The Desert Island List

Popular culture is filled with lists and list-making—from top 100 (or 25 or 10) shows about sports, music and movies, to magazine articles (top 65 sex acts!) to, yes, blog entries. We can’t seem to resist making ranked lists. I don’t remember this being as ubiquitous when I was younger. Indeed, from my reading of literature and history this seems to be a peculiar mark of our age.

(That is not to say that the act of ranking or other judgment was any less important for prior generations but rather that the particular form of the rank listed seems at home and entrenched in the past 20 years or so.)

The ranked list is at once enchanting and distorting. By selecting and sorting items we create hierarchies of value. So, perhaps one influence on the ranked list may be found in the particular form of American free market capitalism (although, I wouldn’t jump to defend this point). We like the list because it is a simple, even elegant, expression of where items stand in relation to one another—essentially of how much they cost. The list, then, is a statement, a declaration of relative worth.

The list, however elegant, is also a fine way to distort value because it says nothing about the quality of items on the list in relationship to categories excluded from the list (e.g., a list of great books compared to a list of great paintings), it provides no information about the relative quality of the items on the list (is item 1 as much better than item 2 as 2 is to 3?), it indicates in its absolute form nothing about the context of the list composition or the parameters imposed upon or by the list maker.

Yet, I suspect because of this distortion, we continue to make lists. (We like the simplicity of the leveling effect.) Another feature of this may be that our world of judgment, especially when it comes to taste and choice (restaurants, music, movies, etc.), is so crowded that to make any decisions at all one must at some level ignore most options. Yes, as horrible as it is to admit, most of our consumer decisions are rendered arbitrary by the overwhelming number of our options. We can only choose by disavowing either many aspects of the choice or a plurality of options. Listing becomes a convenient way to carve a manageable set out of an endlessly replicating and expanding field.

In music, opinion-makers and critics make lists all the time—judgment oriented feints organized by time, genre, and format. When one examines, for example, Spin’s top 100 albums of 1985-2005, the sheer audacity of the act is readily apparent. Rappers, hard rockers, Hardcore artists, and musicians from a wide array of cities, countries and genres appear ranked in a bizarre order that disregards specific contexts and bars from consideration most artists from the period who did not write songs in English and those whose time signature (primarily) was not 4/4.

The ordering quality is skewed by criteria that are obscure. The difference in quality (by my assessment) from one selection to another can be staggering. One can’t help but get the sense that some albums are there just because the authors are afraid not to have them there. Artists seem to be selected based on reputation, sensed importance to the period and insufficiently defined concepts like ‘influence’. These parameters are, however, perhaps better than some algorithmic attempt to define quality by ‘objective’ aesthetic qualities. The exercise—and all of its foibles—illustrates the absurdity of the list.

But note, I say the “absurdity of the list” but not the exercise itself. The process of listing, of forcing oneself to make judgment decisions based on some criteria can be useful and, as with most things, indicates more about the identity, character and nature of the compiler than of the contents of the list.

For this blog then, the Younger J and I will be slowly compiling our own lists. To start with, I will try over time to select my favorite ten albums. I may rank them in the future.  It is the process of consideration and selection, however, that I want to illuminate (for myself, as well as for others). Rather than creating similar artificial cultural parameters or deceptively objective aesthetic categories, I will harness the arbitrary core of taste and select albums with duration in mind. Time.

Searching for a new home, listening to...Bob Dylan?

When I think of ranking or sub-grouping albums I try to use impractical hypotheticals. For instance, in one scenario (the Stargate Universe Conundrum), I imagine I have an iPod touch with only enough data space left for ten albums (the rest of the space is used up with important things like starship schematics, instructions for appendectomies, etc.). Since the interstellar vessel can re-charge any battery, I don’t have to worry about running out of power. (One could also imagine a desert island and a solar-powered iPod.)

Will Lady Gaga be your Wilson?

The conundrum is this: what are ten albums I could endure (or would choose to cherish) for the rest of my life under near certainty that I would never get to listen to a different album again? I will not take this issue lightly—one can live a long time and space can be very lonely. As I review albums (classics and new) I will leave tags indicating whether or not each album is under consideration for the spaceship box, a lock for inclusion, or a close runner up.

What do you consider when making these selections? Nostalgia must play a part, obviously. Bereft of home and loved ones, what reminds you of who you are and were? This question also points to the pragmatics or functionality of music. Will I choose albums based on what they ‘do’, on how they make me feel? How can I anticipate what music will be best fit in the undefined future? Considering the question in depth we cannot help but realize how much of the music we listen to ends up being ephemeral. Do you love now the album you loved 10 years ago? Will you still be listening to Lady Gaga ten years from now?

Album Reviewed so far: 13 Songs, under consideration, but I suspect it won’t make the cut. Why? Read the damn review.
And you? Readers? Brother? I know the scenario is a bit unnecessary—but my question remains. Forget about judgment. Try to forgetabout the cool—pretend that no one will even know what’s on your list. What might be there? What albums would you take on the tour that might be the rest of your life?

13 comments on “The Desert Island List

  1. professormortis says:

    The “Top X” list phenomena might be even more common now than in the past, but I feel like it was already ensconced when I was a kid….mainly because I loved shows that did that sort of thing-a great way in the pre-Internet era to find out about new bands, new movies, new whatever. Though, perhaps those were less likely to be ranked…it probably is in the last 20 years that the ranking part has become ubiquitous. I agree lists are folly…I often complain about them when they come out, and when people have asked me to do them for films I simply can’t. What I did do was start my “Movie of the Day” feature on my blog, because there are just too many movies people need to know about/see for a top 50 or top 100 list (and top 1,000 lists are so inclusive and large as to be absurd). I actually went and did a Google Ngram for some supporting data:

    Not sure it proves anything. As far as my own “space/desert island” list, I can’t ever imagine trying to pick just ten albums or ten movies, though I agree that nostalgia and endurance would be guide posts. For example, I’m nigh-certain that I would take a John Wayne movie and at least one of the albums my siblings played constantly when i was a kid, because I could always be reminded of home that way.

  2. theelderj says:

    Professor! The NGram is fascinating. Steady growth, but at increasing rate (significant I think) since the 1980’s. Although, top 10 has really separated itself from the pack.

    I agree that nostalgia would and will play the largest role in selecting this list of almost anything. Part of this, the greater I think, has to do with identity and self-fashioning. For an actual BSG experience, it would be more personal and, perhaps, ‘authentic’.

    But part of me also suspects that identity-creation is operable in criticism and list-making. Don’t critics want to come off a certain way? Doesn’t the act of criticism involve some level of personal definition?

    Whatever, as I blather on. My list (which is only partly made) is more a theory than a fact; I hope to use its putative existence as a litmus test for how much I really like an album.

    • professormortis says:

      I think Top 10 separates from the pack because it is so attractive, to the writer, and to the reader. Who wants to write/read 100 entries, 50 entries, or even 20 entries, when you can just read 10?

      I think the litmus test is great use for the concept. I also think that “Desert Island” lists always have a slightly different (and perhaps better) conceit that the “Top” list. You’re not trying to rank art, you’re just saying what art you’d want to have with you to come back to again and again. It’s more personal, and more about endurance, than immediate value. For films, for instance, I would think most people might include a movie that is powerful once but whose power diminishes with each viewing on a top list, but they might not include it on their desert island list. Then there’s the personal angle. My Desert Island list would include at least one Kaiju film; my Top Ten list probably would not, dear as they are to my heart (though they would probably sneak in on a top 20 or 50 list).

      I recall once that a mutual medievalist friend of ours asked me my “Top Ten” films everyone should see. I was paralyzed. How could I pick just ten? How can I choose among so many great options “the best”? I probably rattled off 50 movies I thought he should see.

  3. […] keeping with the Desert island theme—this album is under consideration, but probably not worthy. If I had to pick one TMBG album to […]

  4. […] repetition of structure and sound, it is still tremendously flawed—it wouldn’t make my desert island list, unless I were going to an island filled with […]

  5. […] the patently subjective and admittedly haphazard spirit of my mission—to collect the ten albums I could live with forever—I prize the wholly individualized “memory” index balanced against beginning-to-end […]

  6. […] I don’t know if Mates of State is influential. I don’t know how many fans they have. I do know that I think that this is one of the best albums of the decade. It is a lock for my Desert Island List. […]

  7. […] In any case, Veneer, an album whose title points both to the superficiality of music and the promise that something deeper lies within, is one of my favorite albums ever. Another lock for the Desert Island List. […]

  8. […] I try to get around all this by being honest about what influences my ranking of albums. I care about the way that one album stands out against others (difference), the way it engages […]

  9. […] have mentioned earlier my distrust for lists and the way that they distort issues of judgment (something that on its own has issues). See, for […]

  10. […] to be different and special?). Tegan & Sara’s best album, the one I think I would certainly take to my Desert Island, is 2007’s The Con. (So Jealous is nearly as good; there are some great tracks on If it Was You). […]

  11. […] I have admitted before that there is something false and distorting about ranking and list-making, I can’t deny that the practice is somewhat useful. So, as the rupture of Breaking […]

  12. […] (and, as often, surprise) when I turn back to it, I am returning to this again. Though I distrust lists and the distorting aesthetic of list-making, I nevertheless find it to be useful to look back on the year to put it into […]

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