Modest Proposals
Everything in Its Right Place: Why Year End Lists are Almost as Important As They Are Irrelevant
Modest Proposals is a recurring chance for a rotating stable of Review to Be Named writers to sound off on pop culture at large, presenting ideas, theories, or observations about areas of pop culture that might not fit comfortably into our other running features. These ideas might not always be right. You might not always agree with them. Even the writer might consider them patently absurd. But this is Modest Proposals, and these are things worth thinking about.

I love year-end list season. This is true in ways that speak to the core of my being, in ways I am not always comfortable exploring. I have written before on this site about my obsessive pop culture tendencies, and list season brings those to the forefront for roughly one twelfth of the year. Year-end lists speak to my dangerous tendency to hyper-categorize, compare, and classify my experiences, but it also speaks to another of my potentially harmful habits: a strong sense of nostalgia. I'm a softy at heart, and looking back over the year as it comes to a close is a tradition that means a lot to me. So often in life, we let time pass us by and barely pay any attention; our lives fly by and we barely realize we're living them. At the end of the year, we are nearly commanded to look back and take stock. List season means thinking, seriously, about what the last year has meant to us, both personally and culturally.

This is why, when I think of the holiday season, I think of year-end lists as a part of it. For me, there is Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve, and the month-long process of making year-end lists that is the connective tissue between them all. Give me your turkey, your egg nog, your huddled New Year's Eve binge drinking yearning to breathe free. But for the love of God, give me some time to figure out which movies I liked best, and to figure out which just barely make the cut on my top ten list.

I come to the exercise I have set out for myself in this piece, then, with my bias toward lists laid bare. They are an important part of my life, and I take them very seriously as a result. But I have to be honest: pretty much every year end list you will read this month, on this site and elsewhere, written by me and written by others, is completely meaningless. Does it really matter if you think Justified was better this year than Community (I do, as you will see later this week) if you enjoyed both shows and if they each brought you a different sort of satisfaction every week? If my tenth favorite album of the year made my list, does that undervalue #11, which may have been excluded for reasons I have trouble explaining, and which may end up getting far more listens than #10 in the months and years to come?

Year end lists are a snap shot, a moment crystallized, and finally fossilized, a reflection of what we though at one time that may end up being completely meaningless down the line. One of the 2011 albums I have listened to the most in 2012 is the self titled debut of British youngster Birdy. The album wasn't even on my radar during list season last year. I listened to it, liked it, but didn't really think it was among the best releases of last year (only one RTBN critic, Rachel, mentioned it during list season at all, and that was in our "Best of the Rest" piece). Yet the collection of covers, which tend to do some pretty interesting things with songs I already love (a difficult feat for any cover) has become a regular listen for me, on late night drives, rainy days, and long bouts of studying. That album has probably become more important to me than, say, Florence + The Machine's Ceremonials, which was #9 on my "Top Ten Albums of 2011" list, but which I haven't listened to a whole lot since. I thought Ceremonials was better in 2011 (and I probably still do), but that didn't make it more important, and time has made my list more of a relic of the moment than an accurate reflection of 2011's best.

Ultimately, list-making is the second most popular form of masturbation occurring on the internet, and as the man at the center of a self-constructed month of year-end lists, I am as guilty as any of purveying that pop culture filth. Year-end lists are the opposite of insightful pop culture commentary of the sort I try to provide in these (few and far between) Modest Proposals, but I'm not sure that makes them less important, or less vital a part of the larger cultural conversation. The actual ranking of the lists may be irrelevant, but the importance of taking time to take stock should not be undervalued.

I think year-end lists serve two important functions, one personal and one cultural. On the personal front, as I've made clear, they invite each of us to sit back and think about the year that has just passed, to remember what we liked and what we didn't, not just culturally, but within our own lives. That kind of introspection can be unhealthy if taken to the extreme, but Socrates once told us "an unexamined life is not worth living," and I think that guy probably made someone's 2000 list of "Most influential thinkers in human history."

Culturally, though, year-end lists serve an important function too, even if they are not the one we most often think about. Generally, we think of lists as a time to discuss (and often argue) about what pieces of pop culture were the year's best. For the month of December, the internet is basically an echo chamber of nerds yelling at each other on comment boards and blog postings about how wrong a certain list was, and how much better one piece of pop culture was than another that was ranker higher. Yet lists also serve as a way for people to share their favorites with one another. At the end of 2008, I had listened to almost no new music, and I found myself, late one December night, reading over lists of the best albums of the year and downloading the ones that sounded good to me. Part of that process lead me to Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago, an album that has since become a personal favorite, and one that I might never have heard without those year end lists. These lists offer us a chance to share with each other and to expand our cultural lexicon; they make it less likely that something great will slip through the cracks of our consciousness and be lost forever to the sands of time. If you read one "best of 2012" list this season and find something you've never heard of, or are persuaded to check out something you might otherwise have avoided, isn't the whole masturbatory process worthwhile? I think so.

So sure, each individual list is ultimately meaningless, and in the aggregate, largely irrelevant to how we experience culture and what any piece of art means to our lives. But the process of making these lists, of reading other people's, and of engaging in a larger conversation about culture and greatness is a pretty important one. And that is the true meaning of list season.

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