why all lists are garbage
featuring our editor’s picks for album of the year
I don’t watch TV or go on Tumblr, so excuse me if this is mansplaining. But I’ve noticed that it has become common for people who love show “X” or enjoy band “Y” to excitedly describe themselves as “X obsessives” or “Y nerds.” I find this bewildering. To me, “nerd” has always had a very sexless, very unsavory meaning. I’m not sure why anyone would want to claim it, and besides I find it applicable to very few people. A nerd is someone who engages with an element of culture so analytically, so far past the point of its original design, that it doesn’t seem like he or she actually enjoys it. A nerd is someone who could turn watching Cake Boss into joyless, dedicated labor.
I know not everyone will share this definition. If anything, I’m fairly certain it originated within the Freudian snares and vapors of my own weirdass childhood. Specifically, around the age of 7, when I went to a Cubs game with my father and some of his work friends. Tagging along, not actually invited, was another co-worker—a short, sad-eyed man who presumptuously introduced himself as the group’s “real” baseball fan. But while everyone else drank beer, cracked jokes, and cheered to the game, this man did not speak. He had brought two large binders with him, and though they looked exactly the same, he would alternate between them to scrawl numbers. This was so repulsive I could barely focus. Baseball was simple, beautiful, populist—yet this man refused to enjoy it on its intended level. Instead, he had to assert his own advanced understanding, inventing some mathematical language only he understood. It seemed cosmically appropriate that he had no friends, and I resolved to never be a nerd.
If I’m a tragic character, it’s because I f***ed up and totally became a nerd. Growing up, I organized my own (fragile, confused) sense of self around an obsession with pop music—one that, today, feels so innate I can forget it’s basically a coping mechanism. Never a particularly verbal, outgoing, or pleasant child, I’d come straight home from school, strap bulky, space-age headphones on my ears, and find my solace in my parent’s stereo system. Pop radio and classic albums took the place of conversations I wasn’t having with normal, school-aged children. This was in many ways my social education. It’s legitimately distressing how much precocious sexual understanding I can trace to Madonna’s Immaculate Collection. I was really weird!
But like in a terrible Tim Burton movie, aggressively anti-social behavior turned out to be a hidden pathway to making friends. Awkward bus rides became iPod sharing sessions, and I could always rely on my ace Fergie impression whenever circumstance trapped me with a girl. But this presented a new problem: everyone liked music. How could I be different? I had to be different. Tim Burton movies taught me different people were the most beautiful. I decided it wasn’t enough to be knowledgeable about my music. I had to know the most about music culture—to have unique opinions about every artist that was popular or renowned. You could understand other people in this way. Determined to expand my knowledge, I stopped listening to the songs I loved and began a quest to alphabetically conquer every CD in the house. In perhaps my most devastating and heedless error, I went on the internet. It was here that I first encountered lists. I’d spend hours just staring at them.
Lists made me a nerd. They’re the low-intellect center of music fandom, obstructing more natural forms of engagement. What the list is or who’s making it doesn’t matter—all are equally useless for two reasons.
- Duh. It’s impossible to condense opinion into an empirical framework, and the attempt will always demean the natural plurality of art. Jim and Judy value seperate things, yet both use the same list-form as though there were some joining standard. Individually, a list might possess some scant meaning—perhaps the same way you learn a bit about people from their grocery shopping. But together, all straining for objectivity, list culture is indecipherable nonsense. A scatter bomb of groundless data.
- Lists grant incredible authority despite requiring none at all. List-makers come down from the mountain promulgating that they’ve “processed all of the art, here is the answer.” But when someone lists their five best albums of the year, are those the only albums they listened to? Were all the albums listened to with the same care? Does this person even like music or are they working out of some bizarre, list-making sweatshop? Disclosing such information is not a factor or standard for listmaking, thus all lists are untrustworthy, and all lists are garbage.
This is not to suggest there is zero value to lists; lowered from their absurd position as fact, they can be a helpful gateway to new art, as they were for me. But over time, I found that I lost my sense of music taste as something individual—a private, irrational connection between a listener and a musician. When you slap a number on a piece of art, it’s a kind of limit. You claim to understand everything the work can do for you and others.
We are currently in the heat of 2018 Album of the Year discussion. Big publications are starting to release their lists, and music nerds have begun their annual tradition: complaining about how awful they are. This is always amusing/depressing because nerds are the least self-aware people on earth. Include too many consensus picks and your list is safe, creatively bankrupt, and boring. Feature too many left field selections and your list is contrarian, unreliable, and useless. This is deeply narcissistic behavior; naturally. there’s only one path to satisfaction.
So over the last few weeks, my daily routine was hijacked by final progress on my own list for this magazine. I maintained a fifteen spot ranking of my favorites as the year progressed, so this last stretch was largely due diligence—a nerd’s joyless catch-up. This work was centralized around two documents on my Notes app, respectively labeled “albums to return to” and “albums missed.” For whatever reason, the records in the former pile weren’t impressive enough to enter regular rotation. Those landing in the second either didn’t interest me or passed me by when they were released. I’d listen to a few of these a day, usually during normal commute around campus, but also at the gym, before bed, and, if the music withstood multitasking (usually ambient/electronic/guttural-death-metal), while studying. If my seven-year-old self could see me, he might cry.
The final task is always to balance the music’s personal appeal against what appear to be objective qualities. You don’t want to be a fascist robot, but I think it’s important to be evenhanded. So: Do I hold Juice WRLD accountable for his sexism even if I catch myself singing “ALL GIRLS ARE THE SAMEE” twice a day? Is my disappointment that Travis Scott and Anderson.Paak’s newest albums didn’t match their best obscuring their quality? Does it matter that George Clanton’s Slide is the same dreamy/hazy song repeated over and over when it’s the song I’ve always heard when I make-out? I’m strong enough at this that I’ve come to view myself above questions like “favorite genre?” or “don’t you hate country music?” Because of lists, I listen to everything, although I’m not sure I understand other people any better.
This year, the album that gave me the most trouble was Swimming, the final release from late rapper Mac Miller. Understandably, it’s an album that’s impossible to view detached from context. The same feelings of depression and heartbreak that gave birth to Swimming probably killed Miller, and that makes for harrowing listening. At the same time, Miller speaks with real acuity about the paralyzed anti-ambition that grounds so much human angst and waste. As the memoir of my life could reasonably be titled “Human Angst and Waste,” I relate to this in ways that preclude objectivity. But the album kept gnawing at me, and by the time I was doing my joyless round-up, I was slipping in tracks to keep myself sane. Other lists have largely forgotten it, but whatever—I feel the sounds in my bones. That’s the level most people connect to music on. Swimming is my album of the year, and that feels healthy. I can’t promise I’ll be similarly subjective in 2019, but alas, such are nerds.
Anyway, f*** lists.
- Mac Miller Swimming
- Low Double Negative
- JPEGMAFIA Veteran
- The Voidz Virtue
- Tierra Whack Whack World
- George Clanton Slide
- Denzel Curry TA3OO