Around this time of year blogs, magazines, websites and the writers who work for them start putting together their obligatory “best of” lists. I won’t be joining them. Admittedly, I will be clicking on many a link come December to see what were judged to be the best albums, viral videos and who-knows-what-else of 2013, but when it comes to assembling my own such lists, I abstain. This leaves me in the minority of critics, but I have issues with end-of-year lists, some having to do with the practice in general, some having more to do with how I view myself. Here’s my attempt at parsing out the reasons why I’ve never jumped on the Top 10 bandwagon. And don’t worry, I appreciate the irony behind my writing a laundry list of arguments to underscore my point. Which is why I don’t really think of myself as a critic, as the term is often thought of today — I love all of my paragraphs equally.
First, there are just too many lists. For everything ranging from politics to pop culture, the media trend nowadays is to boil down even the most complex topic into a “Top 10 reasons why” or “Five best things about” presentation, often with a healthy dose of snark and sarcasm to transform the subject matter — no matter how serious — into a form of easily digestible entertainment. BuzzFeed.com has exploded thanks to this click-baiting strategy, using a model of highlighting things that are trending on the web and presenting them in a punchy, distilled format. If that site that has taken the quick and dirty means of spreading information to its apogee, I have nothing more to add. Yes, it’s entertaining, and I often feel warm and fuzzy or amused by a Buzzfeed post, I rarely feel fulfilled. I feel the same way about end-of-year lists, I simply want more meat on the bones.
Furthermore, jazz ought to be entertaining, but this is music whose practitioners spend years honing their craft. Like the music itself, those of us who write about it should try to entertain our readers; providing thoughtful commentary in such a way takes a lot of effort, but that is what these musicians deserve. Critics that put together best-of lists no doubt put a lot of thought into them, but their rationale is rarely communicated to the reader because of the meal-in-a-pill style of presentation..
And there’s a reason why media outlets have gone from offering extended commentary to being increasingly bloggy, to now entering the list-iverse: pure commerce. The shorter the post, the quicker it can be digested and the more hits it will get. This is just economic reality, and there are systemic issues at hand, so I won’t place any blame at the feet of a publication that chooses to do year-end wrap-ups. Nor do I judge the upstart journalist who is trying to build a name and reputation. Still, the practice just isn’t for me.
I’m especially wary of the instant canonization that end-of-year roundups afford, as well as the exclusion they inflict on work that is ahead of its time. For example, the jazz intelligentsia of the day panned the bebop sounds that are now considered classic, while a superstar like Chick Corea got strong reviews for albums in mid to late ‘80s that now border on unlistenable. The narrowing of albums that ultimately become part of the jazz canon is a natural process that occurs over time. But the annual practice of naming a minute percentage as the best accelerates this natural selection unnecessarily, and perhaps detrimentally.
Furthermore, the whole thing about beauty and the beholder is absolutely true, and I often find myself disagreeing with the choices critics make. Granted, this is probably beneficial in terms of generating comments, page views, etc., but it’s too simplistic of a way to disagree. Because all art is created in a given context, the best critics put more effort into describing its situation and aesthetic to the reader than adjudging a particular piece as good or bad. Top 10 lists don’t allow for much of this analysis. Instead, they foster competition and disagreement and short descriptions—which is what sells, but at the expense of reasoned inquiry.
The final reason you won’t be seeing a best-of list from me is that I haven’t listened to every jazz record from last year. Writers receive hundreds of albums every year for consideration. I applaud those critics that are actually able to make it through all the hours of music. I cannot. I suspect that most jazz writers are in the same boat. And unless a writer has committed to this considerable effort, any year-end wrap-up lacks authority. I am knowledgeable enough about jazz to write with credibility and I don’t limit my exposure to experiences that I already understand and enjoy—quite the contrary, in fact. At the same time, I don’t feign omniscience. Even if I had the time, I probably wouldn’t make it through hundreds of hours of music because an obligatory experience will preclude the pure emotion that one feels when listening to music with a more open, informed and interested mindset. Communicating that reaction is more important to me than communicating my thoughts on the albums you should buy during the holidays.
Sriram Gopal is CapitalBop’s monthly columnist. He can be reached at [email protected] His column appears on the first Thursday of every month.