A Year Without Lists

On a road trip to Atlantic City back in June, a friend of mine — the driver — switched musical gears from whatever-the-hell-it-was to a song by Skrillex. It was, if I’m remembering correctly, the very first time I’d ever actually heard a song by Skrillex. I knew who he was and had a general idea of what kind of music he made, but I certainly wasn’t in any position to have an opinion about it. Yet, oddly enough, I did. It wasn’t a strong or even well-defined opinion, but was instead a kind of instinctual compulsion that whatever I was about to hear was going to be really, really bad. But it wasn’t. It was hardly the best thing I’d ever laid ears on and wasn’t something I’d revisit on a routine basis, but I was with two fun-loving friends 20 minutes or so outside of Atlantic City ahead of a weekend-long bachelor party. It fit the circumstances perfectly.

But I couldn’t help myself. As someone that’s invested so much time — especially over the past three or four years — discovering new music, developing coherent opinions of it, and then trying to justify those opinions to other people, I had to poke and prod just a little. As casually as I could so as to not deconstruct the excitement of that stage of our trip, I asked my friend if he was aware of the musician’s rather unbecoming critical reputation. And his answer was one that I absolutely loved and, at the time, felt a bit foreign to: “I don’t know,” he said, “if I don’t like something, I just don’t listen to it.”

Think about that response for a second. Is that not the most perfect, genuine response to such a silly inquiry? And is it not completely obvious? If you hear a song by a band and don’t like it, don’t listen to it again. If you go to a restaurant and have a horrible meal, go someplace else next time. In a year where I was already making a more conscious effort to separate myself from a critic’s mindset, the premise of his response could not have been more reassuring.

“If I don’t like something, I just don’t listen to it.”

The reason I bring this up is because it is once again “list season” and, for the first time in several years, I find myself firmly entrenched on the sidelines. I barely contributed to the lists that we published here at Beats Per Minute (I wrote just one blurb for our list of EPs, but that came after the lists had already been compiled), nor have I skimmed over any of the lists that have been published elsewhere. The biggest reason why I’ve been uninvolved is because I don’t feel like I’ve spent enough time digesting the year’s new releases to form a well-conceived opinion about them. I loved The Antlers’ Undersea, Spiritualized’s Sweet Heart, Sweet Light, and I thought Kendrick Lamar brought a fresh, much needed energy back to hip-hop. But I didn’t cull over my favorites like I have in years past. I didn’t keep any running lists and I wrote just four whole album reviews all year, none of which came after the month of March.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with publications and individuals churning out year-end lists. It’s a great way to reflect back on the year that was musically and, as music always manages to intertwine itself with real life, personally. The debates among friends about why one person’s favorite album is better than another’s makes for great conversation. In general, talking about music is a good thing and there’s not anything particularly negative about setting time aside once a year to do just that. Even if you have qualms with the processes by which lists are determined or the impact certain omissions can have on an artist, year-end lists pretty much universally originate from good intentions and intend to serve as a means of introducing music connoisseurs to artists and albums they may not have previously discovered.

But I feel fortunate to have been deliberately disconnected this past year. Instead of spending time and energy nitpicking (and, worse yet, quantifying subjective specifics) either in a review or just in casual chat why I never really got into Animal Collective’s Centipede Hz or defending myself against folks who felt unjustly embittered that Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange just didn’t impress that much, I spent that time and energy with artists and albums that I do enjoy. I fell back in love with The Hold Steady to the point that Heaven is Whenever finally hit home for me. I pored through the Beastie Boys’ discography for a couple weeks after Adam “MCA” Yauch’s untimely passing. I listened to a ton of Modest Mouse and Wilco, continued my love affair with Feist’s Metals, rekindled what will assuredly be a lifelong bond with Bob Dylan and Josh Ritter, and at least once spent a solid week enjoying nothing but Neutral Milk Hotel. I listened to “Call Me Maybe” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” both of which I hated at first brush, guilt-free a bunch of times. I even started collecting vinyl.

For me, the best part of detaching myself from my usual cycle of ranking and rating (either internally or in shared writing) — which I’d always enjoyed in the past, mind you — was freeing myself of the need to think critically. When you write reviews or do something as seemingly innocent as publish a list of what releases you liked most over the course of the last 12 months, there’s a good chance someone is going to challenge you on your opinion. And that’s the part I’ve never particularly cared for, because often I find that my opinions on music are based on intangibles, blind subjectivity, or experiences like road trips with friends. Either I like something or I don’t. Worse still, I’ve always felt as though indifference is nearly impossible to successfully convey because apathy is almost always perceived as a negative.

I didn’t dislike Centipede Hz or Channel Orange. I thought they were okay. But really, there are just so many other albums — some released this year, others released several decades ago — that I’d rather listen to. It’s like that scene in Donnie Darko where Jake Gyllenhaal’s character tries to explain to his teacher that there is middle ground between love and fear. It isn’t logical to force everything into just those two categories, just as listeners shouldn’t feel compelled to choose a side on every new record or make razor thin distinctions between two beloved records for the sake of numbers on a list.

The point here isn’t that there’s not enough time in the day to juggle every new release and the music you already love (though really, there isn’t) or that we should all mute our opinions. The point is that music fans, as they meticulously bump Bat for Lashes’ The Haunted Man down two spots on their list so that Grizzly Bear’s Shields may sneak into their coveted top-20, should maybe take a moment to step out of the process of giving everything a score (what exactly is the difference between an 8.3 and an 8.4, anyway?) and numbered designation. It can be a fun exercise, no doubt about it. But that isn’t what being a music lover is supposed to be about.

From product reviews to services like Yelp, we live in a fortunate age where it is possible for most everyone’s opinion to be heard in some form or fashion. It should go without saying that this is a good thing. But let’s not forget what really matters. There’s comfort in conceding that not everything requires a firm, lucid opinion. This is a great time to remind ourselves that it is far better to spend time enjoying the things we like than it is to spend time justifying those things to other people.

Throw all the lists, rankings, and vindications that come with them out the window. If you like something, keep on listening to it. And if you don’t, well, don’t.