The Trouble With Top 10 Lists; Also, in the Voice: a Wrongheaded “Greatest Jazz Albums” List

Planet Jazz: Notes From All Over

‘Tis the season. Yes, it’s that time of year when arts and entertainment critics desperately attempt to remember all that they’ve seen, heard or read over the past 12 months, and come up with lists ranking the best.

Having contributed more than a few jazz, rock and film critics’ lists over the years (including some published in the Village Voice, JazzTimes, Jazziz, downbeat and various newspapers), it’s a task I’m  accustomed to completing.

I look forward to it, too. While a bit of a chore, it can also be fun, and illuminating. It’s a relatively painless way to review the best and worst of the past year’s releases, and take a second look at anything that might have been unfairly overlooked.

That said, “best-of” list making remains an imperfect method for honoring significant work, and raises all sorts of questions.

At the risk of adding to the Top 10 clutter, here are my Top 10 questions about critics’ Top 10 lists:

  1. Is it really possible to determine “the best” when each recording, film, book, TV show or play often is a universe unto itself, in terms of being so vastly varied in approach, intent, structure (and other areas related to content) and even medium that comparisons are absurd? Is Ang Lee’s sumptuous, colorful 3D epic “Life of Pi” even of the same species as Tim Burton’s black-and-white animated stop-motion film “Frankenweenie”?
  2. Shouldn’t each artist, ideally, be pursuing creative work against a standard of that artist’s making, rather than a standard tied to what everyone else is doing?
  3. Related to the above, doesn’t it do a disservice to the art at hand to nudge artists in the direction of open competition, ala athletic bouts? Isn’t the sheer number of units sold beside the point? Must there always be “winners” and “losers” in the creative arts? (Obviously, here I’m not talking about entertainment — like, say, the latest CD from boy band One Direction — that’s specifically contrived as commercial product, overproduced to every inch of its life, targeted to a very specific demographic, and designed to sell the maximum to the most).
  4. Is it possible for a critic to fully absorb or even have access to every high-quality representation of any particular art? In 2011, in the United States alone, 610 feature films were released in theaters (MPAA), 76,875 albums that sold at least one copy were released (Nielsen Soundscan), and three million books were published. Try keeping up.
  5. Given that evaluating everything, much less catching it all, is not humanly possible, wouldn’t it be more honest to refer to any given list as “the best (fill in the blank) that I caught this year” or something similar but less unwieldy? Why pretend to have a macro view when one’s view is actually quite limited?
  6. Does the average critic typically assemble a “best-of” list based on what he or she ACTUALLY LIKES, as opposed to a list designed to appeal to other critics and the highfalutin segment of the readership?
  7. Related to the above, should the trendy — the new, the innovative, the bold, the provocative, the young — by default be rewarded over the outstanding, or even the great? And should critics emphasize diversity for diversity’s sake? For a jazz list, should a critic pointedly include solo works as well as large ensemble recordings and everything in between, and strive to ensure that there’s equitable representation of multiple sub-genres as well as gender, race, and country of national origin? Or should the focus always be on the work that strikes the critic as being highest in quality?
  8. Should critics, as sometimes happens, highlight work by lesser-known artists merely in order to bring needed attention to those folks? Good intentions, yes, but they come with unintended consequences (see below).
  9. Likewise, should critics, as sometimes happens, NOT include works by well-known artists merely because those artists are deemed already to have received enough attention? For example, should a film as accomplished as Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” go underappreciated by critics at year’s end simply because it was directed by (arguably) the world’s most famous filmmaker? Should anything by a Marsalis — whether saxophonist Branford, trumpeter/impresario Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, drummer Jason, or piano-playing dad Ellis — be discounted because their family name is omnipresent in jazz? Should the likes of Stephen King and John Grisham be overlooked just because those guys sell books by the truckloads?
  10. At the same time, should popularity, which of course directly reflects on how an artist resonates with the public, be ignored altogether when deciding whether a work ought to be included on a list?

So many questions. Too few answers. Onward to the Top 10 task(s) at hand.

***************

Lists make good filler for publications, even if and when those lists are obvious, redundant, pointless, or ridiculously incomplete.

With apologies to the story’s author, “Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die,” in the Village Voice, hits all the above marks. It’s one of the most generic jazz pieces published in a major publication in recent memory.

Nothing wrong with including the usual suspects, like Miles, Coltrane and Monk, because they’re the usual suspects for good reason. But as someone remarked on Twitter, it’s the kind of list that could have been predicted even before it was published.

Worst of all, the piece suggests that must-hear jazz was released only in the period beginning in 1959 (Miles’ “Kind of Blue,” Mingus’s “Mingus Ah Um,” Ornette’s “Shape of Jazz to Come”) and ending in 1973 with Herbie’s “Headhunters.” Seriously?

Missing from the list: Ellington, Charlie Parker, early Louis, big bands, Latin jazz, loads more.

Also MIA: Any developments in jazz since the heyday of fusion. It’s nearly another reiteration of the Ken Burns argument — you know,  jazz is all but dead. And it’s wrongheaded.

A simple fix: Retitle the piece “My Favorite Jazz, 1959-1973.”  That’d be an honest “bucket” to put it in, at least.

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