The United States has an obsession with competition.
Whether in sports, the space race or global domination, to us, there’s a winner and loser to be found in anything.
Perhaps this accounts for why lists are such profitable topics for magazines; lists easily break down who’s the best and who’s even better.
Most major magazines – regardless of subject – take part in some sort of list issue: Sports Illustrated will rank athletes, Forbes does income levels and Entertainment Weekly lists the top grossing movies.
Some lists rank by statistics; others, though, are purely subjective. This subjectivity is most evident when judging art, for it is much harder to measure art’s impact in numbers.
So is it fair, then, that these magazines rank art the same as they would chart a census? No, but nonetheless, these lists are addictive for readers, and this month’s Spin Magazine is the latest fix for all those list addicts.
Our band is better than your band
As part of its 20th anniversary celebration this month, Spin ranked the top 100 albums of the last 20 years.
There is a pleasure to be found in mentally arguing with the editor’s decision: How can Neutral Milk Hotel be ranked so low? Soundgarden sucks. Hole ranked over Wu-Tang Clan? No way!
But most of all, lists that judge art are interesting because they do not judge quality or aesthetics so much as attempt to show an artwork’s cultural significance.
There’s plenty of hardcore Radiohead fans who think “Kid A” is the band’s best record. In terms of social as well musical impact though, “OK Computer” (which was No. 1 in Spin’s list) caused a greater impact upon its release.
If Nirvana’s “Nevermind” (No. 3 on the list) had not been released on a major label and found a wide audience, chances are the album would be much lower on the list, or not on it at all – it would be like a Tad record, remembered only by those in the scene at the time or by ultra-nerdy record geeks.
What sets Spin’s list apart from other rock lists, especially the prominent ones of Rolling Stone, is that it aims to serve a younger (and, let’s face it, hipper) audience. Rolling Stone’s lists always appease the baby-boomers, placing the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and other ’60s classics at the very top while leaving music released after 1975 to wallow near the bottom, like a pity vote.
Back in my day Ö
Rolling Stone has always said, indirectly of course, that modern music does not compare with the music its writers grew up with. In its list of the top 500 albums, released in 2003, Rolling Stone featured only one post-1990 band in the top 100: Nirvana, at No. 17.
Spin’s list is refreshing because it celebrates the music that mainstream lists often ignore – featuring artists such as Pavement, the Pixies, the Smiths, PJ Harvey and Sonic Youth at the top. But the best part of the new Spin list is that hip hop is not just a novelty slipped in at the bottom. The No. 2 album is Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” at No. 7 is De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising” and NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” rounds out the top 10. Also in contrast with Rolling Stone, Spin’s top 15 albums feature more women, such as Liz Phair.
In multiple ways, Spin’s picks seem more diverse.
The new list is not without its faults, though no list could fully satisfy everyone. Still, Spin falls into the same trap that Rolling Stone does, where the albums writers listened to in high school or college get more props than newer music; most of the albums came out of 1985-1994.
Only 11 albums on the list were released after 2000, and many of those selections seem to be pandering to younger readers who just started listening to music.
Also, while Spin offers a new look at rock lists, its post-1985 focus falls short of actually challenging the baby-boomer lists of other publications.
Granted, the list corresponds to the magazine’s anniversary, but in the future it would be cool to see a list that actually pits the Beatles against Public Enemy.
Now that would be a list worth talking about.