Top 10 of 2015

Well, okay, now that I have commanded your attention.

I’m pretty certain I have left behind for good the year-end Top 10 list—or anyway, a Top 10 list confined to just music. For 25+ years, I could be relied on to at least produce a yearly Top 10 Singles list, sometimes supplementing that with additional songs (reaching a peak of utter uselessness at the end of 2006, when I blogged my “Top 100 songs of the year”) and/or a Top 5 or Top 10 albums list (needless to say, singles have mattered to me more than albums since around the time I posted my very first year-end, which was in 1985 in Toronto’s Nerve magazine). If my hard drive is to be trusted, the last year-end ballot I submitted, to both the Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll as well as the (since gone kaput) Eye Weekly Music Critics Poll in Toronto was for 2007, said list of which contained ten singles and eight LPs. (For the record, Kleerup ft. Robyn’s “With Every Heartbeat” was my #1 song that year, while M.I.A.’s Kala was my top album; still very comfortable with both those selections, especially the Robyn single which I continue to play and still adore.) I’m actually surprised it’s been eight years since I’ve posted a year-ender, but I have a few ideas as to why it’s worked out that way.

1) In mid-December 2008, we had our first child. While I somewhat resist the idea that there is a direct correlation between one’s ability to raise children and inability to file year-end music ballots, it was obviously the case that no list would be forthcoming in that particular season (“yes, honey, I’ll get to the diaper change; just let me figure out first if my #7 is Lil’ Wayne or Jordin Sparks”). My perhaps too-pat theory is that, missing that one year had a detrimental impact on my willingness to continue in subsequent years. Being a procrastinator by temperament, a hiccup became a trend.

2) Just to be clear, I do have my priorities straight here; I don’t mean to imply that having a child was a “hiccup,” anymore than I mean to imply that my unwillingness to continue with year-end lists is some kind of existential tragedy. But I do vaguely recall feeling a sense of relief that year (exhaustion had something to do with it, surely) that I now had a proper excuse to not bother with the annual futzing about to get my list just right. That was always the part of the balloting process I was least crazy about—so immersed in the process did I become, I would feel like I was starting to go deaf or senile after weeks of listening and re-listening, writing and re-writing, usually to arrive at something I was only half-satisfied with at best, all in the hopes of—well, of what? Of being quoted in the big leagues, mostly, if I’m being perfectly honest about it. (An ambition that had brutal ramifications, given that the one year I garnered four or five comments in P&J produced a feeling in me that was as close to emptiness as I’ve ever felt as a writer, at least in part because I really didn’t think the quotes themselves were terribly perceptive or funny or whatever.) In other words, I think I may have been looking for an out; the year-end list (which is a distinct thing from other kind of lists, some of which I’ve continued to produce) simply ran its course for me. I took it well past the point of jadedness.

3) Also in the “easy out” (if not “lame excuses”) category: for reasons I’m still not entirely clear about, I got taken off the P&J mailing list at some point, which gave me the passive-aggressive convenience card of, “I’m not voting because no one asked me to.” (That Eye Weekly bit the dust roughly around the same time, let me off the hook domestically.) I think a change of email had something to do with my being dropped in the first place—of course I (passively-aggressively) convinced myself it was something much worse than that—and after a friend sent P&J my new contact info a couple years back, I am once again the beneficiary of their gracious invites. And I did the same thing with their invite in 2015 that I did in 2014: pondered scrambling to respond with a list (even if without comments, just to, you know, keep my name in circulation), but decided in less than 24 hours that no such event would occur. Who knows, maybe I will feel otherwise next year.

4) I don’t keep up with nearly enough new music anymore during any particular year, do almost no writing about it (I do plan to change that in 2016, though I think I repeat that chorus to myself every January), and make very little (I won’t say “no”) specific attempt to stay in touch. Yes, kids and full-time employment, etc., have a lot to do with this, but it’s much more true, I think, that not freelancing about music anywhere—not having the imperative to keep up—has made me extremely lazy in this regard. I have not lost interest in new music, or anyway, in the idea of new music. I spend a good portion of January and February each year playing catch-up with stuff that has shown up on other people’s year-end lists (currently, I’m digging 2015 LPs by Lana Del Rey and Kamasi Washington, plus assorted and sundry previously unfamiliar songs). I hear way more new music on the car radio than most people my age would bother with (I can’t verify this with statistics, but I nonetheless pose it as absolute fact; it’s rare that I ever meet anyone of any age who listens to any radio anywhere anymore). And just in a more general sense, I’m not your average middle-age curmudgeon who thinks modern music sucks. I am your average, boring, white-male middle-aged curmudgeon, yes, but not so much about pop music (except when it’s true, when pop music does seem to suck, which is… often! Still…). But not organizing my life, or any part of my life, around the stuff any more has made all the difference. No one’s telling me to listen, no deadlines for my monumental opinions loom—I’ll get to it when I get to it.

5) Not that I believe a more casual approach to music listening is a total disqualifier for engaging in year-endism. Truth is, I have no theoretical issue with cramming, though I’m enough of a curmudgeon to think one should have at least earned the right to cram. (By which I mean, one should have experienced a few years at least of living and breathing and writing about music—that terrible thing called “honing your chops”—before jumping directly to the cramming phase of one’s existence. In short, you should be closer to old and jaded on the evolutionary scale; whippersnappers need not apply here.) I know, and in one case am friends with, living proponents of December cramming, and it works fine for them. Me, I’ve tried it for a few years, and I just can’t do it. It turns out I am simply incapable of fixing on stuff I love in a short time frame. Well, sort of. I’m fully capable of falling in love with a song on the radio after one or two listens (Lorde’s “Royals” worked that way with me; I was transfixed the first time it came on in the car). It is actually the subsequent listens when the complications begin, and my reactions crackle and pop and jump all over the map, to the point where I just don’t trust myself to file in print an early judgment. To write regular record reviews in this frame of mind—to be an early responder sort of critic—is fine, and sometimes it compels great writing (the “thrill of discovery” or whatever). For year-end lists, though, it doesn’t suit me at all. I really need to live with the stuff for a time, though “need” isn’t exactly the right word. I just vastly prefer to experience music that way.

6) Inevitably, too, I blame Facebook. Though really social media in general, I guess. I know this has been said by many already, and I promise you it won’t be any more exciting the way I’m about to say it here, but… having access to so many lists (and so many comments and arguments piled onto each list) not as a result of Pazz & Jop but prior to Pazz & Jop even appearing has kind of deadened the whole process for me a little. It’s certainly removed some of the (feel free to guffaw) mystery of the process and results. Though the bigger culprit for me is less the appearance of so many personal lists (and to a lesser degree, publication lists) than the ever-increasing appearance of interminably lengthy lists. Five or six people in my own Facebook feed have published Top 50, Top 75, and Top 100 lists. I shouldn’t have an issue with this for a number of reasons. One, as mentioned above, I have done my own version of this on at least one occasion; I fully understand, as a critic excited by all sorts of sounds from all sorts of different places, the impulse to just keep going. Why stop at 10? Two, I never once took issue with Robert Christgau producing long lists, which date back all the way to the mid-seventies, I think (though the obvious rejoinder is contained within that sentence; Christgau did so in a context in which such a list was still an actual surprise, if not a novelty, if not a hilarious fuck-you to a poll he himself invented). Three, I admit I sometimes use these lists as springboards for what I will listen to in the months ahead, and certain writers have earned enough goodwill as critics with me over the years that I will at least scan their full lists without losing my marbles by the time I reach #26. So… I don’t know what my complaint is here exactly, and anyway, it’s not really a complaint, just a potential explanation of my own continued alienation with year-endism. Too much too much, I guess. Or too much of nothing, as a perennial P&J winner himself once so aptly put it.

5 thoughts on “Top 10 of 2015

  1. For what it’s worth, I gave up writing ab music, for the most part anyway, and my immersive listening habits and year-ends and list-making and whatnot, when I first got married over twenty years ago. It was if I couldn’t do pop music and be in a relationship at the same time. My wife’s antipathy towards the rock crit milieu didn’t help but laying off it broke some sort of spell and even after we were divorced I could never quite get it back. I still liked the “idea” too but I couldn’t seem to sustain commitment to the work demands of year-ends and such or not consistently anyway. (Share your ambivalence ab cramming as well.) But I still like playing at this stuff when I can, so best basketball-related pop song of 2015: Post Malone’s “White Iverson.” (You heard it here first!) And, BTW, I’d count that Robyn album as one of my favorites of the century. I winced w/ pain and anger when I read X-gau dismiss it as Madonna redux. Anyway, thanks for sharing.

  2. I’ve enjoyed contributing Top 10’s as a more casual listener. A few songs and albums I even get to learn after the fact are not-liked or even controversial, which is usually news to me! EVERYONE hates Sigala’s “Easy Love,” apparently, which made my Top 10 singles this year because I am increasingly mercenary in my hunt for songs and albums to fit into the context of my everyday life, a phrase I’m separating from Kogan’s just plain “life” because his is broader than what I’m talking about — something like “all business, let’s go, you have 10 seconds, give it to me.” In singles, I need music that forcefully and immediately jerks my ear-bones around the room, and in albums I need things I can play around the house. Which gives me an approx. 15-second window to decide whether I’m ever going to listen to something again.) This has led to P&J’s for me with music that fades a lot faster in subsequent years and is generally less strongly-held than in years past. Which is nice, because then old stuff can bounce back in subsequent years to topple my Top 10 retroactively, something that rarely happened between 2004 and 2010 or so.

  3. Great piece, Scott. I could muster it up in years I could reasonably qualify as a professional, and I enjoyed the obsessive tweaking. Otherwise it’s all too easy to let it slide low in priority. I like the 6-item top 10 too.

  4. Thanks all. One thing I’m genuinely curious about: are there actually readers out there who aren’t writers who pay close attention to the obsessive list-posting that goes on? I don’t ask in a judgmental way (i.e., I wouldn’t suggest someone should not do this because they are only reaching other writers), and I also know the question itself is faulty in the sense that the line between who’s a writer and who’s a reader has diminished greatly due to the phenomenon of commenting (who isn’t a writer nowadays?). Still — the question does come to mind. (In pre-internet times, Pazz & Jop did matter at least to some non-writing readers. I met a guy once who worked at the Toronto reference library, who wasn’t a writer — don’t know why I recall that detail, but I do — and he told me he read the Voice regularly and P&J religiously. Was something of a Christgau devotee… but was not in any way a practising or wannabe critic himself.)

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