Last week, Pitchfork unveiled “The People’s List”–a crowdsourced list of the best 200 albums in the 15 years that Pitchfork has been up. The intention was to gather an accurate snapshot at P-fork readers’, “varying backgrounds, environments, and personal preferences influence the music they love”. If you’re so inclined, you can go ahead and give the whole shebang a read here (spoilers: I hope you love Radiohead).
First, a quick comment on how the list was made; calling a list like this “The People’s List” assumes a bit much. In particular, the way to submit was through going to a Pitchfork page, and flipping through albums by year. The first choices given were what the P4k staff had deemed to be the important albums from that year (sidenote: even though the order the albums appeared in on the page was always random, OK Computer always found itself in the top row of the 1997 page for me. Hm). If you typed an album in, they would search their database for it, and failing that, you could add your own. Obviously, this skewed results towards albums with the ‘fork’s prior approval. But even more than that, for an entry to be considered valid, it had to have 20 albums on it. Even to a music jackass like me, this seemed like an arduous, self-absorbed task (and also a nice way to weed out some casual outliers). It kind of bugs me how a list could be called “The People’s” when seems so gleeful to exclude.
So, I could spent the next couple 100 words attacking the list for its narrow demographic (a mere 12% of those who entered identified as female, and the rankings for the female demographic deferred more from the main list than any other demographic), how terrible it was at non-rock genres (Food & Liquor and undun are nowhere to be seen, but Take Care makes the cut?), or for being the most obvious and boring list this side of a Rolling Stones feature, but where’s the fun in that? Besides, you already get the idea.
No, what makes me think when it comes to lists like this is the interplay between “best” and “favorite”, and what those two mean. Let me use a non-music example: last week, I pitched a simple question to my Facebook friends/followers on Twitter: “Avengers or Dark Knight Rises?” The overwhelming response went something like this: “Dark Knight Rises was the better film, but I enjoyed Avengers more”. That, to me, displays the difference between “best” and “favorite” more than anything else; sure, there’s a superior product, but you have a stronger affinity for a less “quality” one.
Which makes a list of favorites way more interesting than a list of someone’s bests. When I think of something for a “best”, I think of something that gets all of its checkmarks; in music that means stuff like: high production values, complex instrumentation, quality singing/rapping, complicated but understandable lyrics, etc. These things also have pretty wide appeal. Look at Adele’s 21 from last year for something that fits the bill.
Literally any album can be someone’s favorite, though. The little objectivity that music has in a “best” is thrown out the window in favor of picking music for pure enjoyment, and what someone enjoys tells you far more than what they consider the best. This is something that I first thought about a year and a half ago, when I made a list of my personal Top 10 records for the site. The first draft of my list included obvious sign posts like London Calling and In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, but then I thought about why I was putting those albums on the list. I asked myself if I was listing these albums because they were the records I held dearest, or because I wanted to look smart.
To clarify: I’m not saying that you should feel bad for liking brilliant albums. Arcade Fire’s Funeral, one of the commonly regarded best albums of the past decade, is one of my favorite albums, and barring a stupid great second half of the year, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is going to show up on my year end Best Of. All I’m saying is that a “People’s Choice” list should be a celebration of the music we love because we love it, not what we want to pick to look smart in front of everyone else. Because that’s what music should be about: the enjoyment of it, not snobbery.
PS: In Rainbows at number six? Seriously?