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MAKING SENSE OF YOUR TOP TEN LIST Robert Madison
“The human animal differs from the lesser primates in his passion for lists of Ten Best,” wrote H. Allen Smith. True. At least in our own experience. We have always been inveterate list-makers. In fact, we can’t believe there lives a person with a soul so dead, who never to himself has said, “I think I’ll make a list.” Everyone makes lists, whether they mean to or not. You make a list of New Year’s resolutions, soon to be broken. You make up a shopping list, a laundry list, a party list. And if you are more thoughtful or competitive or crazy, at sometime or other you graduate to making a list of the 10 best or worst movies you’ve seen or tennis players you’ve watched military leaders you’ve read about. Yes, everyone makes lists. The man or woman on the street. The Census Bureau. The pollster. The newspaper syndicates. The leading magazines. The president of the United States (remember Nixon’s Enemies List?).
A History and a List Lists are nothing new. They are as old as written history. Between 1792 and 1750 B.C., Hammurabi, king of Babylon, gave the world a list of 282 laws–a code of laws dealing with marriage, theft, slavery, and other civilized matters. Then, about 1200 B.C., Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, seeking a homeland, Atop Mount Sinai, “Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice,” and when Moses descended he had a list the 10 Commandments, revered to this day by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Moving toward more modern times, in 1601 Shakespeare gave us his play Hamlet in which Polonius offers his son Laertes a list of pragmatic rules to live by, including, “Beware of entrance to a quarrel...,Neither a borrower, nor a lender be... This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Throughout history, well-known people have made out shopping lists or kept expense lists in ledgers. Relatively few shopping lists have survived, but expense ledgers have provedless perishable. Lord Byron had such a ledger kept for him while in Italy. In March, 1822, he had listed 15 charitable gifts he had made, ranging from “Charity to four people, three old men, and a lame woman–two Pauls” to “Borrowed from Fletcher to give to a poor boy–one Paul, one Crazie.”
In 1885, when Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado was introduced at the Savoy Theatre in London, Gilbert proved very listconscious and offered the public a memorable one. Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, had a list of “people whose loss will be a distinct gain to society at large.“Ko-Ko sings out, “As some day it may happen that a victim must be found, l’ve got a little list–I’ve got a little list, of society offenders who might well be under ground, and who never would be missed-who never would be missed!” KoKo includes on his list of those who would not be missed autograph hunters, people with flabby hands, piano organists, lady novelists, and “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own.” Sixty-five years later, in 1950, people were still offering lists to the public. In this case it was U.S. senator Joseph McCarthy, who announced’: “I have here in my hand a list of 205–a list of names that were known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy in the State Dept..” This eventually led to the Army McCarthy hearings in 1954, which became the top television drama of the period,and resulted in McCarthy’s downfall and his censure by the U.S. Senate.
A list has flesh and blood, and is the stuff of life. In short, a list is a reflection of life– solemn, bizarre oramusing, a compilation that provides learning or fun or both, a gathering of information or opinion that invites participation or controversy or both. A list is a collection of facts that can surprise, stimulate, challenge. Let’s face it. most of us today-live in the Age of Lists, the 10 Best, the 15 Worst, the 20 Most, the 25 Least. Lists are a way of life around the world, and listomaniacs abound. And why not? In a busy, troubled time, a simple list is easy to read and digest and remember. As Aristotle said (was it Aristotle? maybe it was Parmenides), Man is the list-making animal. He was dreaming, no doubt, of a list someday, of the Top Ten Philosphers. Such a list might fall a little short of universal appeal. That cannot be said, though, of the lists of the year’s Top Ten Movies and Top Ten Albums (and also in many publications, of the Top Ten Books, Art Exhibits, Moments in Sports, and so on) that arrive each December, during the week before New Year’s. Everyone acts superior to lists (so arbitrary and invidious!), but the act is a bluff. The fact of the matter is basic and ineluctable: we need these lists. The year would not be complete without them. The year would not make sense without them.
What is a list? The Random House Dictionary defines a list as “a series of names or other items written or printed together in a meaningful grouping so as to constitute a record.” Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary defines a list more concisely as a “roll, roster, a field of competition or controversy.” Fair enough, but pretty dry stuff.
Invitation to Vertigo The first response to the appearance of the ten-best lists is simple gratitude. It is good to know that someone has been paying attention. Once upon a time, you had at least heard the names of pretty much all the albums and movies that came out. Today, a visit to Tower Records or the Virgin Megastore is an invitation to vertigo. It’s not just that you don’t recognize ninety per cent of the stuff for sale. You don’t even recognize the categories. Electronica, Techno-House, Alternative Country, IDM (it stands for Intelligent Dance Music, as opposed, evidently, to the other kind). There are rows of bins containing Christian-rap CDs, and people are actually looking through them. You need, you realize, a list, and in exactly the same way that a drowning sailor needs a life preserver. The people who make these annual lists, the daily or weekly reviewers, have crossed the great sea of packaged amusement, pathos, and distraction for us, and they have emerged, clutching in their hands just ten plastic jewel cases. Here, they say; these are the best. We can imagine the nausea and entertainment fatigue they must have suffered during their twelve-month ordeal. We admire their grit and their pluck, and we salute them.
Of course, like all things that pretend to perfect transparency, a top-ten list is the result of juggling and calculation. It looks straightforward: ten numbers, ten titles. Of the (at least) five hundred movies released in the United States in 2003, these just happen to be the best ten, and in this order. (Critics who present their top-ten lists alphabetically are dodging their own bullets. If ten movies are clearly superior to the four hundred and ninety others, why would it be élitist to make further distinctions? If you can get a top ten, why can’t you get a top five, and a top three, and a top one?) But best-ness isn’t the only factor that goes into the making of an annual ten-best list. After all, what does every critic who makes a ten-best list secretly wish? That his or her list will be the best ten-best list. The list itself has to be fun, interesting, good.
Discovery, Tolerance and Respect For example, it would not do to list ten movies all of which star Nicole Kidman. Pure eclecticism is to be avoided; it duplicates the dizzying randomness of the megastore experience. But a good list displays a healthy, big-tent ecumenism, and an expansive tolerance with respect to Billboard rankings and box-office gross. In a mass-market publication, a movie list should contain one foreignlanguage film that few readers have heard of. (Two might look effete.) Uniqueness is the desideratum here. A critic does not want to see his or her “surprise” item turning up as the “surprise” on another critic’s list. Conversely, in an “alternative” or highbrow publication the movie list needs one blockbuster—one film the critic liked despite the fact that everyone else liked it. The chief thing is to run an item or two against the grain of the readership. It is depressing to read a list of movies and realize that you missed all of them, but it is just as disappointing to discover that you have seen every one. You want to know that there are still a few truffles left in the box. Above all, a good top-ten list should convey authority. Not quite Olympian authority, maybe; readers should be able to argue with it, to dissent a bit at the margins. But, ideally, the list should suggest a finality of judgment: life is short; your time is precious; spend it on these. It has to be said that, in this regard, there are trends in end-of-theyear list-making that people concerned about the future of our civilization ought to view with alarm.
The main trouble is the practice of publishing multiple ten-best lists. The credibility of any list is naturally weakened by the presence of an alternative list right next to it. This year, the Times ran three lists of the ten best movies, one by each of its chief film critics. The result was a total of twentyfour top-ten movies. Only six movies appeared on more than one list, and not one appeared on all three. What are we to think? That there was not a single movie that three basically like-minded persons writing for a mainstream paper could agree on as an obvious top ten? Then the paper ran a piece in which the critics quarrelled with each other over the rest of the year’s movies. It was demoralizing, like watching your parents argue: of course they do, but you don’t need to know about it. “A small group of people making decisions at the beginning had a large influence” on how the songs were ultimately ranked, said Duncan Watts, who, along with Matthew Salganik andPeter Sheridan Dodds, reported the findings in the journal Science. With little else to guide theirchoices, people often look to others for cues; curiosity, perhaps along with an urge to affiliate with the group creates a kind of cascade effect in favor of the songs first chosen, Dr. Watts said
Sinatra or Los Lobos?
As everyone is aware, pop music has become so fragmented that it is a wonder the industry survives. Product is designed for thinner and thinner demographic slices — eighteen-to-twenty, twenty-to-twentytwo and for musical sub-tastes (Hardcore Techno, Minimal Techno, etc.) within each niche. Then the cohort moves on, and the product becomes obsolete. This extreme state-of-nature condition is reflected in the year-end lists. The Times published three lists of the ten best pop-music albums. No title appeared on all three lists; three appeared on two lists, leaving twenty-seven top-ten albums. (If you were born before 1980 and have been doing something with your time besides downloading pirated music, you were lucky if you recognized the names of five of the artists.) The Washington Post ran four lists of the ten best pop albums. Total number of albums named: thirty-eight. You reach for the Dramamine.
In one experiment, social scientists at Columbia University simulated an online music marketplace that included 14,341 participants recruited from teenage interest Internet sites. The researchers provided half the group with a list of obscure rock songs and encouraged them to listen and download the ones they liked. The teenagers received no other information and did not know who else was participating. The songs were a sampling from a Web site where many virtually unknown bands post their own music. By tallying song downloads, the investigators produced a rough rating of the songs’ quality.
Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett, classical or baroque, early Los Lobos or late: Taste in music seems a deeply personal matter, guided by a person’s unique internal compass. But two new studiessuggest that social considerations influence not only the music people buy but the recordings they call their favorites.
When the other half of the teenagers browsed the same songs, they saw, alongside the titles, the number of previous downloads for each song by other members of their group. And they tended to download at least some of the songs previously chosen, resulting in a top 25 chart significantly different from that of the original group. By running several simulations of this experiment, the researchers showed that song popularity was not at all predictable when people could see what their peers were doing. Goodquality songs tended to do better than poorer ones, but not always: a song called “Lockdown” by 52Metro ranked first in one simulation and 40th out of 48 in another.
The Most Popular Topic In another report, to be published in Psychological Science, psychologists found that people used musical taste as social currency, to read others’ personalitiesand to reveal their own. The researchers paired off 60 students who did not know one another and instructed them to get acquainted via Internet bulletin boards over a period of six weeks. The students could talk about whatever they wanted, and music was by far the most popular topic, outpacing movies and sports and all other topics five of the six weeks. To help determine how music taste is related to personality, the psychologists then had a group of 74 students compile a list of their top 10 albums or CD’s. One young man’s list included the Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue,” and Sonic Youth’s “NYC Ghosts and Flowers,” as well as John Coltrane recordings; another student’s list was all country albums; a third’s was dominated by hip-hop, with Lil’ Bow Wow the top selection. After listening to the top 10 compilations, eight judges — also students — rated their peers on standard personality profiles. These ratings were remarkably accurate, when compared with the psychologists’ own profiles of the 74 participants. “They did significantly better on some measures than people do when they see pictures or short films of strangers” in similar studies, Peter Rentfrow of Cambridge University in England said in a telephone interview. Samuel Gosling of the University of Texas was a co-author.
A Subjective Democracy The top 10 lists were particularly good in revealing the authors’ taste for variety, intellectual appetite for abstract ideas and willingness to experiment with alternative points of view, a quality psychologists call openness. And a high volume of lyrics in a person’s list seemed to roughly reflect sociability, or extroversion, Dr. Rentfrow said. The top 10 lists revealed little, however, about people’s levels of conscientiousness — how neat, responsible and organized they were. “This makes some sense, ”Dr. Rentfrow said. “You can tell more about these kinds of qualities by looking at a picture.” The publication of multiple ten-best lists is probably a well-intentioned effort to embrace the principle of pluralism, and to make a democratic acknowledgment that taste is, after all, a personal and subjective matter. The effort is mistaken. Pluralism and democracy are fine things, but they have no place in the evaluation and consumption of pop culture, especially today, when, all around us, the sea is rising. The critic is the dolphin who can take us over the waves. The image is from Plato, or, if it wasn’t Plato, one of the other top guys.
THIS TOP TEN MUZIC LIST IS BROUGHT TO YOU BY AUSTIN BAKER NOW THEN,
LET’S ROCK!!! 17
MADVILLAINY Madvillainy are two rap and hip-hop artists (MF Doom and Madlib) brought together to make songs that sound like 1950â€™s comic books. I donâ€™t usually like rap that much, but Madvillainy is good because all their music is very unique. Plus, the album cover is cool.
Month_Year Found: January_07
Discography: 1) Madvillainy (2004)
YOUâ€™VE COME A LONG WAY BABY Fatboy Slim may not be as good as Daft Punk, but they are still good to listen to. Fatboy mixes punk and hip-hop sounds together to give their music a unique beat.
Month_Year Found: April_03
Discography: 1) Better Living Through Chemistry (1996) 2) Youâ€™ve Come A Long Way Baby (1998) 3) Halfway Between the Guitar and the Stars (2000) 4) Palookaville (2004)
QUADROPHENIA The Who is still the best band I say. Quadrophenia is a rock opera that combines the feeling of mellow with rock.
Month_Year Found: October_03 Discography: 1) My Generation (1965) 2) A Quick One (1966) 3) The Who Sell Out (1967) 4) Tommy (1969) 5) Who’s Next (1971) 6) Quodrophenia (1973) 7) The Who by Numbers (1975) 8) Who are You (1978) 9) Face Dances (1981) 10) It’s Hard (1982)
DARK SIDE OF THE MOON Pink Floyd is sometimes the best band to listen to when resting. The hard yet calm sounds of “Dark Side of the Moon” is best to listen to before going to sleep.
Month_Year Found: October_03 Discography: 1) The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) 2) A Saucerful Of Secrets (1968) 3) Ummagumma (1969) 4) Meddle (1971) 5) Obscured by Clouds (1972) 6) Dark Side of The Moon (1973) 7) Wish You Were Here (1975) 8) Animals (1977) 9) The Wall (1979) 10) The Final Cut (1983) 11) A Momentary Lapse of Reason (1987) 12) The Division Bell (1995)
BLUE ALBUM Weezer is like teen rock (which I have no clue what that means, but anyway), but good teen rock. Weezerâ€™s first album is still the best I say.
Month_Year Found: April_03
Discography: 1) Blue Album (1994) 2) Pinkerton (1996) 3) Green Album (2001) 4) Maladroit (2002) 5) Make Believe (2005)
OK COMPUTER Radiohead is a depressing band, but their calm music somehow makes one feel at ease. “Ok Computer” is still their best ablum.
Month_Year Found: April_04
Discography: 1) Pablo Honey (1993) 2) The Bends (1995) 3) Ok Computer (1997) 4) Kid A (2000) 5) Amnesiac (2001) 6) Hail to the Thief (2003) 7) In Rainbows (2007)
DISCOVERY Daft Punk is one of the best electronica bands out there. Their best album, Discovery, is an electronica symphony of beats, rhythms, and sounds that was made into a story.
Month_Year Found: Feburary_02
Discography: 1) Homework (1997) 2) Discovery (2001) 3) Human After All (2005)
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS GREATEST HITS The Red Hot Chili Peppers is a hard band to classify. Of course, I DON’T CARE. I think that they just make good music.
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
Month_Year Found: December_02
Discography: 1) The Red Hot Chili Peppers (1984) 2) Freaky Styley (1985) 3) The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (1987) 4) Motherâ€™s Milk (1989) 5) Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1901) 6) One Hot Minute (1995) 7) Californication (1999) 8) By The Way (2002) 9) Stadium Arcadium (2006)
VENI VEDI VICIOUS The Hives is big time rock and roll screamer music. But, somehow, they do a nice job of not making their music sound too annoying.
Month_Year Found: April_02
Discography: 1) Barely Legal (1997) 2) Veni Vidi Vicious (2000) 3) Tyrannosaurus Hives (2004) 4) The Black and White Album (2007)
UNDER THE IRON SEA Keane is the only new band I really like. Their music sounds like over the top Indie music, but I still like it. I mostly like the cover of the ablum; itâ€™s really cool graffiti art.
Month_Year Found: July_06
Discography: 1) Hopes and Fears (2004) 2) Under the Iron Sea (2006)
A zine about Austin Baker's top 10 favorite albums of all time.