One would think, since we live in a clever age, that some clever wag would've hauled off by now and drawn up a list of the 100 Best "Best" Lists of 1999. There are enough of them to make you dizzy if you think about it too much, which nobody seems to be doing anymore in any case. But even a cursory look over the accumulated listage shows that they fall into two essential categories. There's the bottom-up kind, tabulated through a free election, often with the stats published along with the results. Time magazine's endless "Time 100" poll, which began in March '98 and winds up this November, is one of these. Time's editors might be rubbing elbows with the experts, the poll says, but they're all just regular folks over there, after all: stewards of popular opinion, always curious what you're thinking.
There's also the top-down list, where experts gather in a star chamber somewhere and generate an index through secret proceedings. Spin magazine's "90 Greatest Albums of the '90s" is one of these, and it's about No. 6 on the list of the year's list rankings -- somewhere right between the Lincoln, Neb., Journal-Star's "Top 100 Crimes" list and NYU's "Top 100 Works of Journalism in the United States in the 20th Century." Spin's September issue highlights the magazine's worst qualities: its long-standing tendency towards insular groupthink, its holistic admixture of taste-making and pandering and its populism via elite pressure.
The difference between this issue of Spin and any other (and between this list and the magazine's annual best-of rankings) is that the new issue reviews a load of albums that everyone's already had a chance to fully digest, and whose positions in the pop firmament are now, for the most part, fixed. That means the Spin method is on display with far less clothes on than usual, which makes for a perfect opportunity to examine how the magazine -- not the editorial staff or the writers, but the collective organism itself -- thinks.
It's clear from the introduction that Spin's criteria for "greatness" are going to shift around from album to album. "But hey," the unsigned intro notes, "it's our magazine" -- and fair enough. The top three albums of the '90s are Nirvana's "Nevermind," Public Enemy's "Fear of a Black Planet" and PJ Harvey's "To Bring You My Love" -- all of which are, again, fair enough, save for an eerie consistency. A hip-hop act couldn't be No. 1, but there couldn't not be one in the top three. A woman couldn't be No. 1, but there has to be one way up there. Sigh. You can almost see the editorial huddle, wrangling over an attempt to float Lauryn Hill into the top 3 (two in one!), hair-splitting over how high Beck and the Beasties should be placed relative to the Fugees, and recalculating the race-and-gender algebra anew with each change in precedence.
The groupthink part is that this sort of thing seems to happen all the time, in smaller scale. Whatever sort of institutional process determines the artists that Spin champions, whenever a new name appears on the boards, the entire writership puts aside its individual tastes to help whirl the merry-go-round as fast as it can go. Sublime = Good! Eminem = Good! Sleater-Kinney = Good! In fact, the 90 Greatest is a pretty comprehensive list of everyone Spin has allowed into the pantheon, with a few surprises (Basement Jaxx: No. 45) and omissions (Beth Orton). In review after review (Beck, Pavement, Hole, etc.), the staff writes almost as though controlled by a single brain. Hole good! Cornershop A-OK! The opinions were all right there in the back-issues file.
And despite the introduction's having anticipated a critique in this quarter, Spin's crit-pick list had been getting pretty scattershot in recent years (Geraldine Fibbers!?). A new masthead has lately taken charge, which seems to be changing the magazine's character in slow increments. But Spin's traditional vanguardist populism -- a concocted ideal of a sales-based hipster pop scene that exists only within its pages -- is probably the only guiding aesthetic that keeps the nation's premier youth pop magazine from running wall-to-wall features on God-popular teenybop acts and on horrible, multimillion-selling metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit. In the past, Spin's most powerful mojo has been the trick of tap-dancing around and dropping references all over the place to keep the reader on the defensive. You knew the canonical Spin review had succeeded when you found yourself worrying not only about how much more wif it the reviewer seemed to be than you were -- but also that there might be something actually wrong with you for hearing things so differently than Spin did. Even if it was mostly just rubbish and false consciousness -- as the eerie familiarity of the magazine's Top 90 album commentary helps to drive home -- it sure beats having the market take over, setting Boyzone, Britney Spears and 98 Degrees to war it out for No. 1 with the Deftones and Rob Zombie, with sheer platinum the only mark of "greatness."