We live in the age of lists. You can't open a magazine or switch on the TV without being offered a list: the 50 Best Documentary Films, the Top 10 TV Sitcoms, the 100 Greatest Singles, and so on.
On one level, they are just harmless fun. But when a list purports to be some definitive statement of cultural worth, it starts to generate a more pernicious form of artistic atrophy. Because - whether working from public votes or some arcane computation of chart figures - these lists are essentially a bean-counter's view of artistic worth, the beans counted being sales, orders, airplay - always factors measuring popularity rather than quality. As if we didn't already know what was popular: all one has to do is look at the appropriate chart.
What we don't often know, and which is more crucial, is what's "good", the worth of the artefact in question. Sufjan Stevens may never sell enough albums to trouble the charts, but if you missed his Illinoise, you missed 2005's most abundantly interesting and artistically ambitious (and entertaining) album.
This is the great shortcoming of such lists, especially those that rely on public voting. Most phone votes are cast by mobile-obsessive young people, and thus reflect merely contemporary trends rather than some longer-term, more stable pantheon of quality. Is Star Wars really the best film of all time, better than Citizen Kane or Aguirre, Wrath of God? Or is it simply the most magical childhood moment of a generation that hasn't seen those other films?
The same applies to music reviews that proclaim an album to be "the greatest of all time", when the reviewer has only been listening seriously for a year or two, and has yet to encounter Astral Weeks or The Modern Dance. Reviewers often lack knowledge and a reliable sense of scale.
The problem now is that there's just so much to wade through - so many albums, films, books - that it's impossible to experience more than a fraction of them. This year, for instance, saw the release of about 30,000 new albums, of which just a few hundred will have registered on the radar of public popularity. But the rest will include hundreds more of merit, whose impact will never be felt. All one can do is decide which critics are reliable, and let them do the sifting for you. So I'll take the opportunity to wish my readers a merry Christmas, and remind them there's still time to buy that Midlake album.
But we're at a point where the army of reviewers needed to deal with the flood of product has become so extensive that it's too arduous to slog through that many reviews. And there's no guarantee you'll have a better idea of a work's worth after reading four or five conflicting views.
Back in 1999, three Americans hit on the notion of expanding those "review of reviews" comparisons into a website, MetaCritic.com, that gauges critical reactions on a wider scale, computing a book, film, game, programme or album's average percentage score from individual critics' assessments. There are issues - American bias, the narrow range of sources, and the site's secret "weighting" of scores to reflect a publication or critic's readership and/or reputation - but the results are usually interesting.
MetaCritic has posted its list of the year's Top 30 Albums by critical approbation. It makes for a fascinating contrast with the sales charts that reveal the UK's biggest-selling album of the year to be Snow Patrol's relentlessly mediocre Eyes Open, an indication that the wave of bland MOR taste that has Blunted the public's affections shows no sign of abating just yet.
At No 1 is Ali Farka Touré's Savane, a fine album, whose success may have been influenced by the fact that it's his swansong, and by the vigour with which world-music reviewers fight their corner.
Previous years' winners were (most recent first): Sufjan Stevens, Brian Wilson, Led Zeppelin, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and OutKast, which shows how untouched by ageism critics are. That's the case this year, with good showings from Waits, Bob Dylan, Los Lobos, Scott Walker, Solomon Burke, Donald Fagen and a hot new combo called The Beatles.
There's a distinct bias towards American indie, alt.rock and alt.country, with the likes of Joanna Newsom, TV On The Radio, The Decemberists, Destroyer, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Neko Case, Howe Gelb, Yo La Tengo, The Thermals and the great new psych-rock discovery Serena-Maneesh all making the list. The relative paucity of rap albums - just the new Clipse release, Wu Tang stalwart Ghostface Killah, The Roots, J Dilla's final album and Doseone's crossover rock/rap project Subtle - reflects a fairly fallow year for hip-hop, while the inclusion of Brazilian sage Tom Zé and one of my own favourites, the Japanese all-girl avant-rockers OOIOO, confirms the broad outlook taken by many of the critics.
The list is embarrassingly short on British acts. There's just The Beatles, Arctic Monkeys and Scott Walker (only an honorary Brit), though on reflection that's not an entirely incorrect reflection of the state of British pop in 2006.
The list as a whole confirms the view of music critics as elitist, quixotic snobs with scant regard for public taste. Guilty as charged! Although its mere existence is a delicious irony - after all, in seeking to circumvent the list obsession, it reduces the attitudes and prejudices of myriad critics to, yes, another list.
Critics' Choice: Top Ten
1. ALI FARKA TOURE
The final album from the great Malian desert blues guitarist (above) finds him going back to his roots, with his distinctive guitar stylings accompanied by local instruments, notably the ngoni, the banjo-like instrument on which he first learnt to play.
2. TOM WAITS
A three-CD feast that covers all areas of the old growler's musical interests, from melancholy piano ballads to club-footed industrial blues.
Hell Hath No Fury
Neptunes-produced second album by the Virginia rap duo, an obsessive, non-judgmental concept album about cocaine.
4. BOB DYLAN
The third winner in a row for Bob, full of engaging and thoughtful reflections on life, love and liberty.
5. JOANNA NEWSOM
Five long fables on which her voice and harp are lavishly upholstered with Van Dyke Parks' orchestrations.
6. TV ON THE RADIO
Return to Cookie Mountain
Major-label debut for the New York duo, an intriguing combination of sample-driven indie-rock and emotive lyricism.
7. GHOSTFACE KILLAH
Ghostface becomes the leading light of a rapidly-fading Wu Tang Clan, with another album focusing, like Clipse's (see above), on the cocaine trade.
1970s-inflected indie-rock from New Pornographers' guiding light Dan Bejar.
9. LOS LOBOS
The Town and the City
A typically wide-ranging survey of American rock and roots-music modes, loosely themed around the tribulations of Mexican immigrant farmers.
For Hero: For Fool
Forward-looking Oakland-based rap collective create the prog-rock equivalent of hip-hop. Prog-rap, anyone?
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