Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Making of a Best-Songs-of-the-Decade List: An Interview (Part 4 of 4)

The conclusion of the interview:

Q) What sort of feedback have you received? With any list of this nature, I imagine that everyone has an opinion on rankings of songs and omissions.

A) I don’t know if this says something about the list or about the disadvantage of posting the list as a countdown on Facebook, but, far and away, the most feedback I’ve gotten has been on #500 to #481 on the 70s list, particularly Piano Man at #491. Billy Joel is an impressively polarizing artist, and that song may be his most polarizing. I think one of the things that makes my list unique is that I included it, but didn’t include it high on the list.  In the spectrum of people who love or hate Billy Joel, I’m in that empty space in the middle feeling like he’s pretty OK.

More generally, people who have followed the whole lists have made a lot of comments along the lines of “oh my god, I totally forgot about that song – I used to love that song” or “wow – that takes me back”. I’ve gotten surprising little in the way of complaints about the tops of the lists. My sense is that people don’t necessarily agree with all the choices, but they respect the choices and see a lot more good than bad. A few good things that I left out have been pointed out to me, and I’m trying to keep a list of those. I actually hoped to hear more about omissions, because I’m always interested in discovering great music from any era.

Q) Speaking of omissions, songs must occur to you after the fact. Do you revise your lists?

A) I try to make a pretty strong “first draft” of the list at least a month or so before I begin making the list public. I use that month to think about songs that are missing, and I tend to download a whole lot of borderline guilty pleasures during that month as I’m evaluating whether there are any legitimate omissions. There have been a couple of times when I’ve recognized a key omission serendipitously at the same time that I recognized an erroneous inclusion (e.g. wrong decade or a violation of my one-song-per-record rule), so I’ve made a discreet behind-the-scenes swap. I don’t worry too much about exact placement on the countdown in those cases, as long as it’s close.

I have not yet done a proper revision of any of the lists, but I’m keeping track of songs I’d like to include if I did revise any of them. It’s hard to make small revisions without rethinking the whole thing and then it’s hard to know when to stop. It’s also hard to kick out a song that made the first cut, but I imagine I can think of a few I wouldn’t feel too bad jettisoning.

Q) Have you heard from any of the artists included in your lists?

A) I’ve heard from a couple. I think they found the Amazon listmania versions of the 2000s and 1990s lists.  I haven’t posted the 80s or 70s lists on Amazon. I think there would probably be too many songs with no good links on the 80s list.

Q) Having gone through the process multiple times now, what wisdom can you impart to us on the nature of listmaking? What have you learned--about lists, music, or yourself?

A) I think gut feel is grossly underrated as a criterion. If you love music, you really love it, and you don’t have to justify that or explain it. To the extent that I did let critics’ voices get in my head I think it corrupted the rankings, and, to the extent, that I tried to make my criteria more objective, even the how-soon-do-I-want-to-hear-it-again criterion, I think that created imperfections in the rankings. At some level, you can put two songs side by side and you can say “yeah – this one, this one is the better one”. It’s a little bit like the optometrist. When they show you all those side-by-side images, it gets harder and harder to say which one is better, but you want to keep going and be done, so you pick one.  Then the next choice is even harder and you pick again, and so it goes. Eventually you go home with new glasses or new contacts and hopefully you don’t spend the next year second-guessing whether you got it right or not.

Q) Are you currently plotting out your next list?

A) No. Not really. After such a deep dive into the 70s, I’ve been listening to too little new music in the past couple of months. I miss new music. If I only listened to new music, I would miss old music. I love variety and I love my weighted-random-play smart playlist I’ve developed on my iPod through half a decade of ranking and re-ranking songs. I want to go back to finding more new music and listening to everything for a while.

That's it for the interview.  Look for more of my own lists and comments on other lists around the web in future posts.  Thanks to Jack for suggesting the interview and posing the questions. 

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