Saturday, December 26, 2009

How Much Do I Love Thee? I Won't Know Until I See Where You Land On My List

Well, it’s late December now and you know what that means: a torrent of year-end lists. By mid-January I’ll be so tired of looking at the numbers 10 through 1 that I might have to start using roman numerals for everything. I knew learning roman numerals would pay off some time, I should write a thank-you note to my second-grade teacher Mrs. McCarty.

Why is our culture so obsessed with rating everything that it comes in contact with? Why must everything be rated in relation to its yearly peers? I blame TRL for starting the count down trend, but I’m sure it dates back way before that. Heck, the Ten Commandments are probably to blame.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most up-to-date guy there is around—I pick up the New York Times every once in a while, and I turn on Sports Center to see how my favorite teams are doing, but otherwise I’m pretty much ensconced in my own solipsistic bubble. It’s working out for me now in college, but pretty soon I’ll be entering Life University and the rules there, I hear, are pretty different. The exception to the current “Alex Frost Rule of Total Isolation”, however, is music blogs/ on-line magazines. They are my hobby, my infatuation, and on my worst days: my reason for waking up. A professor of mine at school claims that he tries to learn a new word every day—I try to read at least one record review every day. This is where my curiosity about lists come into play. Every year, starting in late November through December (and sometimes even into early January), every music blog I read posts its “Best Of” lists. At first, this was interesting to me. I was happy to find bands that I’d yet to listen to high on some blogs lists—I would go out and get that band’s album and give it a listen. Over the years though, I’ve realized the various shortcomings of these obligatory “Best Of” lists.

The problem with music blogs’ “Best Of” lists is that so many of them are simply reiterations of the same claims they’ve been making all year. A certain band garners “blog buzz” (I hate that term, but it’s the most appropriate) and becomes noticed on the indie scene. By the time the end of the year comes around, said blog must then back up their claim on this band by putting them on their year end lists. Recently I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that these “Best Of” lists have already been decided on far before the year is even over. Animal Collective’s album “Merriweather Post Pavilion” is the perfect example of this conundrum. MPP came out in January of 2009, and several music blogs (my favorite ones, in fact) claimed that this album was a work of genius—placing on it so much praise so early on that to not have it high on their “Best Of” lists would make their initial praises seem unschooled and preemptive. Now, don’t be mistaken: I love Animal Collective and I love “Merriweather Post Pavilion”. I can’t tell you how often I listened to “My Girls” this year, both by myself and with crowds of people. I’m simply using it as an example. The fact is though, I don't believe that it really deserved to be on the top of everyone's lists.

The second issue I have with the “Best Of” list trend is that it makes reading music blogs boring. The reason I read different blogs is because they come at the subject from various different perspectives. Each blog I read has its own specific layout, style and most importantly—voice. When the “Best Of” lists start coming out, I start feeling like I’m reading the same blog over and over again. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.

While I clearly have issue with the “Best Of” list trend, I do also see one very strong reason for their continued existence: they give good bands good press. Individually, blogs tend to preach only to the choir—they reach a specific readership that is generally educated on the subject, and not many people else. Yet when the “Best Of” lists start coming out and the same bands appear on all of them, it’s hard for people outside of that original readership to notice. Hell, Rolling Stone might even decide to put them in their “What’s Hot” section. Since the music blogs that I read are for the most part interested in what one might call “indie” bands that aren’t being heavily publicized and shoved down your throat every ten seconds on the radio, “blog buzz” (again, that damn term) is important for bands. MGMT is certainly one example of a band that benefited heavily from this.

So, now that I’ve moaned for far too long about the problem, here’s my solution: a more personalized format of recognition. Instead of placing bands and songs on lists for purely subjective reasons that are often questionable, why not eliminate the list aspect of this equation and increase the subjectivity. After all, when it comes to something like music we simply can’t escape subjectivity-- so why not embrace it?

In an attempt to recognize the music that I’ve most loved over the past year, while still maintaining my own voice on the matter, I’ve come up with twenty categories, each with only one band, song or album in it. Some categories are pretty traditional, and some were created simply because I thought a song, album or a band deserved mentioning. I also tried not to mention one band more than once. So here it is, my 2009 non-list:

Most Depressing Song I Sang Along To in My Car On a Regular Basis

Two by The Antlers

Best Example of What I Think a “Cover” Should Be

Stillness is the Move by Solange Knowles (Dirty Projectors cover)

Song That Most Made Me Want to Be in Love

Northern Lights by Bowerbirds

Most Straight Up Rocking Album By A Female

Fortress Round My Heart by Ida Maria

Album That Could Never Have Lived Up To My Love For Their Previous Album, But Came Close

Strict Joy by The Swell Season

Song With Lyrics I Found Most Applicable To My Own Experience

White Blank Page by Mumford and Sons

Best Band From Boston That Somehow “Made It” Without Having Something to Do with Being Irish, and Therefore Sounded the Least Like They Were From Boston

Passion Pit

Song That I Hope Does Not Describe my Future

Actor out of Work by St. Vincent

Song That Never Failed To Make Me Enjoy Driving in the Morning/Best Opening Track

Lisztomania by Phoenix

Song that Was Influenced By U2, That I Still Managed to Really Enjoy, Even Though I Hate U2 Now

Sweet Disposition by The Temper Trap

Song That Never Failed to Create a Unique, Almost un-Definable Mood

Seeplymouth by Volcano Choir

Song That Made Me Wish Their Last Two Albums Were As Good As This One Song

One Wing by Wilco

Best Song By An American Band That Made Me Want to Go Abroad Again

Camera Talk by Local Natives

Best Collaboration

Knotty Pine by David Byrne and Dirty Projectors

Best Job At Sounding Like Another Musician Without Also Sounding Like a Rip-Off

Laura by Girls

Best Song That Involved an Outdated Piece of Technology

Vcr by the xx

Most Surprising Fusion of Two Bands

Discovery (members of Ra Ra Riot and Vampire Weekend)

Favorite Grizzly Bear Song That Wasn’t “Two Weeks”

The Foreground by Grizzly Bear

The Late On My Radar Award

Sea Wolf

…and finally…

If I Believed in Guilty Pleasures, This Would Be It, But Since I Don’t, I’ll Just Call It A Pleasure

Party in the U.S.A. by Miley Cyrus

I have to say, 2009 was an especially good year for music (well not the music business, but they're really not the same thing are they?) , let's hope 2010 gives us just as much.

One Last Thought: Pay attention to what the last song you hear in 2009 is, and what the first song you hear in 2010 is. The results may be very telling. This of course, requires that you don't get too drunk and assault a potted plant--or at least not before you have time to write it down.

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