My Year In Lists
My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"None of these things preclude a piece of music from doing what it's supposed to do, which is make the listener feel like he or she isn't alone in the world for three and a half minutes."-Steve Hyden

I felt two things upon the completion of My Year in Lists: relief and sadness. I constantly give myself pop culture projects, both epic and small scale, ranging from my decade spanning movie quest (which, while stalled indefinitely, will surely continue) to every feature I have ever undertaken for this site. Yet no project has taken as much of my time, effort, and concentration as My Year in Lists. Writing a weekly feature in and of itself proved taxing (especially in a year where I lived in three states, got my Master's and completed my first semester of law school), and trying to listen to, absorb, and cogently write about three or more albums every seven days for a year was, to be perfectly honest, completely insane. I didn't know what I was getting into when I undertook this project, and as much as I have loved this journey, there is a certain amount of relief at the realization that, come next week, I wont have multiple albums to listen to and thousands of words to churn out on them.

And yet, even the relief is incredibly bittersweet. My Year in Lists was work at times, and it was certainly stressful in weeks where I felt I didn't have the time to give it my all, but it was also an all-out-blast. Every week gave me multiple albums, often three that I had never heard before or failed to fully absorb. I have never listened to more music than I did this year; there's a chance I never will. There was always something new to discover and fall in love with this year, and this feature gave me the added pleasure of improving my own music writing ability (which will be on display, flawed though it may be, in music reviews starting next week). This feature took my hundreds, even thousands of hours to complete, yet it was one of the most rewarding pop culture experiences of my life.

So what did this all mean? When I started this feature, and in the intro that opens every installment, I expressed my desire to delve into why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. I think the answers to those questions are deceptively simple, so much so that while I feel more equipped to answer them now than I did 12 months ago, I'm not sure my answer will be much more satisfying.

Why does music matter to us? Music matters because it is the most personal artistic medium, both for those creating it and for each of us individually as we listen to it. There is nothing like finding an artist or an album that speaks to us on a personal level, like feeling as if someone we have never met understands us better than anyone we know. Music matters because its ours, once we find it. Film and television can tell personal stories, and can create great art, there is no doubt. Yet each of those are also more objective media than music. The most difficult and most wonderful thing about music criticism is how elusive the effects of music can be to describe. There are aesthetic considerations, of course, and much more brilliant people than me can analyze the construction of a song and explain why it touches us in a certain way, but for most of us, music comes down to a gut feeling. Music triggers a more primal response in us than most other things, and a more mysterious one as well. Music itself is universal, but the connection any piece of music has to us will be intensely personal.

It can be said that this is true of all pop culture, and all things that we care about, but I think it is never truer than with music. Music inspires in us a devotion and a rapture that most other media do not, but in a way that can be harder for us to express than the reasons we love a great film or television show. Every album I covered this year is beloved by some people, and each of them is very likely someone's all time favorite. I didn't love each of them, and often when I disliked an album, the contributor who put it on their list vehemently disagreed with me. Sometimes they had great arguments for why I had misread the album, others they were reduced to, "it just must not be your thing." One of those sounds more valid than the other, but I don't think it is, not really. How we relate to music is intrinsic to how we relate to the world; sometimes we can explain every single rationale behind our decisions, and sometimes, we follow our gut. We can't always explain why we love something, but when it's there, we know, and when it isn't, no amount of intellectual appeal will change the fact.

What makes music a lasting aspect of our existence? The answer is simple, and then again maybe not: We need it. In a world that can be stressful, bleak, and alienating, there are few things more important than feeling connected to something, feeling understood. Sometimes that manifests in feeling like you are part of a movement (a punk rocker, for example), sometimes it arises out of the feeling that you are a member of a secret club (those who have collected every album on the Nurse With Wound), and sometimes it is just you, a pair of headphones, and an album that makes you feel, even briefly, like you aren't alone in the world. Each of these is a valid way to engage with music, and each of theses demonstrates why music is so vital to the way we live our lives.

Each list I worked off this year had its own lesson to teach, even as when combined they formed a broader message about music in general. I originally intended to have each contributor speak here about the larger themes of their list as they did way back in the Introduction to this feature, but I realized that would defeat the purpose of this column. Fifty Two weeks ago, I couldn't speak for myself about the meaning of their lists. I could barely write about music at all. But now, it's a year later, and I intend to take a stab at wrapping up each of these lists and determining what exactly the contributor was getting at.

Tab set out to show me how broad the medium of music really is by taking us to its outer edges and showing us the vitality of the artists, and the art on the fringes. He also took pains to fill his list with artists who have been immensely influential to the development of modern music and often unrecognized for their contributions. Nino Rota changed the way that film scores were written, Captain Beefheart forged a path for every experimental artist who would come after him, The Residents brought their avante garde sensibilities to their music, The Stooges were there in punk's nascent stages and The Ramones were there for its golden age. The Minutemen were hardcore, while Throbbing Gristle invented industrial music. CAN were vital to the creation of kraut rock, but also influenced everyone from Kanye West to Pixies. Modern ambient owes everything to Aphex Twin, without whom we would never have had Radiohead's Kid A. A lot of these artists clung devotedly to the outer edges of music, ensuring they were too strange, too experimental, or too niche to ever achieve popularity in their times. Yet without them, our modern musical landscape would be fundamentally altered.

If Tab's list focused on the girders upon which modern music is built, Collin gave us a tour of the building itself, picking albums from the last 50 plus years of popular music, showcasing those artists who managed to combine popularity with influence. We witnessed the early days of rock and roll with Howlin' Wolf and the nascent stages of free jazz with John Coltrane. We examined the best of "˜60s rock and roll with The Beatles], The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones. We watched rock evolve in the early "˜70s with Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Bruce Springsteen and saw it bottom out with Boston. We saw popular music grow more diverse in the "˜80s with the likes of U2, Prince and Run-DMC. We watched that evolution towards diversity in the "˜90s, with bands like Pavement, Underworld/a>, Beck and Prodigy. And finally, we came into the last decade, which let us examine modern visionaries including Outkast, Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, and LCD Soundsystem. It wasn't always pretty, but that is popular music at its core. Collin gave us a through line for the last half-century of music, painting in broad strokes, the way most of us experience musical progress where Tab showed us the nitty-gritty march towards progress.

Meanwhile, Ashley gave us the evolution, over two decades, of alternative music, from its birth as an outgrowth of punk dedicated to being the saving grace of music fans alienated by the mainstream to its slow cooption of popular music and finally towards the increasing divisions of the music industry that lead us to the niche markets we live in today. From Joy Division and Devo, through the division between post-punk like New Order and hardcore like
Husker Du, to the growth of alternative rock like REM, we watched alternative rock divide and come back together, while always leaving room for some charming outsiders like Tom Waits] and Sonic Youth. Grunge took alternative from the fringes into the stratosphere with
Nirvana changing the musical landscape forever, with a little help from Pearl Jam and the rest of the grunge explosion. Following that, we experience the invasion of Britpop which indicated that while alternative might not maintain the heights of grunge, it would never be marginalized again. Bands like Blur, Oasis, Pulp and Radiohead showed that the alternative music scene had won its seat at the table, even if the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel, Elliott Smith and The Magnetic Fields would never command the masses of adoring fans they deserved. If Tab showed us the secret underbelly of music and Collin the teeming metropolis of popular music, Ashley showed us life on the ground for musicians somewhere in between, for those with different sensibilities still striving to make a living (and in some cases, a fortune) playing music that would never retain the mainstream popular consciousness.

What does music mean for our live? Everything. Whether you are a die hard music fan or a casual listener to popular radio stations, music forms the backbone of our day to day interactions with the world, helping our worldview to coalesce or reinforcing what we already know to be true. Music connects with us personally, to be sure, but it also connects us with each other. Friendships are formed on a common love of certain bands, there are few interactions as special as those when we trade our newest musical discoveries with those closest to us, and like it or not, music is an omnipresent force in our society, from muzak played at grocery stores to the newest pop sensation. Sharing music connects us to ourselves, and to each other. For that, I can't help but be eternally grateful to each of the contributors, who gave so much of themselves to me this year, and tied us closer together as a result. They have each given me the gift of a greater cultural understanding, a broader perspective and a greater set of analytical tools.

Whether this feature helped you to gain a greater understanding of music or simply discover a few bands you'd never heard of before, I hope it has improved you like it has me. 2011 was an incredible year for me as a music fan. My eyes were opened, my knowledge deepened, and a new, greater passion for the medium was awakened in me. Yes, my year in lists was a great one. But thanks to this feature, and to all of you who made it possible, I think next year will be even better.

Read more My Year in Lists here

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