October 22, 2012

The Best of the Best of

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“Best of” lists come in all shapes and sizes, especially when it comes to music. Following the classic format established in High Fidelity, music-know-it-all’s — or people who just want to be our friends — can spend hours reciting the “Top Albums of 2011,” “Best Punk B-Sides” or “Most Influential Use Of An Accordion On A Top 40 Single.” It gets pretty specific pretty quick.

Lists work because they (usually) compare music under a common rubric. When making “best of” decisions about a particular genre, you look for what exemplifies the traits identified with that style of music. Even when including different genres — “Best Album Opening Tracks” is one that comes to mind — specificity helps, as you’re still attempting to determine what song, album or artist had the greatest achievement in one particular musical element. It’s when you broaden the criteria that lists can get a little tricky.

To me, it’s more rewarding to debate whether Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the best Beatles album than whether it’s the best album of all time (going off of Rolling Stone’s 2003 list). Comparing Sgt. Pepper and Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, for example, is like comparing apples and oranges. Not only do they have access to vastly different technology and ideas of music history (It Takes a Nation of Millions was released just over 20 years after Sgt. Pepper), but their goals, identity and style are so radically distinct it is basically meaningless to say one is “better” than the other.

Recently, I discovered two articles that stood out from the usual music nerd list-making. One was a piece from Matthew Perpetua at BuzzFeed arguing that 1994 was the “awesomest” year for music. In the other corner was Mark Beaumont at NME who claimed that, in fact, 1992 was the best year ever for music. While they were released two months apart, and neither piece acknowledged the other, there seemed to be a mutual understanding that evaluating music history as a hierarchy of years was appropriate and beneficial.

In many ways, this is a natural progression from Rolling Stone’s landmark list and others like it. If one album can be judged against another released decades later (or earlier), why can’t a period of time be looked at the same way? And, in both cases, the writers make strong cases for their argument, citing their chosen year’s diversity of sounds, artists’ ability to create something new and the continuing impact of the music produced.

I should also point out that identifying standout years for pop music is not a new exercise: I’ve heard — and made — arguments for the sheer excellence of music released in 1984. Earlier this semester my colleague and oftentimes “best of” list sparring partner James Rainis ’14 waxed nostalgia for the recent past of 2009, and made a convincing case for its increasing importance.

However, this exercise gets interesting when two writers argue different points using the same examples, while ostensibly using similar criteria to judge them. Both Perpetua and Beaumont use Pavement and Sonic Youth as proof of the emerging power of the American independent music scene, and cite Blur and Pulp as models of the new Britpop movement. Writing across the pond from each other — Perpetua is American and Beaumont is British — their lists become significant not just for the arguments they put forward, but also for the cultural divisions they illustrate.

Although Perpetua argues the initial importance of these artists came two years later than Beaumont does, it’s not that he is coming late to the party, but rather reflecting on how America consumed music in the 1990s. While the British music industry had a massive network of independent labels and weekly magazines devoted to covering underground music, in the States, rock radio at the dawn of the ’90s was ruled by the same machine it had been for decades. In 1991, Nirvana’s Nevermind helped to shatter the divide between independent music and mainstream acceptance, but it’s not surprising that it took a few years for a network to be established in America to get this music out to the masses. Both writers name American and British bands to illustrate their broad arguments, so rather than a difference explained by national bias, Perpetua and Beaumont’s separate conclusions really show the history of pop music in their respective countries.

So, while looking at “best of” lists on their own may seem pointless in their inclusiveness or constricting in their specificity, comparing them reveals a lot about a moment in time, and how history can shape perspectives.

And just to repeat for anyone interested: The best year for music is 1984, pretty much hands down. But I’m happy to hear other arguments.

Original Author: Peter Jacobs

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