Thoughts on Top 10’s

coverMy friend and fellow jazz journalist James Hale recently wrote a piece for the CBC Music Blog titled “The top 10 music list: good or evil?” For reasons of space, my responses were edited down to a couple of quotes. Here are the complete answers to his three questions:

(1) Why do you object to year-end top 10s?

I don’t object to them. I’m often asked to share my list and I usually do so because it might help give deserving musicians a bit of exposure. Depending on who’s writing them, Top 10 or Best Of lists can be provocative, fun and surprising, or boring and predictable. But the construct of ranking musicians or their creativity is primarily designed to generate publicity in order to sell a product. We often refer to jazz as art and jazz musicians as artists, but would you create a list for best painting or best sculpture of the year? That’s not usually how artists think about art. We do it for music because we’re basically talking about recordings as commercial products. I’m not against commercial products. I consume them just as most people do. But I think Ellington said it best: you rate tomatoes, you don’t rate artists.

(2) Do you think readers find value in them?

Sure, people love lists, and understandably so. They offer the illusion of order and hierarchy. There’s such an overwhelming number of choices available in the marketplace that people are seeking an informed opinion to help prioritize purchases or compare aesthetics. Needless to say, lists often reveal more about the list makers than the music being listed. For me, these lists are also a useful way of documenting the various bandwagons that have been constructed during the year.

(3) Given the obvious interest in wrapping up the year’s recordings, what would you prefer to see rather than top 10 lists?

It’s human nature to make lists. But if we use the end of the year to look back and assess, I sometimes wish we’d all take a harder look at what developments–good or bad, obvious or nuanced–have taken place in the music world that year and what they mean. The record business is still a significant part of the music world, but it’s far from everything.

7 comments on “Thoughts on Top 10’s

  1. Jim Wilke says:

    I’m in total agreement, especially the part about the lists revealing more about the list maker than the music. I don’t limit my lists to ten, just to the exceptional as opposed to the competent.

    • good point. i also think that in the age of downloads, people are thinking more of individual songs, as opposed to entire discs.

      • Jim Wilke says:

        My first record player was a 45 rpm attachment to a radio, so all I bought was singles. Strange that although the devices and formats have changed, we’re going back to singles again via mp3 downloads of individual songs. It’s not only the demise of physical albums, but of the “B” sides on 45s and 78s!

  2. […] seem to love lists, especially at the end of the year ( Here is mine, in alphabetical order, based on recordings that kept my interest beyond work […]

  3. […] each passing year I grow less interested in ranking or rating it, for reasons I’ve explained here. Ambivalence aside, I still get year-end email and calls at the radio station asking for the list, […]

  4. […] written before about my mixed feelings regarding year-end lists. That said, friends, colleagues, readers and listeners still ask for it this time of year, so here […]

  5. […] written before about perennial best-of-the-year summaries. And while I haven’t done much writing about music for commercial publications this year (still […]

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