already begun. You can’t stop it. You may disagree, become irritated, even choose to pretend they don’t exist. But they do.

I, for one, choose to embrace the tradition of the year-end list. A substantial chunk of my music collection was obtained after I discovered something on a year-end or decade list, and I have fond memories of perusing issues of Spin or Magnet for their best-of-year picks. I may not have always been on board with their selections, but seeing a different perspective helped shape my tastes just as much as having my own favorites confirmed. And for eight of the ten years Treble has been operating, we’ve published year-end lists of our own. This month, we’ll publish our ninth set of year-end lists, but before we get to the meat of it, I’d like to share some of my own observations. These are the lessons I’ve learned from year-end lists.

1. Something is always missing

The first error you can make in assembling a year-end list — especially as a publication and not as simply a person — is trying to please everyone. You can’t. You won’t. And you don’t. Stop! Yesterday Spin published its Top 50 Albums of 2013, and there are basically three types of comments on their facebook page: 1. “Yeezus sucks”; 2. “Why didn’t you include Pearl Jam” and, my favorite, 3. “Your slideshow doesn’t work.” You don’t run a website or a magazine without getting used to this sort of thing, simply because there’s way too much music out there to be able to accurately capture everything that was good in one list. But that’s not the point. We’re really just talking about a summary of highlights, and to include everything would miss the point. If everything is special, then nothing is. Disagreeing with a snub is just part of the fun.

2. Tastes change

I sometimes look back on my own personal lists and find myself surprised at what I chose for a number one. My song of the year last year was Twin Shadow’s “Five Seconds,” a track that absolutely bangs and would certainly still be in my top 10 of 2012. But as of last month, I totally forgot about it. And if I were asked today what my favorite song of last year was, I would probably have a different answer — possibly Japandroids, Frank Ocean or Jessie Ware. But that doesn’t matter. My choice reflected my favorites at the time, and when you read a website or magazine’s year-end list, that goes for everyone. They’ll change their mind too. Sometimes they won’t (nobody’s letting go of Kid A anytime soon), but pay attention long enough, and you’ll see some remarkable reversals of course. In 2001, Pitchfork gave Daft Punk’s Discovery a middling 6.4 rating. In 2009, they named it the number 3 record of the decade. And that’s fine — God knows not every review on Treble speaks for all its staffers, which you’ll discover if you look hard enough.

3. Patterns emerge

The longer you pay attention to year-end listmaking, the more you’ll notice that certain patterns occur pretty much every year. A new band will crash top 10s with their breakthrough debut, only to be forgotten by the time the next one comes out. An established artist will settle into a reserved spot for a mediocre album, simply out of habit. An old-timer will score some points for reclaiming his legacy. A handful of token niche albums will be sprinkled about, and every outlet will inevitably rally around their champions. When given the option, Rolling Stone will hand album of the year to Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. If someone else released an album that year, they’ll have to settle for runner-up. And a few WTFs will firebomb the proceedings. But those are only unexpected if you choose not to expect them.

4. The top pick is the “important” one

When you get right down to it, the one thing that people will definitely remember from a year-end list is the number one pick. That’s not to say that 2-50 don’t matter, but they’re not the headlining act. Which is why magazines or websites that play it safe are blowing an opportunity. Generally speaking, the process is done by a democratic vote between writers and editors that produces a consensus favorite. And that sometimes produces boring results. But if it was a good year, there should be something remarkable that caught everyone’s attention. Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city and Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange (our #1 pick from 2012) were both big albums last year for good reason — they were outstanding albums, of course, but they also resonated with a lot of people. But when democracy produces expected results, why not do something a little unorthodox. Remember when Spin chose “Your Hard Drive” as their album of the year in 2000? Of course you do, because it was absolutely ludicrous and a total cop-out. But we’re still talking about it. Bravo, Spin. I’ve had quite a few discussions with people about whether a blockbuster or an underdog is more interesting as an Album of the Year, and most people like the idea of the underdog in the top spot — within reason. As a friend put it, “Remember when Pitchfork chose Person Pitch as their Album of the Year? I don’t!”

5. Don’t take lists too seriously

Some people get worked up over the idea of putting art into a hierarchy because that’s antithetical to the whole creative process, man! But I’ve been doing this for a long time, and every year I have a blast doing it. Why? Because it’s supposed to be fun! I would venture to guess that if you spoke to any editor of any music blog, website or magazine, they’d tell you the same thing. Year-end lists aren’t going to change the world, but they’ll get people talking, spark some debate, and maybe introduce them to some good music they missed earlier in the year. I listened to around 300 albums this year, and when it came time for Treble to vote on the best albums and songs of the year, I still discovered new things. When we vote, we recommend things to each other. We lobby. We campaign — not because this is of utmost importance, but because it’s a good feeling to see someone discover something that means something to you. That’s really why we do this, at the end of the day. We just want to tell you about stuff we like. And if it helps, our Top 50 lists comprise the stuff we really really like. And if it doesn’t, I won’t be offended.

They’re just lists.

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