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Opinion: Sean On Year End Lists

In the next few weeks, I will be compiling a list of what I feel were the best albums of 2013. As I prepare to compile my top ten list, I’ve been going back and listening to what I feel were my favorite records of the year. As I’ve been doing this, I’ve also found myself exacerbated at the futility of the exercise. The problem with year end lists comes down to time, and our ability to understand somethings impact without the benefit of seeing what that impact will be.

2013 was a great year for music, and there are at least 10 albums I could say were my favorite. However, I don’t have the prospective to absorb any of them. Sure I know, say, Modern Vampires In The City was an album I loved, but since I’ve only had 6 months to absorb it, it’s tough to know how I will ultimately feel about it. To get a better understanding of year end list accuracy, I took a look at my top 10 albums of 2011, as written that year. As I read my list, I realized there were at least 3 albums I hadn’t listened to since around the time I made it, and several albums that were absent have become huge favorites in the intervening two years. Even with two years prospective, I know there is plenty of great music from 2011 I haven’t heard yet, and many under appreciated classics that will be rediscovered years from now.

So if time breeds prospective, that means a best of list made years later should be pretty comprehensive right? To test this theory, I took a look at Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of the 1970’s. Written in 2004, and compiled by their whole writing staff at the time, the list has ample diversity and prospective. Their #1 album was Low by David Bowie, certainly not a universal consensus (this is Pitchfork after all), but a great album who’s import and influence has grown exponentially, and reflects the prospective afforded by 24 years of music listening.

Then I realized something, not only was Born To Run not on the list, there were no Bruce Springsteen albums at all. This was shocking, until I really thought about it. In 2004, The Boss’ cultural cache was on the wane, younger people (myself included) unfairly lumped him in with the lesser “classic rock” we’d been forced to hear growing up. By 2006, a great reissue of Born To Run had been released (which pitchfork gave a 10.0) and many people of my generation first appreciated Springsteen’s greatness. Couple this with The Hold Steady releasing two all time classics in ’05 and ’06 that re-appropriated Springsteen’s style of classic rock and blended it with mid western indie, and Bruce’s legacy was at a new high. If Pitchfork released a Best Albums Of The 70’s list in 2013, Springsteen would undoubtably have several albums on the list, and Born To Run might be close to #1.

This isn’t meant as an inditement of year/decade end lists. Aside from being part of the process of turning the page into a new year, they provide a valuable shorthand for the cultural achievements of a 12 month period. Ultimately, these kinds of lists are fun, and helpful for those looking to explore great art, but attitudes and appreciations will always change. No matter when a list is compiled, and no matter who is compiling it, it will never been truly comprehensive. So enjoy Best Of lists, I know I do, but be careful to always take them with a giant grain of salt.

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