…does not exist.
I have been asked a few times now by various outlets I write for for a top ten list or the equivalent, as part of their overall surveys, and I’ve been extended an invitation, as per the past few years, to submit a ballot to the Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll. As I’m about to leave in a few hours for my holiday break up north, I wanted to get that all done and dusted before I went, though all I’m submitting is this following collection of reflections, and no actual choices on the ballot.
The fact that I’ve left the ballot blank for both singles and albums this year does not mean that I found nothing to like about music this year. Far from it — in comparison to the earlier part of this decade, where a combination of internal and external events left me feeling somewhat disenchanted about the role music played in my life, for the past few years I’ve felt newly reenergized, happy to engage with what’s out there in a fashion that felt less strenuous and more personal to me than it previously had. I’ve mentioned this before in some past essays and year-end summaries, so I won’t fully go over it again here. But to quote my essay in last year’s Idolator Pop Critics Poll, talking about the frustration of creating a ballot then:
….this was me looking at everything that can now be heard, could be heard all over the place, at any time, and realizing how divorced I am from the effort of ranking in general, accelerating a long-held tendency. I heard more music from all over the place this year than ever before and most of it I only heard once before moving on to the next album or song or mix. The big hit singles hit me not with repetition but with generalized and often anonymous osmosis, from being out and about and getting a snatch of a song here and there [and often that was enough — like hooks have been so relentlessly perfected that one or two listens are all that's needed], rather than trying to actively pursue them or to subject myself to the kind of reigns of aural tyranny that made things like that OneRepublic song omnipresent in recent months. To create a list out of all that seems increasingly close to futile (and if I solely listened to music via my computer, last.fm would have done all the work for me)
Aside from the OneRepublic reference — I suppose Katy Perry would do just as fine for this year’s prime example — that pretty well describes my listening year in 2008 as well. Still, I submitted a detailed ballot then, so why not now?
Two things are at the root of it — one, touched on at the conclusion of last year’s essay, lies in the immediacy of events. This year was a year for political junkie behavior on my part, thanks to the astonishing combination of factors going on with both the presidential race and numerous other political campaigns involving people and issues across the country and then, even more overwhelmingly, the past four months of economic grinddown. There was a lot of waffle and foolishness out there, of course, and there’ll be all the more to come, but amid all the chaff of stupidity to be found there was enough wheat for someone with my interests to have a hell of a feast. Given all that — and given the fact that I know people going through insanely tough, often heartbreakingly sad times due to these last few months in particular, and that the next year may be one of the most unsettled ones I’ve ever lived through — the ballot I really sweated over, talked a lot about, was the one cast back in November, from national to local issues. There was no way a ballot about music could compete for my attention or interest.
The second thing, however, might have happened anyway regarding the state of things. My self-applied canard for some time has been an emphasis on process over product, on the experience of enjoying something in the moment, whether it is music or books or whatever else might be out there. This seems to have grown ever since I made the choice to work on cooking at home more, certainly it makes sense as a follow-on, since preparing food is by definition an evanescent event, a temporary pleasure not meant to last in a permanent form.
Tying in with that sense of skipping around music, of admitted breadth over depth, may seem, literally, shallow. By no longer living fully inside an album, I may lose on one front but I feel I have gained on others. Those two albums I did truly live inside for stretches at a time were, admittedly, the least surprising choices — Portishead’s and the Cure’s. But these were, generally speaking, expected pleasures, not shocks and surprises — and I received plenty of those throughout the year. Some I talked about in reviews and posts here and there but a lot I chose simply not to address, I didn’t feel any sort of compulsion to do so. This in part ties back in to what I was noting earlier about where most of my attention lay this year, very much not in the musical realm. But in part, I felt that, simply, I don’t always need to go on about ‘this new great song’ or whatever. That may sound defeatist, perhaps — after all, I’m theoretically known as a music writer, therefore why not regularly discuss the subject at hand when I am shocked/surprised/etc. But there is I think something quite simply enjoyable about enjoying music without having to analyze or encapsulate — a statement of the blatantly obvious, perhaps, but this helped in reclaiming some private space for myself as listener rather than as interpreter.
Trying to organize all this experience into a ballot, with preset places and choices and splitting hairs and all that’s gone into past ballots, seems secondary to requirements to me now. It’s an itch that I choose not to scratch simply because I don’t feel that itch in the first place. Now there’s no reason why it might not return at some point — circumstances change, new ways of addressing the subject suggest themselves. And of course my commitment, my joy, in so much listening remains strong.
But this was a year to do so without trying to sum it all up with a ballot or listing or ranking, without trying to reduce my listening down to brass tacks in such a fashion. Now wasn’t the time. And I’m very happy with that.