Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Art of List Making

For anyone paying attention, you’ll know that I like making lists. A lot. Obsessively so. Not to-do lists, mind you – I’m enthralled by making best-of music-related lists. In the music world, nothing seems to simultaneously disgust and delight so many – well, with the possible exception of Justin Bieber. Detractors whine over what doesn’t make it that should and what makes it that shouldn’t. Music elitists argue that a list degrades musical accomplishments to a subjective ranking. Fans like yours truly just say pfffft.

Consider best-of lists in the same light as, well, compilation albums. Album purists whine that such collections don’t represent artists’ work as originally intended. Sneer at anthologies if you wish, but they serve a purpose. For many people, such a package is the first exposure to an artist beyond a random song here and there. A greatest hits can be the first dip of the toe into the artist’s greater pool of work, prompting the listener to dive deeper.

Best-of lists serve the same purpose. They offer general overviews of whatever they’re specializing in. That may mean diddly to veterans, but it can be a game changer for novices. Years ago, I picked up Dave Marsh’s 1989 book The Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. It was, as far as I can remember, my first foray into the world of best-of list making. While I certainly could nitpick over Marsh’s rankings, I instead relished the discovery of hundreds of songs previously unfamiliar to me. For example, if Marsh ranked Little Willie John’s “Need Your Love So Bad” as high as #49, it at least bore investigation.

So now, twenty years later, I’m trotting out my own book – The Top 100 Songs of the Rock Era 1954-1999, available now at Amazon.com. You can learn more about the book at thetop100songsoftherockera.com.

Yes, this blog entry is a shameless plug for said book. What can I say? With all the fake modesty and sincerity I can muster, I hereby proclaim it the best book ever written. Non-listers will build altars to the book that opened the musical door for them. Those who are already list believers will abandon all other lists, knowing they have found the one-and-only TRUE list. Uh huh. You can insert your favorite “swamp land in Florida”, “when pigs fly” or other “it’ll never happen” slam here.

In all seriousness, I cringe at the same thing that makes the skin of many list readers crawl. Who picked these? Even the most credible music sources – the Grammys, the Billboard charts, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Rolling Stone magazine – have built-in biases. No matter who generates the list, it is targeted toward that source’s specific audience, inevitably leaving important elements out of the list-making equation.

For example, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” aren’t in the Grammy Hall of Fame, despite being mainstays on any song list worth its salt. Check the list of the thousand songs to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and you won’t find John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Even if you figure any Hot 100 charting song into the mix, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” are still A.W.O.L. from the list. That’s right – neither even dented the U.S. pop charts, despite their presence on many a best-of list.

The Grammys and Billboard represent more middle-of-the-road tastes, hence the omission of classic rock gems from Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and others. The problem, however, goes both ways. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame generated a list of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll,” and, apparently as punishment to songs not sporting guitar solos, showed no love to monster hits like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997.” Use Rolling Stone magazine, arguably the leading U.S. rock rag, as your guide and their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list won’t leave you feeling like “Dancing in the Street” when you realize that the Martha & the Vandellas’ classic has been kicked to the curb. The absence of Don McLean’s “American Pie” is enough to make one drive his Chevy off the levee.

I could site more oversights from other major music publications, but you get the point. None of these lists capture everything. Maybe a list is slanted toward commercially successful songs. Perhaps it favors critical acclaim. It may be too acutely tuned in to one genre of music. These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night.

Actually, I should qualify that. Music lists have kept me up many a night, but it’s the mix of being a night owl and having a driving need to seek out lists ad infinitum that has led to pillow neglect. I’m fairly non-plussed by whatever a list maker chooses to include or not include. There’s always another list around the next Internet corner to make up the difference.

Out of my late-night excursions trolling the web for best-of lists, Dave’s Music Database was born. At the turn of the millennium, best-of lists were as common as Y2K panic. I have compiled one massive database in which I’ve averaged hundreds of these lists together, effectively weeding out the idiosyncrasies of individual lists and leaving behind one definitive, end-all be-all, no-questions-asked, granddaddy list of all lists. After all that work the next logical question is “Now what?”

I built a website (DavesMusicDatabase.com) around my endeavors and later a Facebook page so that I might connect with other similarly-minded fanatics. Ultimately my love of writing – and a pipe dream of making barrels and barrels of cash – led to The Top 100 Songs of the Rock Era 1954-1999. I keyed in on the rock era since even the plethora of lists in my database couldn’t erase the dominance of the second half of the 20th century.

In writing about the top 100 songs, I opted for an aggregate approach. Much as I’d consulted countless lists to create my definitive one, why not tap multiple sources for the ultimate consolidated capsules about those songs? After such an objective process to determine what made the cut, it would have been oddly inappropriate to suddenly go all personal with heartfelt essays and “I remember where I was when I first heard that” ramblings about each song. Heck, I can save that subjective, opinionated crap for my blog. No, the only acceptable angle was to harken back to the days of collegiate research-paper writing. I liberally footnoted, quoted, and referenced (see sample pages here). It won’t look like other best-of books, but then again, I never wanted it to anyway.

So the end result is, as it says on the back of the book, “the ultimate cream-of-the-crop list which will draw criticism from none and praise from all. Well, one can dream.”

Dreaming may be free, but the book is not. Point that browser toward Amazon.com and plunk down $16.95. Hey, I need to pay next month’s Internet bill so I can start surfing my way to the next project.

BTW, once you have that life-changer in hands head on over to the discussions section on the DMDB Facebook page to leave your comments of praise, worship, and devotion.

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