Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Decade postmortem: 2007 and 2008

Having gone through a decade of old top 10s, I’ve been thinking about the two contrary motives involved in putting these things together. On one hand, the lists express personal tastes, more emotional than analytical. And since they are usually cranked out on deadline at the end of the year, they can be inexact, first-draft statements reflecting a moment in time; it’s like a postmortem temperature taken while the body is still warm. This gut-level impulse tends to favor more unpredictable, less popular picks: fanboy plugs, showoff-y picks, oppositional stances.

On the other hand, you’re making broad statements about the state of music, and there have to be real criteria for that judgment. Less impressively, critics want to look smart to other critics, and that means balancing a certain number of obscurities with a certain number of choices in common, which function as trade credentials. This is the more calculating approach, and it’s the mindset of collective editorial lists at magazines and websites. With the imprimatur of a publication, personal feelings are minimized (as is the blame for erroneous or lame picks), and these lists end up being more official and predictable, in line with the consensus; in fact, they establish consensus.

Neither approach is right or wrong; they work together. But looking back years later it’s hard to hold on to those random, contrarian choices, since the vibe you felt making them in the first place has probably faded, and the weeding process of history has rearranged the field. For example, from our point of view 10 years later, Kid A towers over the releases of 2000, but at the time it was somewhat more controversial: Pitchfork put it at No. 1 that year, but it was only No. 5 in Rolling Stone, behind Eminem, U2, D’Angelo, even Madonna’s Music.

What this means for me is that as I’ve revised my lists they have probably become more “correct” but also less interesting: fewer surprises, fewer argument-starters, less defiant advocacy. One of my favorites for 2008, for instance, was the Jonas Brothers, which caught me some shit. (Hi, Jake.) I can’t say now whether I was right or wrong about it because I haven’t listened in a year; that fact alone, however, is reason to edit that album out, since it can’t have been so great if after 12 months I don’t care.

But it’s also one of those self-correcting, conformist moments, an opportunity to replace an honest but risky lark with something safer, more familiar, “stronger.” At the same time, you’ve got to hold on to your individuality and avoid succumbing to the groupthink that can make so many of these lists tediously identical at the time they’re drawn up but then uselessly out of fashion once X number of years pass and nobody cares anymore about Northern State or Arrested Development. That, and the fact that you need to listen to lots and lots and lots of music, is why it’s hard to do this.

That’s theory. Now for practice. Here’s my original list for 2007 (and original blurbs):

1. Dirty Projectors, Rise Above
2. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raising Sand
3. Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
4. Battles, Mirrored
5. Feist, The Reminder
6. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
7. M.I.A., Kala
8. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
9. Avril Lavigne, The Best Damn Thing
10. Radiohead, In Rainbows

Scorecard: Pretty right-on, I think. Dirty Projectors blew my mind in 2007, and I still like them now. Plant/Krauss is magnificent, and Spoon added another reason for being the best band of the decade. I’m moving Feist and M.I.A. up, bumping Battles down, and replacing Avril with Deerhoof, who deserve more credit than they’ve been getting at decade’s end. Otherwise not many changes. (Nos. 11 through 20 would include Black Lips, Yeasayer, Linda Thompson, Kanye, the Frames, Miranda Lambert and Nick Lowe. And Avril.)

Kind Reader, I present my revised list for 2007:

1. Dirty Projectors, Rise Above
2. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raising Sand
3. Spoon, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
4. Feist, The Reminder
5. M.I.A., Kala
6. Amy Winehouse, Back to Black
7. Battles, Mirrored
8. Radiohead, In Rainbows
9. Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
10. Deerhoof, Friend Opportunity

2008 is a little trickier for me. My original list (and blurbs):

1. Vampire Weekend
2. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
3. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals
4. Metallica, Death Magnetic
5. TV on the Radio, Dear Science
6. Randy Newman, Harps and Angels
7. My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges
8. Black Kids, Partie Traumatic
9. Jonas Brothers, A Little Bit Longer
10. Beach House, Devotion

Looking at this, Randy Newman now feels more like an 8 or a 9 than a 6, and Black Kids and the JoBros belong in the mid-teens. But what to replace them with? The records that didn’t make my original cut were:

  • Al Green, who made a gorgeous, vibrant record with ?uestlove. Cut because Newman was more topical and exploratory, and I didn’t want two fogies.
  • Jamey Johnson. Omitted as a reaction against critical groupthink, and because I’m just not a country guy. But it’s undeniable that this is a very strong record.
  • Coldplay. Good, but it’s Coldplay.
  • She & Him. Nice, but at the time it didn’t seem terribly significant. Still doesn’t, although it’s just as sweet.
  • Lykke Li. Sort of the year’s Bjork/Feist/Regina/Fiona/Emiliana quirky-girl entry. Which “shouldn’t matter shouldn’t matter,” as Gwen would say. But it does matter because her album is not half as clever as anything by Bjork or Feist or Regina or Fiona or Emiliana.
  • Nick Cave. Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! is great, but ... I dunno.
  • Joe Jackson. Rain is as good as anything he did 25 or 30 years ago, but you’ve got the fogy problem again. What’s 2008 about it? Why could it not have been made in 1983 or 1992 or 2005?
  • Magnetic Fields, Distortion. Another consensus choice, and despite a couple of fantaaaastic songs (“Drive On, Driver,” “California Girls”), it felt like a trifle.

Three more you see on every other list from 2008 are Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, Fleet Foxes’ debut, and Tha Carter III. I still snooze thinking of Fleet Foxes, and don’t feel fully qualified to judge Lil Wayne. But Kanye’s Auto-Tune essay on isolation and misery was visionary; shoulda been in my list to begin with. He and Jamey Johnson make the cut.

So, 2008 revised:

1. Vampire Weekend
2. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
3. Metallica, Death Magnetic
4. Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak
5. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals
6. Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
7. My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges
8. Randy Newman, Harps and Angels
9. TV on the Radio, Dear Science
10. Beach House, Devotion

And that’s our show, folks! My 2009 list will be posted soon. Make that eventually. Well, pretty soon. Happy New Year!

1 comment:

Robbb said...

Great insight into the process. After this series of posts, I feel that I understand the spectrum of criticism much better, with subjective blogs/zines at one extreme and group-thinking corporate rags on the other. I think your approach is the most thoughtful, and occupies the sweet spot right in the middle.

On a minor note, "Raising Sand" was similarly perched to be in my top 10 of the decade. But only now, two years later, am I noticing the rampant auto-tuning of Robert Plant's voice. Though it's still a perfectly crafted album, auto-tuning disqualifies it from greatness. If it were a pop or electronic album, it would be a different story. But in Americana--a genre that holds authenticity sacred--it's just unforgivable.