The Listmaker’s Dilemma: Capturing Subjectivity In A Moment

Here’s a fun/possibly demoralizing exercise. Look at your end-of-year music lists from the past few years. Now count up how many of those albums you’ve listened to more than once (or at all) in the past year. How many are there? And how did they stack up with your rankings of those albums at the time? I know for myself personally when I look at my list just from this past year I’m certainly not in great disagreement with myself over it now, but I also definitely have not listened to most of the albums on it since putting it together. More tellingly, the albums that I have returned to the most were the ones that were the most fun, the most immediate, and the most accessible. As someone who listens to (and prides himself in listening to) a lot of music most people would find complicated or challenging, this is a bit bothersome. And it gives me pause as I’m currently putting together my year-end list now, which is most assuredly turning out to be the most stacked and difficult to navigate list I’ve ever had to put together.

End-of-year listmaking is, as we all know, an incredibly subjective and oftentimes completely arbitrary affair. There’s very little one can do to measurably stack one piece of music against another, particularly when you’re dealing with multiple styles and areas on the musical spectrum. So it inevitably becomes a game of sorts – one where everyone sets their own rules and parameters, but one that we still inevitably measure each other on in the end anyway. For myself though, and I suspect many others, the mental process of actually creating and sorting out the multitudes of albums listened to throughout the year remains a proverbial black box. It just sort of happens, and I move things around until it feels and looks right. Even in that though there’s a multitude of constant internal struggles, few more so than the question of how to separate and quantify one’s “enjoyment” of an album versus one’s “appreciation” of it.

And here we have the classic struggle of the emotional against the intellectual. Which is better: the album that I can plug into and be immediately emotionally-satisfied, shout at the top of my lungs like a fool, and simply feel good about without necessarily giving all of my attention to? Or is it the album that forces me to pay attention, that required many a listen to really decipher and pull apart, but once it revealed itself to me proved to be just as rewarding as any other more immediately enjoyable and less demanding piece of music? Simply put, which do I value more: immediacy or depth?

Can ranking albums one perhaps appreciates more as being impressive and “important” rather than simply enjoyable high up be called fakery or a projection of the illusion of “depth” in character?

As I attempt to piece together my list this year, I find myself carefully balancing these factors but still struggling in determining which albums and artists are the best representation of my year in music and which albums are “the best” overall. If I didn’t listen to an album more than a few times because I had to be in a very specific mood to listen to it and enjoy it, should I place it lower than albums I jammed to far more often, even if I can recognize that the bar set for the music on it wasn’t nearly as high? Can ranking albums one perhaps appreciates more as being impressive and “important” rather than simply enjoyable high up be called fakery or a projection the illusion of “depth” in character? And if I don’t end up listening to an album that much in the future, is that an indictment of my feelings about that album at the time of making the list, or is it okay to appreciate an album for what it was at that time and not feel the need to revisit it?

In addition to the personal, subjective issues, one must remember that these lists are also a social effort. Much like our clothings, our cars, our libraries, our voices and anything else which we display to the world, they are a part of the intricate, codified dance that we perform with our peers. This dance conveys much more than outward appearances and aesthetic choices; it also deals with meta-aesthetics that is, the field of how and why we make our choices. Sure, surface issues of “am I in or not?” come up but the more interesting questions and answers deal with much more complex questions like “do I care that I’m in or not?” or “which musical community do I see myself as being part of?”

By curating selections from a common, readily available pool, lists allow us to signal to others about how we make our choices, why we make them and what we think these choices mean. By corresponding or breaking away from what others expect of us, we can look to score that most illustrious commodity, cultural capital. If we correspond, we participate: we take part in something grander than ourselves and “earn points” for conforming. But we earn these point for not conforming as well: rebellion is highly lucrative in itself, in a cultural sense. So, what conscious place should we give these considerations, if at all? Shall we curate our images knowingly or let them flow from whatever place they reside in?

In the end, the act of listmaking is nothing more than simply attempting to cobble together a series of moments, gut feelings, and intellectual stimuli, into something that we feel is an accurate representation and expression of ourselves.

The answer to all of these questions, ultimately, is that there is no answer. Or rather, there are too many answers. It all changes constantly. At any given moment most of us are generally in the mood for a very specific thing or at least a specific feeling. Subjectivity is the furthest thing from a constant and the social aspects of it are the furthest thing from clear. So in the end, the act of listmaking is nothing more than simply attempting to cobble together a series of moments, gut feelings, and intellectual stimuli, into something that we feel is an accurate representation and expression of ourselves. Lists are nothing if not expressions of self. Sure, they’re about the music and highlighting the bands and artists you feel deserve recognition for their hard work and for the pleasure they brought you. But ultimately it’s an entirely selfish affair. It’s a quick summary of your musical ID, and with it, your own self.

Perhaps that’s why so many people take listmaking so seriously, and why sites such as this and countless others putting out their own lists often spark such heated reactions and discussion. In putting our own lists and opinions out there, we’re placing a piece of ourselves in the void of public internet space, and though we might not want to admit it, it’s important to receive some sense of validation in return. Putting yourself out there is always a risk, and there are few feelings worse than doing so and not receiving the reaction in return that you hoped for. If we like to talk about music with other people to share a connection over shared interest and feelings, then sharing and comparing lists is a condensed and heightened version of just that.

For myself, the bottom line will likely come to this: my first priority will be for albums that, in a pinch, I am most likely to reach for; second, which albums do I feel did something interesting and different, or took particular risks that others did not; and lastly, which albums do I think had the greatest impact on the scene and discussion throughout the year. Those are my own rules and parameters, and you are more than welcome to follow suit or go your own path. Just remember in the end that we’re all slaves to our own subjectivity, and we’re all playing our own game with our own rules, even as we claim to not be playing the game at all.

-NC

Comments

"We're all fools, all the time. It's just we're a different kind each day. We think, I'm not a fool today. I've learned my lesson. I was a fool yesterday but not this morning. Then tomorrow we find out that, yes, we were a fool today too. I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact we're not perfect and live accordingly." - Ray Bradbury






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