Lists are everywhere these days. You can’t pick up a magazine or visit a website or watch TV without seeing a greatest 100 this or a top 50 that. Making lists can even lead to a role in an Oscar-winning film, just ask Liam Neeson.
Lists are made about anything and everything, from the banal to the bizarre, the funny to the fascinating. We are all obsessed with, somewhat unnecessarily, ordering things and seeing how others do the same, especially when it comes to music.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, Desert Island Discs, the ever-popular radio programme in which a guest is asked to pick only a few pieces of music to be stranded with, is the second longest running factual programme on the radio, first being broadcast in January 1942.
Lists on music aren’t new, though the Internet has given people a voice to answer back, and they often do, with vitriol, ridicule and adulation, depending on their own viewpoint.
So how important are lists in modern music journalism? I spoke to Paul Rees, Editor of Q, about his own thoughts on lists, how the magazine uses them and what goes into producing their most important list of the year, the Top 50 Albums of the Year.
“My personal opinion is that done right, lists can be fascinating, provocative and useful. Done badly, they're lazy and boring,” Paul says, alluding to the problem of lists being used as quick and easy filler, hence their domination in modern journalism.
However, Paul admits to finding bad lists almost as engrossing as good ones. “I will still watch something as wretched as, say, the ‘100 Greatest TV Comedy Shows’ at Christmas, ostensibly to vent my spleen at the epic stupidity of the world at large for their choices. But also, even then, to be reminded of and relive flickering moments of magic,” he admits.
So, other than finding a sense of superiority in knowing that we, the reader or viewer, are right and they are wrong, what is it about lists that make them endlessly readable?
“I think lists simply carry an enduring fascination to people that isn't specific to journalism – but the media as whole and indeed life in general,” he says.
“It's one of the reasons Desert Island Discs is eternally popular: the notion of finding out how a person pares something down and the attendant debate it sparks is an engaging process. Q tries to make lists that are either useful, like the 50 Albums of the Year, and/or entertaining. Like everyone though we have been guilty in the past of over-using them,” he admits.
Paul has a rare viewpoint, having been on both sides of the judgement as someone who both compiles important and widely-read lists, and reads those of others. Does this position lead to a desire to please and avoid criticism from others, or does it only increase your conviction?
“In any event, you're never, ever going to please everybody. And that would also defeat the object to a certain extent,” Paul says.
“All lists provoke the same reaction, I suspect. People agree with anything that validates their own viewpoint and fulminate when it doesn't – and, often as not, do both together.
“I remember us copping an epic amount of flak one year for the temerity of having a Coldplay record as our album of the year. It was a record that had been bought, and enjoyed, by several million people. The implicit suggestion being that they, and we, were all wrong.
“By the way, I hasten to add that this flak came from other folk in the media – not readers. The readers/online users generally debate the whole of a list: the merits of what’s on it, what’s missing. That being precisely what you’d hope for – that on some level the content engages people.”
As alluded to, end of year lists are the most important in music journalism, Paul says of them, “I think they’re important in the sense that it's Q's chance to crystallise our view of music – and, increasingly so this year, that of the artists we write about and the readers.”
While creating a list yourself may be difficult, imagine trying to make a list that encompasses a magazine’s whole outlook on music, while also taking on board the individuality of each member of staff. As passionate as fans are, journos make a living from being obsessive and opinionated, and one who has championed a band in reviews and features throughout the year may feel a personal involvement in seeing said band placed high up the list. Is compiling a list that the staff are happy with even more difficult than one that readers are happy with?
“In my experience, compiling year-end lists for magazines is an enjoyable experience. Everyone has their say, debates can be heated, but it’s rare indeed that people don’t recognise the fact that the list should – and ultimately does – reflect the magazine’s view over individual choice.
“With Q, the list itself is compiled from mid-October by polling all the magazine's staff and its writers. That process is concluded in mid-November and the results of the poll are then debated by the editorial team. We take a final view on the standings. In my experience we haven’t had anyone take issue with the final outcome of any such poll.”
Paul’s favourite album of the year? “Bon Iver - Bon Iver. Without a doubt. A work of beauty.” To see where Paul’s choice makes it on this year’s list, buy the 50 Albums of the Year issue, available on 29 November. After wholly agreeing with their choice last year (The Suburbs), I’m keen to see which side I will fall on this year. And my own list will appear nearer to Christmas. Thanks Paul.