Justifying our love of ‘top 10s’

Not just places to prove music know-how, top 10 lists serve a deeper purpose

They littered your favourite newspapers, magazines, and blogs last month—year-end “best music” lists.

No longer just for Rolling Stone and Spin, crafting a list of the year’s most loved albums has become an important activity for all self-respecting music lovers.

“On the simplest level, I just get a kick out of doing it—it’s a lot of fun,” said Mykael Sopher, author of the Winnipeg music blog Painting Over Silence. “I like taking music and categorizing my listening habits.”

Jenny Henkelman, editor of Stylus, the program guide for Winnipeg’s CKUW 95.9 FM, agrees.

“I find it’s a useful exercise to analyze and consider the music that has come out in a given year,” she said. “And when it comes to reading other people’s lists, you can read them and catch things you missed.”

Rex Sorgatz is a New York-based Internet consultant whose writing has appeared in Wired. For the past five years, Sorgatz has compiled year-end lists on his blog, Fimoculous. Although the collection covers architecture, fashion, politics, religion, books, movies and more, the music category is by far the biggest.

“There’s something ultimately democratic about the list-making process,” Sorgatz said, adding it’s a simple way for people to put an imprint on culture by processing and organizing what they’ve consumed over the span of 365 days.

“It allows the list creator to be the arbiter of what the important things of the last year were, and do it in a way that’s consumable,” he said.

But how do you pick what makes the list? Jonathan Dyck, a contributing writer for Stylus and The Uniter, describes the list-making process as a “tension between those albums that are really your favourites and that you enjoyed throughout the year, and those albums you think are going to be remembered by the press as the music that defined the year.”

“There’s a little bit of exhibitionism involved—you’re making the list self-consciously with other people in mind. You’re trying to go with the flow of the year, or against it by showing how subversive your own taste is,” Dyck said. “In a way I think it’s a performance, because no one really makes a list without the hope that someone else is going to see it.”

For Sorgatz, that’s precisely the point—when other people read your list, it stimulates discussion.

“It creates content that other people can immediately relate to, and occasionally disagree with,” he said.

Michael Elves, program director at UMFM 101.5 FM, shares Sorgatz’s sentiment.

“The year-end list is really to get people motivated to hear those records [on your list] and discuss those records, and kind of create a conversation about music,” said Elves, who estimates that, between working at the radio station, reviewing albums for local publications and working part-time at Music Trader, he listened to more than 600 new albums in 2008.

Elves follows a number of criteria when creating his list: no compilations, soundtracks, reissues or EPs, and the album has to be released during the year in question. He also tries to include a wide range of genres, so that the list isn’t dominated by one sound.

And unlike the uber-hip know-it-all record store clerks of High Fidelity, it’s not about being elitist or obscure on purpose.

“I try not to be very snobby,” Elves said. “It is what it is, and I like what I like. I think it’s about not hiding things. People try to treat bands like they’re secret handshakes and not tell people about them. I think it’s about being honest about what you like, and not just liking something for its credibility.”

Ultimately, Henkelman said, year-end music lists are about exposing people to music they may have missed during the year, and championing the albums you liked—which in her case includes Corpse Whale, the debut EP by local rock trio The Gorgon.

“Could you make the argument that there were better albums made on the planet Earth last year?” Henkelman asked. “Yeah, but that’s not the point. The point is that I put it on my list, and someone might read it and say, ‘The Gorgon? What’s that?’”

Log on to Aaron’s blog to read comments that didn’t make it into this article, as well as Aaron Epp’s list of top 10 favourite albums of 2008.

Published in Volume 63, Number 17 of The Uniter (January 22, 2009)

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