This is the first of four posts with a Q&A about the making of the four best-of-the-decade lists I've made so far. Thanks to Jack Silbert for suggesting the idea, posing the questions, and lightly editing some of my answers.
Q) Who are you, what is your background in music, and what are these lists you've been compiling?
A) I’m a statistician in the Bay Area of California. I’ve pretty much always been a math geek first and a music geek second, but music listmaking is where I find balance and happiness.
My first minimum wage job (11th grade) was working as a sales clerk at the Musicland at Prince George’s Plaza. I had been subscribing to Billboard magazine for several years at that point, having discovered that Casey Kasem was not the only way in which the top 40 could be revealed to me. I predicted each week’s top 40 as a hobby, so ordering the 45s was pretty much an ideal job for me.
When I went to college at Carnegie Mellon, I immediately got involved with WRCT-FM and served as the music director from 1985-1987. One of my “innovations” as music director was to make an honest top 35 to report to CMJ and Rockpool, the trade journals that tracked college radio playlists. We didn’t have a rotation or anything silly like that, so we had to tally by hand every single play that records from the “new bin” received. I think people started playing a lot more stuff and more varied stuff from the new bin once they realized that we were reporting an honest playlist instead of what the major labels were pushing me to report over the phone.
During grad school at the University of Michigan in the early 90s, I met my wife at WCBN. The next stop was Cleveland, WRUW, doing my last, and probably best, radio show, Pleasant Mutations. In 1994 I bought a banjo and an amp, and joined a band with some friends in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Cleveland Clinic. We recorded a few songs at Noise New Jersey with Kramer before I moved to California. Somebody none of us knew made a youtube video of one of the songs recently.
I recorded a few songs by myself on 4-track after moving to California, but mostly I moved back into being a listener. Since 1998, I’ve been making a mix CD called “Nothing But Good Things” (NGBT) that I send out to a small group of friends. Because of my lasting affection for Casey Kasem, for NGBT #40, I decided to do a countdown of the last decade in the style of American Top 40. I even inspired somebody else to do one.
When I started deciding on my top 40 of the 00s, I made a big iTunes playlist of candidate songs, and it just got bigger and bigger. At some point I decided to type up a top 100, even though the mix CD was only going to be a top 40. Next thing you know, I’d ended up with a top 300.
Making the list was a lot of fun, so a few months later I made a top 300 of the 90s and eventually progressed to the 80s and the 70s. I’ll definitely plan on the 60s sometime in the next year. I don’t know if I can do the 50s justice.
Q) What makes your lists different than other music-countdown lists we've seen?
A) One important thing about my lists is that they’re all song lists. I find that there are a lot more lists of best albums or best CDs than there are lists of best songs. As a former DJ and as somebody who really fell in love with recorded music via 45 singles, I’ve always been more about the song than the album. Random play on the iPod has made songs more relevant and albums even less relevant. Also, if somebody sees something on the list that sounds interesting and they want to check it out, that’s a lot easier with a song than a whole record. You don’t have to pay as much to download one song, or, better yet, call up a DJ and request it.
The other thing that’s unique about the lists is the size and variety of them, coming from just one individual. I think individuals often make top 10 lists or top 20 lists or occasionally top 40 lists, but usually it’s just magazines or music websites that make longer lists. The longer lists always feel a bit homogenized, probably because there are committees or consensus involved, and the personal lists never go very deep. I also see a lot of personal lists on Amazon where people list their 20 favorite records and 4 or 5 of them are all one band. Yay – you like that band a whole lot – who cares? I know I’ve got some overrepresented artists and genres on my list, but I think my one-song-per-album rule keeps that in check, and my one-song-per-artist-in-the-top-40 rule helps too.
Q) How do you begin one of your lists? Do you just start jotting down songs? Do you consult other lists? Tell us about the research process.
A) The 2000s were the easiest to start because pretty much all of the music I liked in the 2000s was already in my iTunes library, and none of the date tags were for the wrong decade. I’m obsessive about rating my music in iTunes, so the starting point was just a smart playlist of 4-star and 5-star rated songs from the 2000s. Next, I began dragging and dropping songs from the smart playlist into a regular playlist, picking out no more than one song per album and only picking out songs that I thought could reasonably be in a top 100 list. The fact that I ended up with more than 300 songs that I originally thought could be in a top 100 list may suggest just how subjective the difference is between what’s #100 and what’s #300, or it may just mean that there’s even more music that I really love than I guessed myself.
The 1990s were a little harder than the 2000s. I was still buying a fair number of 7” singles in the 1990s, and I realized as I got into the list that there were quite a few that I hadn’t gotten around to digitizing. I was an early adopter with CDR decks and I still have one, along with a turntable and a tape deck. It doesn’t get a ton of use anymore, but making the lists was a nice opportunity to rediscover my vinyl and also get it archived digitally.
The 1980s were the hardest. I think about a third of my 80s list was vinyl that I digitized while making the list. I’ve repurchased a lot of my favorite 80s music on CD or digital download, but there’s tons of great music from the 80s that hasn’t been released digitally to my knowledge. The 80s were also a big challenge because of all of the bad date tags for digital downloads. The iTunes store is the absolute worst with that. Why do I care what the year of the digital release was? Why did they set up a cool feature like smart playlists and then sabotage it with bad date tags?
I do look at other lists, but I’m looking at them mostly for possible omissions as opposed to paying very much attention to their rankings. I’ve always used lists to inform purchases. I remember going to Musicland when I was in the 6th or 7th grade and trying to buy “Heart of Glass.” The clerk hadn’t heard of it and said he didn’t think they had it. I indignantly informed him that it was already #1 in England (I always liked the non-U.S. charts when they printed them in Billboard). I think the first time I bought an album I hadn’t heard, but purely because it was on a bunch of best-of-the-year lists, was R.E.M.’s “Murmur.” That set me on a path of buying a lot more music using the same approach.
In terms of specific sources, one thing I looked at was the Rolling Stone Magazine top 500 songs of all time. It’s helpful because it has some very popular and really great songs that I’ve just never gotten around to buying. Even if I really like a song, if it seems everpresent by simply living life, I haven’t felt a real need to get it loaded onto my iPod. I went ahead and bought some of those songs while making these lists. I also look at the Robert Christgau books, which are nice because they’re organized by decade. For the later decades, the Pitchfork lists are good to look at. I also enjoy perusing individuals’ listmania lists on Amazon. Some of them are dreadful, but the Amazon software engineers mostly know what they’re doing with how they’ve programmed the suggestion for other lists you might like.
Another invaluable source on my music book shelves is my collection of Joel Whitburn books. I have about 10 of them for various genres. They give the peak and weeks on chart for every entry on various Billboard charts. Obviously, I haven’t used it yet for the decade lists, but I really like his Pop Hits 1940-1954 book. It has a very short section in the beginning that does a nice job succinctly summarizing the battle over formats (78 vs. 45 vs. 33-1/3) in that period. The 33-1/3 7” single fought as valiantly as the betamax video tape would 30 years later.
Continue to part 2 of the interview, or skip to part 3 or part 4.