It’s a well-known fact—we music journalists love our lists. Before anybody had heard of the phrase “page views,” Rob Gordon of High Fidelity—the patron saint of music geeks, for better or worse—was rattling off arcane top 5 lists just for the fun of it.
But while we’d like to think lists help us to contextualize our vast musical world, some only serve to rankle and sneer, while others are grossly misguided to begin with. It all becomes a grotesque competition where the inherent beauty of music is thrown into a bloody coliseum for our own obsessed amusement, squashing the point of the medium in the first place.
In that spirit, we’ve highlighted the 5 Worst Music Lists. That’s right: we’ve created some meta-journalism, but all in good fun. Of course, our own humble site isn’t immune to the siren call of the bad list, so you’ll see us down there in the explanations, along with links to all the lists in question. Consider this a positive call-to-arms: We music journalists can do better.
…And we kick it off with one of our own. Matt MacFarland, take it away!
Disclaimer: I am actually a legitimate fan of Conor Oberst and his work.
Look, I was 15 once. My bangs were more of a curtain pulled to let only the slightest bit of light in. I was angsty. I got dumped. We got back together. I got dumped again. What I’m trying to say is that I loved Bright Eyes. And there’s nothing about Bright Eyes that I loved more than Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (except that one-off song “Southern State,” but that’s for another time). The orchestral arrangements! The achingly earnest lyrics balanced by lovely imagery! Conor’s quavering, stitches-still-showing warble of a voice! Age and wisdom have since lain their heavy hands upon my fluttering heart, though, and I’ve got to say, some of those lyrics on Lifted were awful. Something about seeing them listed down, apart from the music, makes me wish for a DeLorean and 1.21 gigawatts so I could go back, cut my own hair and thrust a Tom Waits album into my hands. A couple choice lines from our own “The Top 10 Lyrics on Bright Eyes’ ‘Lifted...’ ” should illustrate my revelation.
“And your eyes must do some raining if you're ever gonna grow / When crying don't help, you can't compose yourself / It's best to compose a poem, an honest verse of longing / Or a simple song of hope.”
Translation: it’s OK to cry, man, because that’s how we become who we are. Actually, the unadulterated spilling-out of emotion is not only all right – it’s necessary. Plus, this is a line in a song about writing lines in songs! Look out, literary self-referentiality, there’s a new sheriff in town. His name is Conor and he wants to pick you some flowers.
“You said, ‘Go explore those other women, the geography of their bodies/ But there's just one map you'll need / You're a boomerang, you'll see, you will return to me.’”
The whole woman’s-body-as-landscape thing hasn’t ever been done before, right? Even my college lit-mag wouldn’t publish a poem with that excuse for a metaphor. Also, it’s a weird/creepy no-brainer that you’d only need one map, unless the speaker is exploring women with non-standard-issue equipment, if you get my meaning.
“I love their love and I am thankful that someone actually receives the prize that was promised / By all those fairy tales that drugged us / And still do me, I'm sick, lonely / No laurel tree, just green envy.”
In this song, Conor contemplates the wonderful love of two of his friends, who, among other things, “fit together like a puzzle.” Somehow Conor both loves their love and is happy for them and still manages to be self-righteously bitter and angry that they have what he wants. Look, Conor, you can be envious of someone’s happiness; that’s basic human nature. It’s OK, friend. Let it all out.
Complex releases a list (or two) almost every day, so not every single one is going to be a home run. While some are inspired (“50 Rap Lyrics That Sound Incredibly Outdated Today”), others are borderline-bizarre (“8 GIFs of Beyonce Licking Her Fingers”). Most lists of any publication require very little thought to engage with, and “20 Pictures of Rappers And Private Jets” is perhaps the ultimate time-waste. There’s no real appeal beyond “check out these rich dudes living out their rich lives,” thus reducing an artful genre into a crass stereotype that can be mindlessly scrolled through during your lunch hour. –Art Levy
The one that kicked off some pretty heated vitriol and got us thinking about this non-list. It’s hard to know where to start with this one, but surely the whole thing began as a way to wrangle page views—and, to LA Weekly’s credit, mission accomplished. But it’s just so unnecessary: why poop on a bunch of bands just because you hear about them a lot, you don’t like the way they dress, or—God forbid—they use glockenspiels? Who the fuck cares? That’s like old-timers complaining that the only “true” rock music is made by guitars, not these new-fangled keyboards and laptops with their skinny jeans and what-not.
Sometimes lists engender the worst in internet culture, bringing the snarkiness to the forefront while burying any sense of logic, and this is a perfect example of that. And no, we at Prefix aren’t just saying this because we happen to cover all of the bands on said list and our poor feelings are hurt. The 20 Worst Classic Rock Bands, the 20 Worst Mid-90s One-Hit Wonders, whatever. These “Worst” lists are the worst. Lumping a bunch of music into a category—be it “hipster,” country, rap, etc.—and then absolutely refusing to listen to anything in that category is just a sad way to live. I don’t particularly like death metal, but I’ll always give it a chance, and I’ll certainly never write it off because of the way the bands dress. Why take cheap shots when you can experience it for yourself and draw your own conclusions? –Art Levy
This compendium of the most annoying voices in pop music could have been a hilarious slam dunk, but its lack of conviction prevents any real magic from happening. Pop Culture Madness introduces their list with the conviction of an awful trial lawyer: “Possibly the most subjective of all our categories, the most annoying singers may very well turn out to be among the greatest vocalists ever.” Then they go on to call Sting’s voice a “barely distinguishable warble,” dismiss James Brown as a “Black Elvis” (?), and slag Macy Gray because she sounds like “a baby singing.”
Still, they can’t even own up to their insults—though they list Ringo Starr as having one of the most annoying voices in pop, according to Pop Culture Madness, his role in Caveman is “vastly underrated.” This list should be deleted from internet history for the mere mistake of mentioning subjectivity—music journalism is subjective, everyone knows it, and drawing attention to subjectivity ruins the fun of a list like this. Go on, hate on Ethel Merman, just do it with a little gusto!—Molly O’Brien
The Garnier Fructis sponsorship of Rolling Stones's 50 "Women Who Rock" is just the icing on this sexism cake. Hey, ladies, now that we've got your attention with hair products, did you know that there are these things called instruments? Did you know that you can play them even if you don't have a penis? Did you know that some women have actually been good at it? And for the fellas in the room, this list seems a stilted reminder that women aren't just for looking at and sleeping with after shows. Some of them have even made great albums just like men!
While there's nothing at all wrong with celebrating the achievements of lady musicians, the fact that they seem to need their own list smarts of an androcentric music authority. Rolling Stones's top 20 albums of all time are each attributed to artists sporting Y chromosomes. Women make very few appearances in the publication's many hyperbolic lists, which, while purporting to be gender-neutral, insist that the best of most music was made by men. So women get their own list, which is the journalistic equivalent of saying, "yeah, she's a pretty good musician--for a woman." –Sasha Geffen