13 Reasons Why We Can (And Should) Pick Our Favorite Records: A Defense For The Quantification Of Aesthetics

September 29, 2014

13 reasons for lists winners podium
Drew Daniel is widely known as that well respected Matmos dude and the guy behind The Soft Pink Truth who just put out that batshit crazy electronic black metal tribute Why Do The Heathen Rage? that “abjures black metal homophobes, racists, and Nazis categorically and absolutely.” The Quietus asked him to share his 13 favorite records but instead he published an article titled “13 Reasons Why I Can’t Pick My 13 Favourite Records: A Rant Against The Quantification Of Aesthetics.” As a guy who got a state college education in Aesthetics, my knee-jerk reaction to that title was “Fuck yeah! Finally someone speaking up about this music ‘journalism’ bullshit.” Then I read the article and found myself shaking my head, going “No, no, no, Drew, you’re not wrong, you’re just totally missing the point.” I literally never feel the urge to call someone out online for being wrong or misguided or whatever, let alone do any sort of long-form writing on AGB, but I felt like Drew was begging for a conversation about this, that he was intentionally pushing people’s buttons (while still being true to his opinions), and that I actually had a strong enough opinion of my own (again, very rare) that I should respond to Drew’s rant and make people not feel bad about saying something like The Tired Sounds Of Stars Of The Lid is their favorite ambient record.

We can and should make Top 10 lists because they’re good exercises in further analyzing records, they’re good conversation starters, and they’re just plain fun. We can and should talk in superlatives and hyperbole about what we think the best Sunn O))) record is because that’s what makes our language and culture so rich. Those are the origins of this article that I never thought needed to be defended, but Drew started it.

Drew had 13 points, in line with The Quietus’ Baker’s Dozen column, and I go through each of them, so this is a bit long and I don’t like to clutter the front page, so the meat is after the jump.

Reason One: It Is A Promotional Exercise And Thus Compromised.
The very first sentence in the very first point is: “Musicians talking about favourite records can produce writing that is funny, vulnerable and sweet.” He’s clearly directing this argument, and I’d say the entire article, at musicians, so that’s what I’ll try to focus on. Drew makes all sorts of qualifications afterwards, saying how “all too often, it’s egregious posturing,” but why knock down the whole list making “exercise” when there are clearly positive things that come out of it? Everything everyone does can be seen as “indirect self-portraiture.” I don’t know anyone who is that oblivious or nonchalant about their self in the eyes of the world around them. We can’t help it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be honest in our actions. Don’t let those people that are “too self aware” spoil it for the rest of us.

Reason Two: The Phrase ‘Favourite Record’ Is Conceptually Incoherent.
The argument here is that the word “favorite” means different things to different people and the phrase “favorite record” is “doomed to fatal incoherence, and would be best abandoned.” This is one of the weakest of Drew’s 13 arguments. There are an immeasurable number of words that have vague and/or subjective meanings but we use them all the time and seem to get along just fine. When confusion arises, we communicate more, and more effectively. And in the case of creating a list of favorite records, it’s pretty common for people to explain exactly what their criteria was for deciding what made the cut at the very beginning, before they even get to the list. But more importantly, every item on the list is given a reason for being on the list. Of course nobody really cares about a Top 10 list if it’s literally just a list of titles and no explanations are given. That’s boring as shit. Yes, we all take the word “favorite” to mean different things, and even different things at different times, but just talking a little bit about what you mean goes a long way.

Reason Three: It Is Frequently Racist And Sexist In Effect.
Drew tries to make the Rich White Male argument here, but eventually goes back to the previous point, only this time using “great” instead of “favorite.” Yes, the RWM argument can apply to most things, list making included, but the only way to get beyond that is to be aware of it and avoid it whenever possible. So calling out publications for focusing too heavily on white dudes talking about other white dudes is great, but once again, that shouldn’t discourage anyone from making lists. He ends this point saying “Who gets in? Why? Who gets left out? Why?” which is, first of all, probably what most people are already asking themselves when making a list, but second, yes! exactly, be aware of your inherent and unavoidable bias, always question yourself and your motives. Shut the racist & sexist shit down, do your own thing and be open & inclusive.

Reason Four: …And It Encourages Tokenising Gestures, In Response.
The tokenising referred to here is when a musician of one genre includes a record that influenced them that’s from a polar opposite genre, and Drew acknowledges it’s unfair to say something like “this austere, glitchy sound artist doesn’t really like Slayer’s Reign In Blood” but then follows up saying the token records always used are “blue-chip representatives” which ends up not being “good enough.” I honestly am not sure how to even critique this one. It’s not “good enough” to include a classic record in your list of influential records? There is absolutely nothing wrong with including one or two “atypical cliche” records in your list as long as it’s honest. You shouldn’t be judging on that shit.

Reason Five: It Is Dishonest To Ignore Friends, And Creepy To Rank Them.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, right? How about acknowledge that nobody lives in a vacuum, that everybody has friends they respect, and just be open about your relationships if it bothers you that you’re including a record your friend made? It would be weird if you hated all the music your friends made. It’s not creepy at all to be a super-fan of your best friend’s new record. Everyone is biased, it’s ok.

Reason Six: Talk About ‘Favourites’ Misrepresents How Listening Shifts Over Time.
This only makes a difference if you’re making an “All Time Top 10” or whatever. This goes back to Reason Two, that the word “favorite” means different things to different people at different times. Step 1 in making a list should always be to define your list (Top 10 Records I Obsessed Over In High School, Favorite Records That I Played Non-Stop For A Month And Then Never Listened To Again, Favorite Records To Listen To For Working/Sleeping/Running/etc) and trust the reader can keep up. We can still talk about favorites even if tastes change, because favorites also change. If you’re 50 and your favorite record in 2014 is still your favorite record from 6th grade, well, that’s cool but you’re definitely in the minority.

Reason Seven: People’s Favourite Records Can Be Really Boring. On Purpose.
Drew talks about all of those records that are perfect for getting work done that are “boring” and offered “enough activity so that I didn’t have a maddening silence, but never intruded.” So, like Brian Eno? In the liner notes for Neroli, Eno writes “I wanted to make a kind of music that existed on the cusp between melody and texture, and whose musical logic was elusive enough to reward attention, but not so strict as to demand it.” Not gonna lie, Neroli is one of my favorite Eno releases. I might even put it on a list. It’s kind of offensive that Drew thinks this kind of record is too boring and therefor of little value. So, 1: boring is subjective, just like favorite, 2: there’s nothing wrong if you wanted to include an “objectively boring” record (whatever that means) in your list, and 3: explain why it’s included in an “All Time” list if that’s what you’re doing, or just make your list a little more thematic so a “boring” record isn’t that out of place.

Reason Eight: It Encourages The False Idea That “Best”, “Better Than…” And “Worse Than…” Apply to Art.
If those words don’t apply to art then they don’t apply to anything. I honestly don’t think anyone uses the word “best” in a universal & objective way. Drew says the word is just a “placeholder for a swirl of emotions, a specific historical narrative, a shaky web of criteria, as relayed by a person who is changing all the time as new experiences influence them. All of which is interesting. The ‘best’ part is not.” I totally agree with this. Hence, actual conversations and discussions about why you would call something the “best” and not just leave it to your reader to figure it out for themselves. I would never expect a person to say Isn’t Anything is the best shoegaze record ever and then change the subject. He ends this reason saying “At no point are these shifting wins and losses anything other than a subjective report about my whims, pleasures and needs. List making perpetuates the illusion that those whims are facts worth reporting.” I emphatically disagree with the second part of this. Yes, all that shit is subjective but nobody reads (or should read) lists as fact. Lists are opinions, even those lists where some mega publication claims “these are the 100 best IDM songs of all time.” That’s not “true” and nobody thinks it is. It’s enjoyable to read, to use as an introduction to the genre, or even reminisce of forgotten obsessions, but there’s nothing objective about it. A reader would fully expect if a different publication made the same themed “Best IDM Songs” list that it would contain an entirely different set of songs, and this is perfectly acceptable.

Reason Nine: People Lie About What they Actually Listen To.
Drew’s claim here is that iTunes is telling him Beck is his favorite artist (because Beck has the highest play count in his digital library) and he should therefor feel the need to include Beck on his list of favorite records. I can’t believe this is even an argument. Again, define what you mean by favorite and be done with it. Is your list of favorite records actually a list of the records you’ve listened to the most? Then say so. Maybe your gut reaction is not to include Beck because that’s “not cool” or whatever but spend some time thinking about it. Just be honest and question your motives. Maybe Midnite Vultures is that underrated masterpiece that you’ve always felt but never acknowledged. If so, include it and defend it. Or, as should be ridiculously obvious, the time spent listening to an artist doesn’t directly correlate with your feelings about them in relation to other artists.

Reason Ten: Favouritism As Such Is Conservative.
This argument has Drew second guessing some of his favorites, thinking maybe by clinging to old classic records that meant a lot to him at one point (or even still mean a lot), he’s stifling his growth as a music appreciator, and if this is the case, then he shouldn’t be allowed to share these opinions because they’re old, stale, and add nothing new to the conversation. Acknowledging where you come from as a music creator or appreciator is important. If you willfully overlook those records that have stuck with you for decades, you’re as bad as those who only put records everyone will be impressed by in their list. If appreciating “new voices, new sounds, new scenes, new ways of being receptive and curious and vulnerable to the world” is important to you, then you’re already on the right track. Don’t worry about getting bogged down with your old favorites. Revisit them as desired and continue discovering. There’s nothing conservative about cherishing records for more than a few years.

Reason Eleven: It Is Driven By Ad Revenue Structure.
Can’t argue with this one. The hype machine of listicles and click bait and page hits is abhorring. It’s easy for me as a little DIY ad-less solo operation to be like, “fuck that I won’t have any part of it” but I can see how an artist as well known as Drew would have difficulty with this as he has to be a part of it on a regular basis. So this argument is basically trashing music journalism, and Drew’s right, it’s a fuckin shitshow right now. But that doesn’t mean we stop reading or making lists. Yeah, something’s gotta give, but Top 10 lists aren’t going anywhere.

Reason Twelve: It Falsely Implies That Personal Investment In Music Is Transferable.
“Why should my preference matter to you? …the mandate ‘this is MY favourite, now you MUST listen to it’ presumes that you’re going to get out of it what I get out of it. Which is false.” Nobody expects to have the exact same taste in or response to music as the author they’re reading. If a reader is looking for a music recommendation, they typically look for authors they respect, admire, or feel shared interests with. We’re fully aware we’re not identical people with the same upbringing and music history, where you listened to doo-wop and The Beach Boys because your parents loved them, then Boyz II Men and Hanson because your older sister was into boy bands, and then you discovered nu-metal on your own and thought it was so cool and original. That’s what I bring to the table. It may not be 100% unique but I sincerely doubt the majority of AGB readers went down the same path I did. We all have shared similarities and differences which is why there is no true “best” and it’s perfectly appropriate to talk about favorites. I’m gonna guess my favorite drone record from last year wasn’t at the top of too many other people’s drone lists, and that’s what the fun of lists is. Getting a conversation started and having a little debate with your pals on the merits and faults of various records is what this shit is all about.

Concluding Reason Thirteen: It Encourages The Use Of Numbers To Rate And Rank Music, And That Is A Bad Thing.
This is the bulk of Drew’s argument. Until now, everything was a single paragraph with a little mini-rant in it, most of which more or less miss the point. Reason 13 is seven paragraphs of important concepts that need to be talked about and reflected on, so if you skipped reading Drew’s article because it was too long, please at least read this thirteenth concluding reason because it will help you appreciate music more fully. But while I’m immensely glad Drew wrote this article and this part in particular, he essentially argues for the abolishment of something I think is worthwhile.

Yes, “listening is subjective.” Yes, “one person’s 8.2 is another person’s ‘light 7’ is another person’s zero stars is another person’s animated gif-loop of a urinating primate.” And yes, “every record really is its own special fucking snowflake.” But Drew’s argument here is that numbering, rating, and ranking art is harmful because it’s grossly capitalistic and, more importantly, just plain shitty to put a number on a person’s creative output, likening it to having a random stranger rank the importance of your life as a human.

Drew argues that “numbers are incredibly useful sometimes, but they are a bad substitute for a thick description of what something does, how it functions, how it feels to be alive within it” and concludes with “that’s my ‘favourite’ thing about music: encountering in the moment each artwork, however humble, already dignified by the sheer distinction of being incomparably human and thus, irreducibly, itself.” He’s splitting hairs here, at least in terms of online music publications. A 5 paragraph review of a record could never replace the experience of listening to the record. And that’s not the purpose of a review. It’s to hook the reader (if it’s a good review) and get them to say “Yeah, I want to give this one a shot.” The numerical rating does the exact same thing. What I’m saying is ratings shouldn’t be the problem here. I feel like Drew is saying small-scale music discussion is the problem. Boiling a record down to a number isn’t that much different than boiling it down to a few paragraphs. The record has its own unique identity and I feel like the only thing Drew sees as acceptable is to go all in and have an in depth conversation or write a fucking 33 1/3 book about it.

But if ratings are the problem (they’re not) and we collectively decided to get rid of them (we shouldn’t), we would still need something to draw a reader in to want to spend time with an article because there’s no fucking way one person can read every record review. You know what record reviews are missing? Titles. Right now, 99% of reviews don’t have titles, or the title is just the name of the artist, record, and label. A title could be just as succinct a summary of the critic’s views as a rating and would serve a similar purpose. I have a feeling Drew would be totally ok with titles, even though the end goal is the same.

Ratings do have value, though, and are not inherently as terrible as Drew describes. There is far too much information to slog through, even in the most niche of circles, and as a person who seeks out new information, such as a new artist I might enjoy, I find it supremely helpful, and borderline necessary, to have an author give me a hand. If that means they want to rate a record in their review, or give me a primer on a good way to dive into the realm of early acid house, or list their favorite black metal records from the last 5 years, I’m all for it. Do I think those reviews or ratings or lists can substitute actually listening to and talking about said records? Fuck no. And that’s not the intention of the author, either. We’re complex humans with lots of shit going on and sometimes we just want to check out what Drew Daniel likes to listen to, in list form or otherwise, and not need to talk about it if we don’t want to. We have that option and there’s no need to take it away. And I would understand that Drew’s 13 records wouldn’t be the only 13 records he cared about and that he could just as easily give solid reasoning for including 13 different records tomorrow. I know my lists of favorites are changing constantly. That’s what makes them fun. If I were to go back and redo my Top 20 Drone Records list from 2013 I guarantee it would be completely different. And that’s awesome.

What we really need is not a total extermination of ratings and rankings but a better author, which is a big part of Drew’s argument, and part of why his article is so important. We need people who can take all 13 of these reasons into consideration when writing a review or making a list, know what kind of bullshit they might be pushing, and act accordingly. Nobody’s perfect, but we can do a better job at critiquing music without making other people feel like garbage and still be effective while having fun in the process.

Lists are ultimately conversation starters. Whether it’s my official year end Top Drone Records list or just asking my friend what some of his favorite records are that he’s listened to recently. Drew made a list, as he was asked to do, and it ended up being a list of his favorite 13 reasons to not make lists. I can’t imagine it was meant as anything other than a conversation starter. Drew wanted us to talk about this shit, and his list was successful in doing just that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

One comment on “13 Reasons Why We Can (And Should) Pick Our Favorite Records: A Defense For The Quantification Of Aesthetics

  1. Ned R. Sep 29, 2014

    Mm, sorry, I can’t accept your acceptance of ratings. At the least, I can’t see the exact rationale for it here in a way I see as logical; simply saying “What I’m saying is ratings shouldn’t be the problem here” strikes me as a handwave. And hey, a lot of my work has ratings attached to it, and I’ve done ranked lists. I’ll never do ranked lists again and every time I’m asked to give exact rankings to something it’s like pulling teeth. It’s absolutely impossible for me to understand someone doing that out of…well, joy, it almost sounds like.