A few weeks ago I came across a very smart comment appended by Alex Rodriguez to a post that appeared on NPR's excellent in-house jazz blog. The issue was NPR's "The Decade's 50 Most Important Recordings" list, and the relevance or irrelevance of jazz to same. Alex wrote:
I'll go ahead and say it: jazz doesn't belong on the "50 most important albums" list. Sorry, jazz fans, but we're too small and culturally irrelevant to be taking spots from the real musical trends in modern music. I suppose there's a case to be made if "important" doesn't measure overall cultural impact, but more along the lines of "artistic merit" or some equally-vague concept, but a few jazz fans typing around on the internet about their favorite records does not equal relevance.
It's a sentiment I tend to agree with, but it made me wonder: in 2009, does anything really belong on a hypothetical "most important albums" list? Or have we finally passed the moment in which one could sustain the fiction of the macrocosmically relevant (which of course is the assumption behind such lists)?
Most musicians I know are pretty ambivalent about the ritual of listmaking, and are simultaneously inclined to complain about and participate in it.
For instance, one would be hard-pressed to find a musician who was unhappy to have their work featured as one of the year-end critical picks in a given rag, or who would go so far as to punch the hierarchical gift horse in the mouth. And in terms of creating such lists, what true music fan is going to be shy about sharing his or her opinions? Especially when asked?
But does anyone really believe that these lists are not prone to at least some degree of silliness, and particularly the silliness of the self-serving? Almost invisibly, the (self-appointed) right to bestow a label like "important" confers upon its giver an aura of... importance. Talk about a conflict of interest!
Of course, the potential for silliness is directly proportional to the grandness of the claims being made. (The 50 most important albums of 2000-2009? Really? You can actually see, from the future, their historical and "game-changing" impact?) So the best such lists are always the ones that go out of their way to qualify themselves:
It’s customary at the end of any period of time like this for people to put together their lists of greatest/best/most significant/blah-blah-blah music of the decade. Most such lists end up being fairly cynical ploys to bait readers into agreeing/disagreeing, and the hagiographic consensus that gets built up around so much banal, tedious music always leaves me baffled.
So I shan’t attempt to speak for anyone else, or to put a stamp of importance or significance on the following list. Instead, I’ll just list the albums that meant most to me that were released during the last ten years. For a whole mess of reasons. Some trivial, some far deeper.
It's a cliche by now, but the last 10-15 years have provided copious evidence that the old (top-down) music business is dying, and being replaced by something less centralized, more dispersed, more DIY, and more directly controlled by musicians themselves. And this (slow, incomplete, but ineluctable) democratization of the music business, which puts more music into the world than ever before, consequently undercuts unselfconscious and uncritical notions of macrocosmic relevance.
Set aside the issue of aesthetic justice (the usual response to any "best of" list is to point to all the deserving artists who were overlooked). This is actually a practical question. It has to do with the fact that the unimaginably huge cultural bounty that is the Internet has become impossible to track accurately. (Does anyone even know how many recordings were released last year?) And because of the limits of the human capacity for cultural consumption, ultimately there will be a time (and maybe it's already here) when the "best" art produced in any period, by any criteria whatsoever, will surpass the listening audience's capacity to perceive it. Your desire to support the arts, your passion for good music, will be beside the point. There will be more good music than you can reasonably expect to be able to enjoy in a single lifetime, let alone in a single year or decade.
Powerful media entities like NPR will, understandably, but out of habit, continue to assert the notion of a broad-yet-manageable view of the entire field. But we can't have it both ways, can we? Unless we consciously and collectively choose to go backwards, to undo the zeitgeist of DIY, the technological shape of the new music business is pushing us hard towards a hopelessly complex and detailed ecology of musical microcosms. And assuming we cannot surgically expand the perceptual capabilities of the human mind, going forward we will each have to be satisfied with a tinier fragment of the overall musical pie.
And that's fine with me.
I suppose the deeper question is whether the impulse to pursue and propound macrocosmic relevance fulfills some psychological need. Is it just a habit? Or does it serve a more religious purpose by giving music fans a sense of plugging into something bigger than themselves?