Even before they became the bane of the internet, I was never big on lists. Sometimes I enjoy them, and if they’re well done they can serve as a spark to thinking about things in a different way, but too often, instead of contextualizing or re-contextualizing, they de-contextualize , hiding the essence of a piece of art by pasting it over with shallow similarities or comparisons to others. This is especially true of “best of” lists, whether they focus on a particular period of time, a particular genre, or at their worst, specific stylistic flourishes or the use of instruments (“best guitar riff played on a Telecaster run through a fuzz box and a digital delay system without the use of a wah-wah pedal”, etc.). Though I’m well aware that some performers and songs and bodies of work are better than others, I don’t like ranking them against each other—I’m far more interested in what a performer achieves or doesn’t achieve within the context of the record itself and the overall environment in which it was created. Often that means comparing one piece with another, but it doesn’t mean ranking them against each other as if their place on a list conveyed something meaningful. It doesn’t. It may be a convenient shorthand, but I would rather see it as a guide to listening (or viewing or reading) than as a judgment of relative value. I always remember what Pauline Kael said in the early 60s, in reference to Jean Renoir being listed as the world’s greatest living movie director: that being ranked on a numbered list, no matter how high, was an insult to a true artist. Art isn’t a competition, folks, it really isn’t.
All of which verbiage is only to explain why I’ve never done much with lists on this site, even though I work off of one. I excuse this by saying that a weekly ranking of sales and popularity, though it may ultimately affect the amount of money an artist makes and their influence, if any, on others and the culture at large, doesn’t actually reflect on the artistic value of their music. In any case, though I’ve put a few lists together in the past, sometimes out of a sense of duty, sometimes as a result of a reader’s request, even when I’ve been tempted to make one I’ve usually managed to argue my way out of it. My favorite was one I made a few years ago, before I started reviewing the entire Hot 100, of songs that made the main chart but never worked their way into the top ten. That seemed like a worthwhile service because a lot of those songs, especially the ones that only managed a week or two on the charts, may not have been heard by a lot of people. I would probably still do it if I hadn’t started reviewing the entire chart; but as long as I am a list like that seems a redundant exercise.
What I loved most about that list, though, was listening to the mix I made of the songs, which I re-programmed and fiddled with for a couple of weeks until I had something that I could listen to over and over again without ever getting bored. This not only contextualized the songs, but provided a more viable and meaningful way of comparing them and, yes, even ranking them. This is what most critics do, I’m sure, when they make their own lists, and is merely a compressed version of the way long-term critical judgments (i.e., “the canon”), are ultimately made. But the lists themselves, unless they’re heavily annotated, rarely convey that.
Which is the long way of leading up to the fact that now, even with my dislike of lists in general, Spotify changes everything. Now lists, even the most arbitrary, are available for listening without you having to spend large amounts of money, scramble around on the net or in record stores, hassle your friends, or depend on serendipitous crate-digging. Even if the list itself is a de-contextualizing disaster, the ability to listen to the selections, immediately, gives it at least some value. If you feel like listening to the Hot 100 in its entirety, for instance, Billboard has conveniently created a playlist that allows you to do just that (at least, that is, those songs that are available on Spotify, which will get you 90% of the chart most weeks—which is more than enough, believe me; you don’t really want to hear all of it). Many critics, as well, are creating rolling best-of playlists throughout the year. The possibilities are endless. I await the übernerd who puts up a playlist of every Pazz and Jop Poll, or every album reviewed in Christgau’s Consumer Guide—it’s only a matter of time.
In this spirit, I have created a rolling playlist of my own: The Best of the Hot 100, 2012. For the moment, I’m only including songs that made the chart through March, but in another week or two I’ll start adding songs as they come out and include a link on the sidebar. This is not a ranked list; I’m doing my best to make this a real mix, with some sort of flow that I hope puts these songs into their proper context, or highlights exactly what I think makes them so enjoyable. I want the list to be entertaining as well as informative. It’s also, of course, highly personal—I’m indulging more of the fan side of my brain than the critical side (no, I don’t think “Sorry For Party Rocking” is a work of genius, but damn I love that sound). I have a feeling I’ll get closer to explaining the ultimate value of these records in that manner, anyway—this is pop we’re talking about, after all. I’m not even going to list the songs here; just give it a listen and see what you think.
A few programming notes:
The only criteria for inclusion is that the record has to have debuted on the Hot 100 this year. So songs that were actually released in 2011 (or older) can make the list, while songs that broke into the big time this year but had already appeared on the chart won’t. Totally arbitrary, but there have to be rules.
There is one song missing. Rascal Flatts “Changed” isn’t available on Spotify yet. I assume it will be, since the first single from the album is, but they’re most likely holding off in order to increase actual sales. In the meantime you can find it on YouTube. Just imagine it coming between “Call Me Maybe” and “Springsteen”. I’ll add it as soon as I can. I know you can’t wait for that one.
I am aware of the absence of rap. There’s a lot of great stuff out there this year, but very little of it gets onto the Hot 100. The best candidates—”Stupid Hoe”, “I Do”, “No Church In the Wild” (relatively old, but it hit the chart in February), “Muthafucka Up”, and V.I.C.’s “Wobble”—were hard to fit into the mix and are all flawed in some essential way (at least to my ears). I may make a separate rap mix, or I may find a way to work them in later.
I will most likely freeze the list for a couple of weeks at the end of each quarter, and possibly write up a brief summary. Otherwise, it will be under constant change: songs added, songs dropped, programming shifting around. Stay tuned.
Update: I knew the nerds were out there, but damn, here you go. Every record available on Spotify that has hit the Billboard chart from 1946 through 2011. 5370 songs. A lot missing from the early years, of course, but this should fill up your weekend.