A few years ago, I judged a child beauty pageant in Texas. For each of the fifty-plus kids I saw that day, I had to fill out scorecard assigning a numerical value to several of their attributes. The first criterion was "facial beauty."
Almost immediately I decided I wouldn't be taking that one seriously. I don't know how to judge a child's facial beauty. I don't know what I'm looking at. A child's face is in constant a state of flux; in, like, six months, it's going to look totally different. What's the point?
(To reconcile my duties as a judge and my beliefs as a human being, I ended up giving them all 10s in facial beauty, except for one bald, under-two-year-old, whose gaping, toothless mouth reminded me of Anna Nicole Smith's cousin Shelly. I gave her a 10+.)
I have that same sort of antipathy toward compiling year-end Top 10 lists, especially those focused on music. The music won't change the way faces do, but my relationship to it will. My associations with it will develop organically as my tastes change and experiences grow. Eventually that relationship will no longer resemble what it did on the December day I sat down to arbitrarily organize my music-listening into a hierarchy.
Endurance, I think, is a much better indicator of meaning than whatever rubric I'd devise to justify my rankings now. A Top 10 of 2013, compiled in 2023, will more greatly reflect this year in my life. I certainly don't trust my opinion from 10 years ago—I might as well have not seen a movie or heard an album at all.
The end of the year is also the worst time to ask me this kind of question, when my brain is burdened with travel plans and gift lists and recipes and a holiday schedule and the knowledge that at the end of the month my mind will get mushy and shut down for the 10-day (or so) hiatus we as a country tacitly agree on every year. I don't know what my Top 10s are. Ask me some other time when I'm not as busy. Ask me when Beyoncé isn't taking up all of my listening time.
I realize that people make these rankings primarily because they find it fun. That's great. Have fun. List away. Rank until your heart's content. I'm not going to tell you what to do with your life, even though I am aligned with Emily Nussbaum's "emotional and philosophical opposition to top-ten lists, which are simultaneously reductive and boring."
This is me now, but I was once a list-maker, too. There was a time when I was more excited to organize these lists and share them with the world, just like there was a time when I had far more intimate relationships with albums because they weren't as commonplace as tap water. It's not much harder to get your hands on an album these days than it is to turn on a faucet. I remember loving music so much that the idea of there being too much of it available to me was inconceivable. And yet, it happened. There is too much available. That hasn't turned me off. I don't listen to music less now. In fact, I listen to more of it and I cram it into every possible moment I can (morning commute, the gym, the rare instance that I'm doing something organizational and uncreative at work that I don't need absolute concentration for).
But what I'm listening to matters less to me, by and large. I take it for granted. I don't have time for everything at my disposal and so if I'm not in the mood to listen to a specific style or tempo or voice today, it gets skipped in favor of whatever I do want to hear. I often don't have time to go back and listen to that thing I just skipped—there's always more to hear and know about and, per my job, have an opinion on. Things get lost and fall through the cracks. Long are the days that I would buy an album with my own money and work at liking that album, listening to it repeatedly even if it didn't initially grab me. As a result, a lot of the bonds that I form with music are much weaker than they used to be. Part of this has to do with getting older, yes. I'm no longer the 17-year-old who'd line up all day to be front row at a show anymore. There's too much other real life shit to care about. But there's also too much other musical shit to care about (or at least spend time listening to). Because there's just so much to like, there's not enough time to find true love.
And then there's the public ceremony of list-making, which increasingly irks me. When you package your taste for other people to read, dishonesty is a threat, especially when that packaging comes without explanation, as it generally does in a list. In a review, you can account for all sorts of factors that inform and color opinion. You don't need to arrive at conclusions like "this is good" or "this is bad" in reviews. Just respond. Just do the discourse thing. Most reviews are understood to exist inside of a cultural moment. Lists, on the other hand, are absolute in nature. The idea is to stand in front of people with your taste, and nothing else. You are a nude fan. (For this reason, nonhierarchical lists such as Max Read's year-end music list strike me as more realistic and reasonable.)
That can be terrifying, and so all sort of temptations to dress up said list creep in. That album that everyone knows is good, that you respect but that you really didn't listen to more than once all the way through—should you include that? Broad knowledge is the ideal, right? So if your list isn't diverse enough, do you start hacking off similar-sounding singles in favor of a more varied palate? You can't include so-bad-it's-good or more jokey stuff that you legitimately enjoyed because no one would get it, right? Is there consistency maintain? Should you be conversant with your previous years' lists?
Are you ranking the best or your favorite? Can you even tell what the difference is?
Are you making sure to pay tribute to your heroes and others who did admirable, important work this year and if so, why? What honor are you deriving from the incredibly egocentric process of sharing this stuff? You think you're special?
And don't you realize that once you submit your list, you're going to realize that you left at least one crucial thing off? Your list is always going to be a little wrong. It's only going to get wronger over time, and what's worse is those rankings are only going to matter less, a closet full of trophies and sashes collecting dust as years go by.
1. Beyoncé - BEYONCÉ
2. Beyoncé - BEYONCÉ
3. Beyoncé - BEYONCÉ
4. Beyoncé - BEYONCÉ
5. Beyoncé - BEYONCÉ
6. Beyoncé - BEYONCÉ
7. Beyoncé - BEYONCÉ
8. Beyoncé - BEYONCÉ
9. Beyoncé - BEYONCÉ
10. Beyoncé - BEYONCÉ
1. Beyoncé featuring Drake - "Mine"
2. Beyoncé featuring Jay Z - "Drunk in Love"
3. Beyoncé - "Jealous"
4. Beyoncé - "No Angel"
5. Beyoncé - "Yonce"/"Partition"
6. Beyoncé - "Rocket"
7. Beyoncé - "***Flawless"
8. Beyoncé - "Ghost"/"Haunted"
9. Beyoncé - "Blow"
10. Beyoncé featuring Frank Ocean - "Superpower"
[Image via Getty]