Saturday, December 13, 2014

Listing A Few Favorites Is the Best I Can Do

A still from "Take Me to Church," a video that matches the power of the song.

My favorite song of 2014 was Sinead O’Connor’s “Take Me to Church,” not to be confused with the song of the same name by Hozier, which wasn’t bad either.

My favorite album of 2014 was Lucius’ “Wildewoman,” which actually came out in 2013 but I didn’t get around to buying it until 2014. 

My favorite concert was Neko Case at the Orpheum in downtown Madison, as much because I was standing front and center as for the music.

This is the time of year for lists. Lists for movies, lists for music, lists for TV shows, lists for books and lists for news events. What’s listed above is sort of mine, with one big difference from the ones showing up everywhere else: the absence of the word “best.”

If there’s one thing the explosion of information – be it downloading music or video, or just having it at your fingertips 24/7 – has done has underscored the endless supply of this stuff. Bands and songs and movies have always slipped through the cracks, but now that there’s so much more around that’s easily accessible it’s easy to wonder just how one goes about picking the best of anything.

Don’t get me wrong; I love lists. I used to buy every year-end magazine I could get my hands on. Even now  I try to wade through the various lists that are now on various websites. Paste, No Depression, Pitchfork, NPR and local sources all give fodder to confirm choices made during the year or to introduce readers to something else. The big difference is now it takes much more patience; where once you could look over a list and flip the pages, now you sometimes have to have the patience to click 50 times just to go one-by-one to find out what the favorite picks might be.

I’ve even been in the list-making world. In my multi-faceted career I’ve reviewed records, concerts and films. I’ve made year-end or decade’s-best lists that sometimes proved prescient and sometimes proved ridiculous (I’ll forever defend the brilliance of “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”; I’ll forever shake my head at my glowing praise for “Rattle and Hum” and I will always hate “The English Patient”).

To review things years ago was to help introduce people to things they otherwise might not find, to help people use their time and money well when it came time to entertainment. Now people can often find it by themselves and they can figure out ways to hear it or see it for free.

The role of a critic in today’s convoluted entertainment world is somewhat befuddling. On the one hand, people need a guide through this crowded market. In fact, as with news websites, often critics use the word “curate” when referring to their favorite music as they organize it. On the other hand, the easy access to so much out there makes it easy to look at anybody’s “best” list and say, “Says who?”

All of this makes it hard to use the word “best,” at least for me. Part of it is that maybe I had my shot as a taste-maker once upon a time and I don’t feel compelled to be that person anymore. But mostly I think it’s a feeling that an opinion is just that and while one might have the information, they might not have the taste or at least the taste to match the reader. 

Sometimes, though, having strong opinions about this stuff can pay unexpected dividends. Recently a 20-something I know well introduced me to his longtime girlfriend, who I had never met. Since he was a kid we always talked about music, and we did once again as we got caught up.

“Remember that time when I was in high school you told me to help myself to any of your vinyl?” he said. “Remember how I took a pile of records and you made me take Devo because you thought I should know about them?”

Being in a mode of feeling less bossy about my music these days, I felt a little sheepish about that.

“I’m sorry,” I said. 

“No, I wanted to thank you,” he said, bringing his girlfriend further into the conversation. “When we met we bonded over a love of Devo, and I wouldn’t have known much about them if you hadn’t made me take those records.”

It would be an understatement to say that was the favorite thing I heard this year. Hands down, absolutely, completely and without question there’s just one way to describe it: It was simply the best. 


Sinead O'Connor: "Take Me to Church"

Neko Case: "Ragtime"