Top 100s and why we make them

19 July 2011

Leftfield's Rhythm & Stealth, A Silver Mt. Zion's 13 Blues for Thirteen Moons and Polmo Polpo's The Science of Breath
MP here

Over the weekend I spent a hangover compiling a Top 100 list of favourite music albums. I’ve never even begun to compile a list like this, and I found it fun to do, largely because, I think, I told myself at the outset not to take the task too seriously. Since I’ve been thinking recently of returning to an annual revision of a similar list for films – something I haven’t attempted for about eight years – I thought I’d record some brief notes on list making as a process, and how the specific ways by which I go about making one for music albums might differ from a one on films.

Firstly, the logistics: how does one even begin to organise a list of personal favourites? It’ll be a different process from one person to the next, I imagine. Anyone will have some idea of what they love; will be able to reel off titles that immediately come to mind. But there are often those titles of which we need to remind ourselves, the favourites we’ve taken for granted and have neglected for a while – the albums that we fall in love with whenever we hear them again, but haven’t listened to in some time.

My process, then, seemed a bit mechanical but quite efficient. For me – someone who stopped buying physical copies of albums years ago, whose entire library is now stored on a hard drive – I have to trust that I already have my favourites “at hand”; in this instance, it’s a matter of browsing one’s media library and, with some intuitive instinct – knowing what one loves over what one merely likes – simply recording an initial list of contenders.

I’m quite literal-thinking when it comes to stuff like this; I ended up with an initial list of around 150 albums in alphabetical order. Rather than hop around and butcher it by guessing which titles wouldn’t make the final cut, I then went down the list asking if Album A was better than Album B, and if it is, then is it also better than the album after that? And so on and so forth.

After a certain point, though, I noticed that it had become extremely difficult to rank individual works against one another. Surely, the argument goes, whether you’ll prefer to listen to Bob Dylan’s Desire or Mobb Deep’s The Immortal depends on your current mood. I’d feel very comfortable in citing both of these as favourite albums in a conversation, but the idea of saying one is “better” than the other becomes absurd.

Furthermore, if one was to listen to every album in order to consider its rank in a list, the list-making process would be something of a never-ending “knockout tournament”, itself subject to daily preferences and moods-swings. And that kind of process, implying as it does that it is even possible to conclude on which album is better than another, would, I think, take the fun out of this process. And these things aren’t meant to be any more serious than “fun”, right?

Grooverider's Mysteries of Funk, The Avalanches' Since I Left You and DJ Shadow's Endtroducing
Nostalgia, favourites/bests, and other tensions

Another thing, which I think is related to not listening in full to each and every album before and as you consider it, is the notion that once the ranking process begins, album titles begin to replace your recollection of that album. What I mean by this is that you begin at a certain point to consider an album as some abstract form, removed from the work itself; you begin to champion certain albums over others, simply (or complexly) because you grow to like its name, or you emphasise your value on the title, misremember the album itself, etc.

I think nostalgia can play a large role here. As I was going down my list and moving titles above others – at certain points, quite arbitrarily, or with difficulty, or on some sort of instinctive, list-making autopilot – I was getting strangely excited by how long an album would retain its rank once placed there. At one point, for instance, Since I Left You by The Avalanches was at #1, before Endtroducing… by DJ Shadow replaced it, before Mysteries of Funk by Grooverider replaced that. After a while, it became less about ranking works than wanting works to fend off any would-be dethroning.

Maybe that’s just a problem I have. Maybe I think too much about this stuff even when I’m telling myself not to think too much about it. Maybe it’s the process I used. Maybe it’s just a sign that I do indeed love these albums and think at any moment, given a particular mood, I’d happily call any one of them my favourite

…or even the best ever. Because you can only like what you’ve been exposed to; and because a best list could be reduced to favourites anyway, even if you aspired to give some kind of personal reflection on the established canon. But more on that later.

Another dilemma is how honest to be in your selection, choosing between an actual current favourites list and one that represents your overall musical taste. There’s a subtle difference in both the method and the result. With the former, you could easily end up with four or five albums by the same artist in your Top 10 alone; whereas with the latter you could disguise that apparent favouritism – as if that kind of bias is to be avoided – by limiting your selection to one or two albums per artist. I didn’t do this: if you think six of the top hundred best albums ever made are by A Silver Mt. Zion, you ought not to apologise for that by limiting your selection. (At this point, read “best” and “favourite” interchangeably.) And being selective just so you can show that you like other artists too seems like cheating to me.

The problem here might be in the concept of a “Top 100” anyway, which seems fundamentally mechanical and arbitrary. People will lament having to cut out favourites just to fit a specified number. The implication is that people have many more than a hundred favourite albums; and then others might get upset that the reserved elite of someone’s list doesn’t include a particular title or artist, wrongly assuming that the excluded are not favourites. So I guess every Top 100 list should come with the disclaimer that “the list-maker loves many more titles that couldn’t for reasons of space be listed”… And, of course, the more obvious one: “Subject to change.”

While we’re at it, though, there’s another tension too, stemming from two previously covered problems: nostalgia and representing one’s current tastes. I’ve touched on this briefly in a previous post, on the films I re-watch most often, and how they’re not necessarily my favourite films; this kind of thing should be a concern if I’m to attempt a Top 100 films list later this year.

The problem, I think, is how we actually define a “favourite”. How long must a film we know we love endure time before it enters our “official” list? I saw several films last month that I couldn’t really fault, admired very much, etc., etc. But how do I then measure their effect on me against the effect I know The French Connection has had and will do the next time I watch it? How many times do you have to watch a film before you can settle on genuinely loving it? For my music list, for instance, there are many albums that I first heard as recent as this year placed alongside albums I’ve loved for as long as they’ve been out; on the one hand, Kay the Aquanaut’s Waterloo or Souls of Mischief’s 93 ’Til Infinity, and on the other, Leftfield’s Rhythm & Stealth or Joanna Newsom’s Ys.

At some point, you go by instinct. You “know” when you love something immediately as opposed to simply liking it. You “know” it’s deserving of a place against those other works you’ve loved for ages. You “know” that come this time next year, though you’ve not listened to or watched it for a good few months, you’ll be able to return to it and love it just as much. You just “know”, don’t you? Don’t you?

The key is to attain a balance, to arrive at a list that represents both your overall tastes and your current tastes. And you keep on top of that with annual revisions (or biannual, or whatever). That’s what makes it so interesting; frequently re-addressing this process lends a certain allowance of instinct, doesn’t make your relatively “fixed” snapshot of taste so precious. There’ll always be room for oversights, mistakes, and most importantly, change.

Mobb Deep's The Infamous, Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, Bob Dylan's Desire
Sophie’s choice

At any rate, when you’re ranking your list, the process itself becomes muddled and confusing and difficult, as you find yourself torn between two entirely different albums whose only common thread is that you love them both deeply, and that the reason behind listening to one instead of another – as opposed to ranking one above the other, which seems implicitly less flexible – is simply your mood.

Incidentally, it’s more difficult ranking a Mobb Deep album over a Bob Dylan album than it is ranking Bob Dylan’s entire works against one another. That seems reasonable: though Dylan’s output is vast and varied (a bad example, then!), you can contextualise his work through a specific cultural framework, something that becomes almost meaningless when two incomparable cultures are placed alongside one another. On the idFilm forum a few months back, for instance, one member asked another if he had any reasoning behind his claim that Robert Bresson’s films were “better than” Woody Allen’s, other than personal preference.

And personal preferences are perfectly legitimate; but a preference is favouring one thing over another due to any number of personal interests and tastes. I have little interest in Michael Bay’s films, as it happens, because his brand of cinema isn’t one that excites me. But if asked for a kind of evidence that then argues Bay’s cinema is inherently inferior to Tarkovksy’s, I’d be genuinely stumped.

So, what’s the point then? Why bother? Because making these kinds of lists every so often is a good way, I think, of gauging your artistic preferences and critical tastes. Which is why making these sorts of lists only appeals to a particular kind of consumer. There’s something “nerdy” about it, certainly, for want of a better term. But nerdiness might be defined in this sense as taking an active interest not only in something such as music, but in how you yourself consume it.

That sounds mildly egotistical, but it doesn’t have to be. For me, for example, it’s become important again to see where I’m at, critically, in relation to where I was; but I think this is because my curiosity also now extends to where I’m at in relation to “a canon”, something that is much less subjective. And it’s become important for me again because I’m more interested than ever in why certain works of art achieve canonical status while others do not.

A canon may be disagreed with – hence our own personal lists – but it remains culturally important because it’s been generally agreed upon by a critical elite of any given time. Examining, or at least keeping in touch with, that kind of thing will be of interest to anyone interested in the prevailing cultural ideas of any historical period. And canons change too, just perhaps more slowly, in accordance with how society itself shifts its ongoing tensions.

Maybe a better way of going about a Top 100 favourites list is to find your hundred and then list them alphabetically or chronologically, instead of ranking them by preference and having to choose between children, as the cliché goes. Which is why, after much trouble (and all of these words – a post of verbose vindication!), I decided not to rank my list… And though by this time next year I’ll look back at it and no doubt find stuff on there that’s waned in memory or become disposable in comparison to other (re)discoveries, I’m happy that this is the best representation of my current and overall tastes.

Sole's Selling Live Water, Noah23's Jupiter Sajitarius and Mogwai's The Hawk Is Howling
In production: more nerdiness

As you might have gathered from the opening link, what prompted me to even do this list was the online community – the forum of the Filmspotting podcast – I’ve been a part of in the last few months. My “Top 100 albums” is also my entry into their Top 100 albums poll. I enjoyed compiling it, and now I’m looking forward to assembling a similar list of favourite films.

I expect this is going to be an easier process, for several reasons. Firstly, I treat cinema much less disposably than I do music; though there are certainly huge gaps in my filmic exposure, it’s fair to say that of works released, I’ve seen more films proportionally than I have listened to albums.

When it comes to films, I know what I love. This is due not only to having a record of everything I’ve ever seen, but in my assigning marks to films. Barring a year of (now rued) neglect between 2007 and 2008, I have a short critical entry for each film I’ve ever seen, and so over time I can refer back to these and see which films demand a revisit.

Just as my scoring system has changed over the years – marks out of 10, then four stars, then five stars, and now I’m simply scoring films out of 5 (which is all the stars ever were anyway) – so too have my scores and thoughts on specific films. I’ve never kept check of my music tastes in the same way; and so I expect the Top 100 list I attempt for favourite films will have a much quicker starting point, in that I’ll be able to cut to the chase and the cream of the crop based on my scores and elaborating critiques to-hand.

Conversely, this kind of process is reciprocal – not only will I be considering films for a list, the list itself will allow me to re-evaluate my thoughts on certain films I haven’t reflected on in years, something that I might otherwise never get around to doing. (How many times do we lament being asked our thoughts on a film and being able only to reply, “Well it’s been years since I saw it but…”?) And even if an overdue re-watch of an old favourite shows your opinion of it has waned, the process of re-evaluating it is rewarding in itself. Again, it can show how your tastes have changed over the years, from which you can examine why.

This is going to be a longer process – the music poll has a deadline of this week and I discovered it late, hence my rush – but that will allow me to revisit the films I need to. Next time around, time will be on my side; as a result, I’ll hopefully feel much more confident about my final list being truly representative of my current and general tastes. I might even have the audacity to rank it from 1-100. Watch this space.