Imaginary Landscapes

it could probably go without saying that we tweedy, asthmatic little crit-snobs are a retrospective bunch. We measure worth by how an object relates to the past. That's what we do, and that's our metric. So come the season of celebration for the Magical Jewish Baby, while all of you are buying obsequious tokens of affection for your loved ones, we're sitting in our dusty, darkened hovels, walls stained with hurled coffee and blood from head-banging accidents, tap-tap-tapping away at our year-in-reviews. This requires a massive effort, and vast reserves of emotional fortitude to withstand the deep, dark moments of introspection. For you see, dear reader, we are not just reviewing the Year That Was, we're reviewing the We That Were over that same year. For illustrative purposes, here are my top 20 albums of 2005:

1. Gang Gang Dance, God's Money
2. Animal Collective, Feels
3. The Chap, Ham
4. The National, Alligator
5. Christof Kurzmann and Burkhard Beins, Erstlive 003
6. Lightning Bolt, Hypermagic Mountain
7. Akron/Family, self-titled
8. Keith Fullerton Whitman, Multiples
9. Jamie Lidell, Multiply
10. Out Hud, Let Us Never Speak Of It Again
11. Cloud Cult, Advice From the Happy Hippopotamus
12. Mountains, self-titled
13. Broadcast, Tender Buttons
14. Juan MacLean, Less Than Human
15. Mitchell Akiyama, Small Explosions That Are Yours To Keep
16. Andrew Bird, The Mysterious Production Of Eggs
17. Paarvoharju, Yha Hamaraa
18. LCD Soundsystem, self-titled
19. Franz Ferdinand, You Could Have It So Much Better
20. Hood, Outside Closer

As with most intellectually rigorous accomplishments, a solid rubric had to be laid out beforehand, which ran thusly: I made a list of albums I liked from the past year off the top of my head. When I couldn't think of anymore immediately—around number 15—I started rummaging around to fill it out. I ended up with 25 total, then started making some small adjustments. Moving Mountains and Keith Fullerton Whitman away from each other, as well as LCD and Juan MacLean. Then I numbered them one to twenty and lopped off the remainder—perfectly respectable albums by the likes of No Neck Blues Band and John Vanderslice. Then I shipped it off for inclusion. The whole process took about 15 minutes. You may think that to be somewhat arbitrary, and my response would be that the whole enterprise is no less so than what I've done.

Or, to put it more simply, by exactly what measure is the Gang Gang Dance album “one better” than Animal Collective's? Akron/Family are “eleven better” than LCD Soundsystem? Really? How so? Even in the few cases there where there might be enough similarity to compare directly—in terms of genre or structure or what have you, those arbitrary distinctions that have had too many long-form deconstructions as is—the idea that God's Money beats Feels in the freaky-fractal-rock sweeps seems pretty indefensible, but there it is, because, you know... because. But even in every other case, there seems to be an assumption, among writers and readers alike, that if we assume that these apples and oranges are actually all pineapples, then we can weigh them all in our hands, check for bruises or deformities, and come to an objective, or even rational, system for measuring artistic worth at the end of a year.

But of course we can't. No matter how sure of an opinion I might be, and how well I might be able to make sense of it to you, dear reader (ahem), there is no wholly objective measure of artistic merit. Yes, I hear you saying, “Well duh, of course!” But I've also seen you get riled up beyond all reasonableness about that less-than-enthusiastic review of your favorite band. What we prefer, and why, speaks to all kinds of things within each of us, and as obvious as that seems—to the point where it usually goes unspoken—whenever it's brought up, it always gets forgotten in the face of a forcefully-put opinion. At the end of the day, though, we still like our numbered lists, with their easily-digested structure and seemingly mathematical accuracy. And we love canons; the idea of a grand consensus of value may in theory speak to some lovely ideas about plurality, but when applied to the arts, it simply dulls all available edges. Anything come to by consensus will be the lowest-common-denominator by definition, and while you and I may prefer Stylus' choice to, say, TRL's, it's still our lowest-common-denominator. We may love our canons, but it renders dead, buried in a time capsule, entire worlds of thought and experience, as if the idea is to end all discussion. In other words, consensus will always be more boring than the lively variety engendered by spirited disagreement. It just depends on the grounds on which we're disagreeing: variable opinion on a set of records, or their placement in an arbitrary list, as if a marathon's been run and someone clearly broke the tape first.

During that fifteen minutes of agonizing spiritual pain a few weeks ago, I kept asking myself, “Why am I doing this?” as I shuffled two albums around according to the dictates of the voices in my head. Before I started writing for Stylus, I never felt compelled to make a year-end list. Even though it seemed like a pointless activity, I'd still read a few, mostly using them as a listening guide, catching up on anything I might have missed during the year, as I imagine lots of other people do. But then I'd still find things throughout that would raise my hackles, despite myself—my favorite record too far down for my liking, some over-hyped mediocrity at number one—as if it mattered at all. So why do we do this? There's a sad, defeated little cynic inside me that thinks those hackles are the key, that every year-end list gives everyone who reads it fifty chances to be up in arms about something. The rest of me—the indefatigable optimist—thinks it's fifty chances to celebrate, but either way it's less about a searching view of the past year, and more about being “right” about something. If an entire editorial concept, spread far and wide across just about every arts magazine imaginable, involved in creating artificial consensus measured in imaginary strata is held up just because it gives all involved yet another reason to pointlessly argue about something that bears little to no resemblance to how we actually spend a year enjoying music, then it just seems like a wasted year.

By: Jeff Siegel
Published on: 2006-01-03
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