Round table: Are there too many "best of" lists?

Here come the top-10 lists. Our round table debates whether they help sort the year -- or just add to the clutter

Published December 3, 2011 5:00PM (EST)

Year-end culture roundups: They're about to be everywhere (including right here on Salon). For many critics and publications, December is a time for summing up the year's artistic achievements -- naming the year's Best Books, Best Movies, Best Albums and all-around cultural MVPs.

Some aggregators go a step further, collecting all the roundups they can find and lining them up for seriously hungry culture vultures. Want links to all this year's "best of" roundups in one handy place? Look no further than, David Gutowski's blog. (If you haven't guessed, Gutowski is a fan of the form: "There is only so much music I can listen to or books I can read in a year," he says. "I use year-end lists to discover works I missed or for some reason didn't give my full attention to.")

Are there too many of these lists? Not enough? Do most run-downs succeed in delving deeper than the year's biggest blockbuster releases? Which rankings are the most interesting, idiosyncratic or trustworthy -- in short, the best?

We asked a number of prominent critics and aggregators to share their thoughts; you'll find their responses below.

Andrew O'Hehir (Salon film critic)

What I think is kind of great about year-end lists is that, as the critic, you've got no place to hide behind relativistic weasel words and forests of adjectives. You've finally got to say whether you think "Rango" was better or worse than some Finnish documentary about nuclear waste, without elaborating on that judgment. It's the precise opposite of high-minded cultural criticism and reduces the whole thing to the most easily understood and yet most mysterious kind of value judgment, which is both absolute and entirely subjective.

In the area that I cover, which is movies, there is definitely a tendency to overvalue end-of-year, awards-contender films over smaller ones released in months that don't end in "ber." I think this is also true in lists of books, but maybe a little less so in music lists, which by their nature are so nichey as to be a different beast altogether. But then, if you swing deliberately in the other direction, it may smack of affectation. Probably the Korean film "Poetry" will rank in my top three this year, and it was released last winter and played in only a handful of cities. Then I start debating with myself: Is something else I liked a lot, like "Melancholia" or "Hugo" or "Coriolanus," inherently more meaningful because it was released in the fall season with lots of hoopla, and many people are already interested in it? Arguably such questions speak to the OCD, quasi-jesuitical idiocy of the whole idea.

I read tons and tons of other film critics' lists, usually just with a considered professional reaction: Huh, that's weird, s/he sure liked that minor little movie! What's wonderful is when I am reminded of something: Oh crap, that was really great! Why isn't it on my list? When I was younger I ferociously devoured the Pazz & Jop poll in the Village Voice, to educate myself about music I wasn't listening to. The Voice did something similar with movies in its precorporate days (and may still do so, I don't read it), and I find that kind of large-scale poll of polls both instructive and appealing. I will further admit that as a parent over 40 who is pretty tuned out to pop music, I now find the Times critics' lists very useful in a similar, if much blander and more middle-aged vein.

Robert Christgau ("Dean of American Rock Critics"; music journalist and founder of the Village Voice's "Pazz & Jop" Critics' Poll)

As a longtime proponent of quantification in criticism, I'm basically appalled by the profusion of lists in arts journalism. How many does Flavorpill do a day? I don't know, because I seldom find the ones I look through worth the click time (all on one page I could at least scan, and I mean with my ocular orbs). The only individual top 10s that interest me especially as a listener and reviewer are by major critics, by the diminishing cohort whose tastes run the way mine do, and by those with specialties in world music and hip-hop, where I often run behind the curve. Aggregated lists -- notably the Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll I started 40 years ago -- are of more significance and use. I find the Pazz & Jop consensus, which sticks to critics with recognizable gigs, more reliable than the online aggregates compiled by my list-loving webmaster Tom Hull and now apparently Metacritic, too. But it's usually in the lower reaches of the polls that I occasionally find treasures. The first Archers of Loaf album was somewhere below 40 in its Pazz & Jop year. I just wrote the liner notes for the reissue, and without Pazz & Jop I might never have heard it at all.

Rob Sheffield (music critic; author of "Talking to Girls about Duran Duran")

I look forward all year to reading people's year-end lists. That's when culture processors -- who are usually under the gun to bang out a quickie opinion and then race on to the next item -- talk about what gave them sustained pleasure over the long haul. And that’s just inherently more interesting than a first-listen opinion, now that we’re so glutted with first-listen opinions. These days, when critics are hitting send on reviews of a new Radiohead record literally BEFORE they’ve heard it all the way through, a year-end reckoning carries a lot more info than a knee-jerk response.

The best year-end list ever -- no question -- was Robert Christgau’s annual Pazz & Jop survey of music critics, in the Village Voice, from 1975 to 2005. Every year I’d come away from Pazz & Jop with a shopping list of music I was suddenly fiending to hear -- albums I’d missed, or albums I’d heard and then forgotten.  (You can search the Pazz & Jop archive here: I especially recommend 1994, 1984, 1978, 1988, 1986, 1982, 1997 and 2005.) Part of what was great about Pazz & Jop was that it came out in February -- the critics made their lists in January, which meant they were taking in the whole year and chewing on it some. Which is how human beings usually consume music, deadlines be damned.

That’s why I think year-end lists mean more than ever. Instant impressions are more plentiful, but they’re also less relevant -- I really don’t give a giraffe’s nads what anyone, even myself, thinks of a new album after one listen, or half a listen, or a third of a listen. What I care about is how it sounds to you in time, which is where music happens.

Jason Dietz (features editor and co-founder, Metacritic)

While there certainly are many, many "best of" lists (literally hundreds) these days -- so many that it does feel like overkill at times -- I find the annual list-making frenzy by entertainment journalists and bloggers to be extremely helpful to me as a fan of movies, music and TV. These top-10 lists have at least three constructive functions. The first is discovery, and every year I do uncover new albums and movies through these lists that I would likely have overlooked otherwise. For this, rather than sift through countless individual lists, I typically find myself turning to overall ranked compilations of lists, like the Village Voice's great Pazz & Jop survey, the annual spreadsheets put together by the contributors at Acclaimed Music, or our own top-10 scorecards on Metacritic, like this year's music list (which we update daily as new lists come out). Secondly, opinions change over time -- an album that seems remarkable upon first listen may prove not to have staying power, for example -- and I think the act of list-making encourages critics to re-evaluate everything they reviewed earlier in the year with the benefit of this additional passage of time, giving a truer reflection of what titles from the year were really deserving after all. Finally, individual critic and blog top-10 lists are an incredibly helpful tool for evaluating the tastes of those writers and publications. If I see a movie critic's year-end list filled with films I hated, for example, I'll know to discount his reviews in the future; similarly, if I see a TV critic loading up her list with my favorite shows, I'll pay more attention to her opinions.

Will Hermes (senior critic for Rolling Stone and NPR contributor; author of "Love Goes to Buildings on Fire")

Nick Hornby nailed it in "High Fidelity" -- people love making lists and hierarchies. They give the comforting illusion that we aren't missing something, which we always are, and that our choices are fully intentional, when there's usually lots of randomness at work.

Of course there are way too many lists; the trick is finding useful ones. I prefer those by individuals, who tend to have more idiosyncratic, more interesting aesthetic agendas than websites or magazines. I don't see as many films as I'd like, so there I'll go with generalists whose tastes I vibe with (Rob Nelson, Manohla Dargis, J. Hoberman, Stephanie Zacharek, Tony Scott). For music, which I'm immersed in, I look for devoted niche-diggers who catch what I miss: Francis Davis and Larry Blumenfeld on jazz, Philip Sherburne and Simon Reynolds on electronic music, off-center outlets like the Wire and No Depression. And I'm always interested in the aggregate critics polls from the Village Voice and the Nashville Scene (both of which I contribute to).

My own philosophy is a highly complex algorithm that weighs what I listened to most during the year, what was most titillating in smaller doses (sonically, lyrically, emotionally and/or socio-culturally), and the mood I'm in the minute I'm forced to stop dithering over my list and finally hit SEND.

That said, damn, I really love that tUnE-yArDs record.

Pamela Paul (children's book editor, the New York Times Book Review)

Readers fall into two categories: the omnivorous list-watchers who follow every list, from Entertainment Weekly's to Kirkus Reviews. For us (I include myself in their number), it's fascinating to see the crossovers and the exceptions, and if we follow Laura Miller at Salon or Lev Grossman at Time or Dwight Garner at the Times, and all the myriad critics at various publications, we want to see where their particular tastes lead them, and the commonalities and differences with other critics. The second group of list-consumers are those who will probably come across one or two or possibly three lists of "best books" and they're happy with that.

I think the fear -- often among the list obsessives -- is that the average reader will get overwhelmed by all the year's best-of lists, when the truth is, most readers aren't exposed to or searching out all the lists that are published; they're just following the ones by publications and critics they are about.

Now, as an editor, I also love best-of lists, but for different reasons. For me, rather than just an opportunity to call out all the familiar (but still worthy) names, it's a great opportunity to highlight wonderful books and authors who may have been overlooked or lost in the shuffle of the week-to-week book review process. My own list of Notable Children's Books of 2011 included books that were only reviewed online or received capsule reviews in our pages. We have to remember that even faithful readers of the Book Review don't always see every book in every issue, or every review posted on the Times' website. So I think it's great to give those titles an extra chance to catch readers' attention, and for those readers to have the opportunity to learn about books they may not be aware of and would love to read. Finally, a book that was published in February or April can still make a great holiday gift or beach read for winter break, so it's nice to bring back books published earlier in the year to readers' attention.

Simon Reynolds (music critic; author of "Retromania")

There do seem to be an awful lot of end-of-year lists and sundry chewings-over of the past year’s pop-culture output. It can get a bit overwhelming. On the other hand, I enjoy checking many of them, and I participate as a voter in quite a few.

The thing that strikes me as really indicative of how things are today is that you get such diversity with Best Albums of the Year lists. Because there is such a profusion of music being made today in terms of both range and sheer quantity, because the scene is so fragmented, there’s a lot of material available to  individual music magazines out of which they are able to construct quite distinct aesthetics. The overlap zone of consensus about what is good and relevant in music seems to get smaller ever year.

Probably my favorite roundup is by FACT magazine, this webzine in the U.K. that covers a lot of the music I’m interested in. But even though I’m following those areas closely, their “best albums,” “best reissues” and so forth always alert me to things I’d missed completely. FACT also does fun lists of Best and Worst Record Covers and a chart of the best record labels.  Other good ones  for left-field music you might have missed are the lists in the Wire and the Quietus, both U.K.-based.

By Emma Mustich

Emma Mustich is a Salon contributor. Follow her on Twitter: @emustich.

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