Tim Walker: 'Without best-of lists such as the NME's, fans would have nothing to row about'

The Couch Surfer: The Strokes were the decade’s first band whose success was born as much of hype as it was talent
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The Independent Culture

If end-of-year lists get on your nerves, then you're really going to hate the end of this particular year, because it's also the end of the most cringemakingly christened decade in memory, the Noughties.

Right now, there are lists flying around of the decade's best films, its best books, its best records; lists picked by the public, by expert panels, by groups of higher primates taking a break from their work on act five of Hamlet. The list generating most debate last week was the NME's "Top 100 Albums of the Decade".

Girls don't like best-of lists because making them is such a male, Hornby-esque activity. And guys don't like best-of lists unless they made them themselves because, well, everybody else's list is just plain wrong. Yet without roll calls like NME's, music fans would have nothing to argue about during the artistically moribund Christmas season, internet message boards would be deprived of a crucial source of ire, and a lot of journalists would probably be out of work.

Assuming the NME list was less a representation of the era's "best" music than of its defining records, putting The Strokes' thrilling debut Is This It at the top was perfectly fitting. The magazine's readers like guitar music made by white blokes, and in that demographic no other album has been more influential in the past ten years. (Though it must be merely a matter of fashion that Coldplay's A Rush of Blood to the Head was excluded from the top 100, having spawned just as many imitators.)

But the Strokes were also the Noughties' first band whose success was born as much of hype as it was talent. Thanks in large part to the ascendance of countless music blogs and sites like Pitchfork.com, this has been a decade of "firework bands", who exploded into the firmament before fading almost instantly, disappearing from view behind the nearest row of houses.

What matters most to many fans is newness and originality, and that desire is merely sharpened by the internet, which allows for a ceaseless turnover of new talent. To be the first person in your social circle to discover a new act is a mark of status, and the same goes for bloggers and print publications, which need to keep breaking bands to maintain credibility. Nobody's interested in a sophomore effort, they just want the next new thing; these days most bands may as well pack away their kit and head home once they've finished touring their debut.

Some acts have transcended the model, at least for an album or two. The Strokes themselves made a fantastic, underrated second LP, a patchy third one, and since 2006, nothing but solo projects (Julian Casablancas's Phrazes for the Young being the best and most recent). Plenty of their contemporaries have made one massively hyped record and then dropped out of sight and out of mind.

The long tail of the internet also makes best-of lists even more challenging to compile, and even more difficult to take seriously: niche styles like, say, dubstep may have had the opportunity to bubble up into the popular consciousness, but at the same time there are now just too many titles to choose from, too many MySpace pages to browse. Pitchfork picked not Is This It, but Radiohead's Kid A as its number one record of the decade; its distillation of the unease and helplessness caused by mass information technology making it "the Big Album of the internet age".

Radiohead have proved the power of the web in another way with their last album In Rainbows, which was released online using an innovative "tip-jar" payment model likely to prove more influential than any of its content. Perhaps another list would have In Rainbows at its zenith.

Some best-ofs are a little more comfortingly traditional. Uncut magazine's top 20 of the Noughties inevitably leans towards brilliant but backwards-looking rock for its older readership, with a top five that includes albums by Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson. And The Independent's music critic Andy Gill chose a typically alternative list including artists from otherwise unrepresented spheres such as hip-hop (Outkast, Eminem) and world music (Tinariwen). I'd never heard half of his picks until he suggested them – and those are the most rewarding lists of all.

There is a more scientific way to measure the biggest albums of any given decade. In pure sales terms, the UK's top records of the 2000s were by James Blunt, David Gray and Dido. And the only artist to make it into both the bestsellers list and the lower reaches of some serious publications' best-ofs? Coldplay. Just saying.

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