I took a job a few minutes from my apartment midway through 2016, and in the absence of a commute, my music-listening ability pretty much tanked. When you lack the mental capacity to just sit down like a regular person and channel your inner model-who-stars-in-a-headphone-ad, the question of discovering music gets complicated. In this regard, the various music lists that websites put out during the year are invaluable.
Normally, I find lists to be hugely contentious. There’s something inherently authoritative about putting things in a specific order that I think people (myself included) respond badly to, which is exploited on a daily basis for clicks. Lists aren’t there to debate; they’re there to tell you the way things are and in what order they are. When our personal feelings inevitably clash with such decrees, we protest. It’s even easier to protest when you closely follow the subject in question, because then you’ve had the time to develop your own idea of what the ranking should look like if there’s any justice in the world; at that point, you seek out the lists to have your views validated, which just enhances the potential for conflict.
But what happens when you don’t follow the subject closely? It’s real easy for me to snort at, say, one of the top 10 lists that are part of every film critic’s job description, but I don’t have nearly the same kind of knowledge about music. Part of that is simply because I don’t make as much of an effort to be knowledgeable about music, but the other part is, I suspect, the medium’s comparative diversity. I haven’t done the math on this, but it seems like the amount of music each year vastly outnumbers how many movies come out or how many video games or how many TV shows. It is, understandably, hard to keep up. Even when more music than I’ll ever need is up for grabs on the streaming platform of my choosing, I’m paralyzed by all the options, encouraged to Stick With What I Know. Curation becomes an issue.
The point here is that, with a mediocre foundation of knowledge to construct an opinion on, I view these music lists as a bit of an outsider. I don’t have as many opinions to feel invalidated, and so I don’t feel authority being imposed. Instead, lists become a way to fill the gaps; something’s place on a list becomes the urgency with which I’m supposed to check it out. Number 3 isn’t better than Number 4 so much as it’s the one I should check out first. And there’s a broadness to music lists that encourages this. They tend to come in top 50s or top 100s, and in recognizing the broadness of the medium, they appear less authoritative, less exclusive. The general implausibility, too, of having strong feelings for the specific placement of 100 items makes the whole thing seem like more of a suggestion than a statement.
When you strip away all the baggage of personal opinions, is this the actual purpose of lists? Of course not. But it’s probably the best way I can think of to look at them.
So here’s a ranked list of some of the music I liked in 2016.