Once upon a time, I saw a lot of myself in Rob Fleming. In my earliest days of writing about pop music for my high school newspaper, much like Nick Hornby’s record-store owner in High Fidelity, I was all about making lists and having an opinion on every musical act that has ever existed. I used to fill notebooks with lists, and I would argue endlessly with friends over the best albums, songs, and musicians. I’m not as huge on lists now, partly because I’m a critic and it’s basically my job to have opinions about things. I can’t listen to an album anymore and think about it purely based on whether I enjoy it, because years of trying to analyze stuff quasi-objectively for public consumption has made “where does this rank for this year/decade/all time?” my default mode. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about this.
In the near future, onethirtybpm will roll out its list of the top albums of the last ten years. Pretty much everybody has been doing this for the last few months, and with good reason. It never fails as a conversation starter. Like everybody else, I love picking over the decade lists of various magazines and websites and brainstorming with friends ways in which I’d change them. But actually making my own list is another story, especially when it’s for a bigger project like this, where my list will be one of around twenty by other writers that will be used to create the site’s official list. The process raises some questions that I’m not entirely sure I know how to answer.
The biggest problem with making a list like this that you intend to share with the public is that you can’t help but to try and predict how it will be received, and shape it accordingly. A few times during the making of my list, I caught myself thinking about how certain friends of mine would react when they saw one album ahead of another, and trying to decide whether leaving them in that order was worth having that conversation. It’s not that I’m caving to some kind of perceived peer pressure, it’s just that I don’t really like arguing with people over things that they feel more strongly about than I do.
Then, of course, there is the age-old question of how much stock to put into historical significance. While I was making my decade list, I found myself constantly struggling with whether to base my selections on how much I personally enjoyed the albums or on somebody’s definition of “impact.”
Most decade lists I’ve seen from within my circle of friends and media have had the same three albums at the top in varying order, for the same reasons: Radiohead’s Kid A (willfully difficult follow-up to a modern-rock landmark that inexplicably only made the band even more commercially popular and spawned 10 years of albums being called “their Kid A” by lazy critics to describe any kind of major shift in a band’s sound); The Strokes’ Is This It (paved the way for mainstream success for the so-called “garage-rock revival” and provided a stark counterpoint to the boy bands and Limp Bizkit knockoffs dominating the charts at the time); and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (I still don’t quite understand this one—I guess the media needed to create an American answer to Radiohead, and this record’s back-story is a goldmine of anti-record-label public goodwill).
The high Kid A placements I agree with wholeheartedly. I truly believe Radiohead deserves all of the acclaim and praise they’ve gotten in the last 15 years. The other two are a bit more problematic for me. I’ve always found Wilco to be pretty boring with the exception of a few songs, and I’ve maintained for years that the Strokes’ sophomore release, 2003’s Room on Fire, is a significantly stronger effort than their more widely acclaimed debut. But do I just ignore cultural impact entirely? If I were making this list purely for myself, obviously I would. But since this is merely my ballot for a bigger list, there are audiences to consider, and I have to think about whether I want to give my top spots to albums like Kid A and Funeral, albums that would be in my top 5 anyway but that I know don’t need my vote as much as other, less “critically correct” personal favorites like Green Day’s American Idiot or the Mars Volta’s De-Loused in the Comatorium. And no, I’m not going to create two separate versions of my list to solve this problem, because making one is torture enough.
At this point, I’ve come to the realization that you can’t really win if you’re in the business of ranking things and sharing them with other people. You’re either mindlessly parroting back a predetermined pantheon or straying from said pantheon for the sake of being different. Sometimes I wish I could go back to 8th grade, when I would kick around lists of the best guitarists or whatever with my friends, without worrying about whether people on the Internet thought our views were too similar to Pitchfork’s. That’s when I identified with Rob, Dick, and Barry–when this wasn’t an obligation. Now it’s too hard not to overthink this stuff.