HitFix Critics face-off: Why do we make top 10 lists?

and 12.21.09 8 years ago

A lot of people have made holiday wish-lists this month, but a list of a different nature also reigns in December: critics’ top 10 lists, for movies, news events television, videos, video games and music.

It’s the latter that HitFix’s two music crits, Melinda Newman and Katie Hasty, examine, together via instant messenger. Why are lists of the year’s best, most important or most ground-breaking albums and singles important, anyway? Why do we make them, and why do people read them? Are critics’ opinions any better that the common music fans’?

HitFix has itself a full slate of year-end and decade-end lists on the docket, so Newman and Hasty hash out their thoughts before their personal choices roll out today and the rest of the month.

We invited the devil’s advocate to Christmas dinner.

Katie: Do you even like making lists? Or are they a necessary evil? Are they evil?
Melinda: They’re necessary and they’re evil. How about that?
Melinda: They’re like Christmas cards. We have do to them. Given that critics make a living off of people (hopefully) wanting to read their opinion, it only seems right that we make lists.
Katie: Christmas cards, too, aren’t always a joy to do. I get no pleasure making my year end list, but even if it wasn’t going to be posted, I’d feel inclined to make one anyway.
Melinda: Why?
Katie: I think we all feel the need to compartmentalize, to memorize, define.
Melinda: Not me… seriously, there are a few reasons critics make them, not the least of which is to hype their own importance.
Katie: Please tell me I’m important, Melinda.

Melinda: Yes, you are very VERY important.
Katie: I KNEW IT.
Melinda: When I first started making these lists, I thought it was all about looking cool and how hip I was by picking obscure things, but then as I got older, I realized my lists really morphed into the albums that I really liked — hipness be damned.
Melinda: In fact, for me, there’s a great deal of pleasure in putting something incredibly poppy on my list, but the odd thing is that I’ve found that a lot of stuff that I love that I think other critics won’t love because it’s too pop (for example, “Crazy Love” by Beyonce or “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley ) are often on the top of their lists too. And here I thought I was being anti-hip.

Katie: I think putting things to a tidy number — top 10, 25, 50, 100, 1000 — make everything seem simpler. It’s a guide.
Katie: It just stinks, because these round number don’t mean ANYTHING.
Katie: So if 73 great records came out this year, how come it’s not a Top 73, y’know? I hate it.
Melinda: You’re absolutely right. Having to round off to a round number is ridiculous. It leads to list padding and all sorts of unseemly things. My former Billboard boss would manage to get 20 albums on a Top 10 list. That’s a talent!
Melinda: Here’s what they are good for: finding out about music that you may have missed. I’ll look at the lists and if there’s a song/album on many lists that I haven’t paid attention to or on a critic’s list whom I respect, I dig out the CD and listen to it.
Katie: It’s funny that we all read lists to see what we missed — we’re the critics, we should already KNOW everything.
Katie: (I’m being facetious with the “know everything” thing — that’s why lists are a farce anyway.)
Katie: Nobody can possibly have heard and formed a well-thought-out opinion about everything released in the year.
Melinda: Despite the record industry being in complete downward spiral more than 20,000 albums still come out every year and you can only listen to a fraction of them… The lists should be “HERE’S MY TOP 10 of the FRACTION of ALBUMS THAT I ACTUALLY LISTENED TO” with a caveat that there are probably at least 100 better ones that you/I/we never got to.
Melinda: Readers should take lists with a grain of salt — as a fun tool, but no way an indictment of the music they listen to if that act isn’t on there.

Melinda: That’s why I like reading other people’s lists, although I think some people are deliberately obscure to look hip. There was one list, I can’t even remember what site it was, and I knew maybe 1/10 of the acts.
Katie: Or they’re deliberately “obscure” so that they introduce something that not everybody has heard before.
Melinda: Yes — that’s true too. Sometimes you’re acting as a cheerleader to get a little attention to some that falls through the cracks otherwise and you’re hoping to just shine a little light, be a little beacon, spread a little cheer. I’m going to go throw-up now, that was so sweet.
So many albums don’t get the marketing and pr dollars behind them, and if they didn’t, top 10 lists are like critics’ way of doing PR for them. Ew, I just threw-up a little too.
Melinda: Exactly. We”re a tool. We’re educators, Katie, that’s what we are! Without the gown, mortar board, job security and tenure. Yeah, that’s it!
Katie: But isn”t that like people campaigning for Grammys: Shouldn”t that just be left to what’s on disc?
Melinda: Oh, that’s a different conversation for closer to the Grammys, don’t you think?
Katie: Mmm.
Katie: I fear lists make people lazy. Or are lists for lazy people?
Melinda: Not the people that do them! Lists aren’t for lazy people. Remember, not everyone has the luxury of listening for a living or has the time or money to seek it out. It’s not like you’re asking someone else to work out for you…
Katie: Glad you mentioned it. Now I’m gonna hire an intern to have good taste for me and report back to me at the end of the year.
Melinda: I’m sure there are a lot of folks who actually do that!
Katie: “Here’s a stack, kid, now make us look relevant.”

Melinda: On another note though, do you think we’ve ever been in a period where what’s popular also seems to be getting critical acclaim? It seems like we’re in one now…
Katie: I think we’re in and out of the era, sure.
Katie: Especially as independent music has more avenues to be heard. Online, through blogs… Today”s media make it easy to micro-manage your preferences.
Katie: I just think that lists might make people lazy because there’s not a lot of critical thinking, pulling things off a list.
Melinda: For music fans? Why should they do critical thinking? Seriously… music is to make your day better and easier to get through. If you enjoying dissecting and thinking about it, great. But not everyone uses it that way.
Melinda: One of my friends–and it seriously hurts me to admit it– loves Kenny G’s Christmas album, which, by the way, is the top selling Christmas record of the SoundScan era. So she’s clearly not the only one. I don’t try to tell her that she shouldn’t listen to it — I just don’t want to be with her when she does. But if that makes her happy and it really, really does, that’s fantastic!
Katie: Sure. That”s one reason among many why people like music.
Katie: I’m not saying lists should make people think more critically about the music itself, I just think lists over-simplify the choice, ranking something that doesn’t need ranking. It comes off as grain-of-saltless.
Melinda: So is there an anti-list? This would read much better if one of us were to defend that!

Katie: Do you think all that many people like reading lists? Or are lists for the Seekers? For the rabid music listeners, for critics to jerk-off to? (Or throw-up to?)
Melinda: Depends upon the list. EW’s list is going to appeal to a whole different audience than the Village Voice’s poll. I think they’re always fun just for a debate.
Melinda: But yes, they’re for critics to show their inflated sense of self-importance, when, sadly, in the age of one person, one blog, any schmo can put up a best of list.
Katie: One result, then, is the list pool is diluted. Are lists supposed to cut the “bullsh**?”
Melinda: Yes, our gene pool has been polluted.
Melinda: And they brought their stinking opinions with them!

Katie: Have year-end top 10 lists always been a big deal?
Melinda: As far as I remember
Katie: Do you think in the Internet Age (ha!) lists importance has diminished? They are, after all, a quick-fix media.
Melinda: Only by dint of the fact that there are so many of them. And now with the end of the decade (although not really), there are even more lists. It’s crazy. In that way, you’re right: they’re lazy, but people seem to dig them.  I think everyone should be limited to two lists: albums and singles and that’s it…
Katie: Lets just do a Top 1 list.
Melinda: You go first, so every other critic can copy or react to you!
Katie: My top 1 this year: Demi Lovato.
Melinda: Justin Beiber.
Katie: The Beatles mono remix of “Revolver.”
Melinda: Wow. What about something that came out this year, not 43 years ago?
Katie: I was about to write a zinger about Bruce Springsteen, but I don’t want you to make a top 10 list of reasons why you hate me.
Melinda: I’d never get past three! As you’ll notice, “Working on a Dream” DID NOT make my top 10 list… it’s a sh***y album. I love him so, but it is far from a blind love.
Katie: What if my top 10 list was just all Beatles albums, in chronological order… GO CRITICS! OFF TO THE HIVE, TO REACT!
Melinda: That would work since, technically, they all came out this year! But yes, you could start your own one-woman rebellion among the ranks.
Katie: I gotta go now… I need to make a list of my 25 favorite Asian spices now.
Melinda: After you refold your socks in your sock drawer and put in dividers for each 10 pair.
Katie: I have to
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