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Constructing the top 10 list: Personal motives and justifications for picking the Arcade Fire

December 22, 2010 |  4:29 pm


While constructing my Top 10 List of Best Albums for 2010, I couldn’t help but think about all the psychological factors that go into such an exercise. I’m not saying my Top 10 Motives exactly mirror my real music Top Ten, but it’s an example of some of the identity-building, bet-hedging criteria I use to make my list every year. So here's a companion Top 10 to go along with my Top 10 albums list.

Top 10  Motives at Work in Constructing My Top 10 of Any Given Year:

1. Album that I listened to all the time that might define me as a traditionalist on some level (which feels weird because that’s not how I think of myself -- but oh well, what can I say?).

2. Album that I didn’t listen to nearly as much but I deeply respect.

3. Some kind of wild-card pick, big and bold. I’m no chicken, people!

4. The album that might be closest to my heart, the one I listen to in my car on repeat when I’m crying about, you know, stuff.

5. Album that will show the obscurists that I, too, troll the underground with unremitting fine taste. “Dude, this really cool DJ I know sent me this download and it totally blew my mind! You’ve never heard of it? Oh.” Cue internal self-satisfied smirk.

6. Super popular album that I will put next to obscure album to show that I don’t care about any of those distinctions anyway. I’m also one of you, Joe Plumber!

7. Album that demonstrates that I listen to music in other genres beyond my preferred two or three, thank you very much.

8. Album that’s made by a terminally underrated legacy artist that I don’t listen to that often but I’m floored by it every time I do.

9. Album that might come from another country and not the usual whitey-land places.

10. Album that I don’t really love but it might foretell the future of music, so I’m sticking it on here, like how an agnostic might pray to Jesus on her death bed.

In some ways, constructing the Top 10 list reminds me of the quizzes I used to take in Seventeen magazine in high school, the ones that would figure out with unerring certainty, “What Type of Girlfriend Are You?” First, you look at the possible categories: The Possessive Type. The Fun-Loving Type. The Marriage Type. The Sporty Type. (The last one might be a stretch, I know, but it always seemed like the teen magazines included a provisional “you’re not very feminine but you’re still great!” type, so as not to alienate tomboys who got this subscription from their Avon-selling mothers.)

Then you figure out what type you want to be and, because these quizzes aren’t terribly sophisticated, you answer the questions in a way that will secure the desired outcome. Voila! Looky here, turns out I’m the Fun-Loving Type! Imagine that.

Anyway, all of this is to say that when a critic makes her Top 10 list, she’s really building a profile of herself. The Top 10 is part high-school cafeteria politics, part pop-psychology roadmap via your musical passions. Given the highly subjective nature of the task at hand, it’s almost arbitrary what album occupies what slot, critically or even musically speaking. After all, what’s more absurd than deciding on the best album anyway? How do you pin art piece against art piece when the criteria is abstract and not, say, based on time or scores like in sports?

Maybe the biggest fascination I have with reading Top 10s or making my own is that each slot telegraphs some aspect of the self. Am I a rebel? A traditionalist? A feminist? An aging indie rocker? A young punk dude? Deep into hip-hop? A reformed goth? Open-minded? Serious? Experimental? A poptimist? Fun-loving?

Those identity markers feel silly on one hand, the lexicon of teen magazines and CW TV shows and marketing metrics; on the other, what would we do without them? They feel ingrained, the meaning of each has tentacles that splay out wide and deep in our beings, rooting us to the floor of our lives. It’s the language we use to connect with friends, the psychological symbols we flash in the dark to find community and family.

Recently, the Awl magazine asked me to pick my favorite album of the year with no equivocations, no explanations -- just the damn artist and the title. Great idea and I was happy to be asked but it also filled me with dread. I knew, as I know at the end of every year, that I’d have to build a Top 10 list and I hadn’t even started yet. And here were these perfectly nice people wanting to know my No. 1 without permitting me to include some critical pussyfooting? Ugh, what a demand!

I picked Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” after spending maybe five minutes of direct thought about it. In the past, I’ve obsessed for hours, maybe days, on the No. 1 slot. I’ve made my Top 10 list and then sat there with a pen and scratched out certain records, moved around others, rush-listened to a few contenders and revisited some favorites from earlier in the year. But this time I answered very quickly with my gut, thinking that if I really wanted to, I could change my mind, maybe not for the Awl, but at least for my regular gig here at the L.A. Times.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t change my mind even though I could equivocate for days about my choice. In fact, allow me a sliver of that right now. There were better albums made this year. I’m willing to say at least a few better ones, actually, some of which appeared in other slots on my Top 10. When I listen to “The Suburbs,” I frequently skip about three or four songs to get to the ones I like best. It’s not like I reverently listen, start to finish, trembling in awe of its power while reclining in a white robe in an all-glass temple somewhere in Malibu.

I picked “The Suburbs” because I feel protective of albums, those dear relics that explore a few set ideas in a cohesive manner. For the last five years or so, I’ve listened to fellow critics say that the album is dead. That, due to some double-headed missile of a crumbling music industry that’s been pillaged by downloading culture and the kids’ insistence on texting in low-character-counts only, the album is now getting stampeded by the single. (And, from a self-preservation perspective, if the album gives way to the single, are music critics really needed anymore? Does the culture really need contextualization of the next three-minute Soulja Boy song?)

Whenever I hear that the album will die, I think about the state of fiction. For years, the novel has also been pronounced as a dead or dying form. Its plagues are different, of course, though one of the biggest reasons oft-cited for its imminent cause of death is reduced attention span. It can’t compete with the quick, visual stimulus offered by movies, TV or video games.

The logical conclusion then is that short stories should be the dominant form, or maybe highly kinetic forms of poetry or other experimental writing that can command attention spans trained to eat up quick, visually attuned dispatches. But this isn’t the case right now in the mainstream literary world.

The truth is that, much like the novel, the album is important because it pushes back against the restless, frittering, micro-experiential culture. There is a place for the single -- the kind that electrifies your spirit for the three minutes it plays in your car or on the dance floor -- but there will always be a place for the album too.

So I picked “The Suburbs” because it most passionately made the case for the survival of the long-playing format. If Jonathan Franzen championed the novel this year, than that’s what Arcade Fire did for the album. You can have problems with Franzen or the Arcade Fire -- I do on both counts to a certain degree -- but, for me, the romance of their statements is undeniable. Plus, I picked it because it became stitched into my being over the course of this year. I played it while driving, walking my dog, hanging out with friends and doing my laundry.

But it makes me somewhat uncomfortable that it might broadcast certain things about me: Like, for instance, that I’m a tragically aging indie rocker. And some of that is true, at least for this year when I’m feeling a little defensive on behalf of a beloved, endangered creature. In 2011, it might change. There are musicians out there who pack so much into one song that it functions like an album, whether by creating and sustaining a narrative thread and/or a textural landscape made with ProTools and using at least 400 samples. Flying Lotus or the Books, I'm looking at you.

-- Margaret Wappler

Photo: Arcade Fire playing last month in Spain. Credit: Juan Naharro Gimenez / Getty Images