It is the season of lists. Best of the Year/ Decade. Worst of the Year/ Decade. Most Beautiful of the Year/Decade. I'd like to introduce a "Mildly Enjoyable Night Out But Nothing To Write Home About of The Year/Decade", because that is also a large part of the cultural experience. But for the moment we'll have to make do with the best-of category.
And this week produced what turned out to be a rather controversial list – the NME's best albums of the Noughties. This was the list that put The Strokes at the top, and both Radiohead and Arcade Fire too near the bottom of the top 10.
Kanye West didn't even make the top 50, nor did Lily Allen. Yet, if anyone epitomised the Noughties musically and perhaps socially, it was Allen, pictured right – the first of the female pop stars with utterly emancipated lyrics, quirky melodies, and a self-proclaimed feisty and irreverent lifestyle that seemed to grow out of the songs.
I wonder how the music industry types who compiled the list could ignore all that, and they would no doubt wonder how I could fail to include a paragraph eulogising The Strokes. But that's the thing about music best-of lists. More than any other art form, they arouse either a glow of shared taste or, more usually, intense irritation.
Somehow, there's more agreement across the rest of the cultural spectrum. All theatregoers would agree that Enron and Jerusalem have been two of the best plays this year. Even if you happen not to like Michael Haneke, you would expect to see him in a best films list, either of the year or of the decade. The visual arts blockbusters pretty much select themselves for the best exhibitions. A top 10 of the Noughties in dance that excluded Sylvie Guillem or Darcey Bussell would simply look perverse.
But The Strokes can be at number one in some people's top 10 of music, and simply wouldn't feature at all in a top 10 of another student of Noughties music (The Independent's rock critic, for example, who found no room for The Strokes in his 10 best).
And that's because, unlike any other art form, technical prowess isn't the primary reason for inclusion in a best-of list. We may acknowledge somewhere in the back of our minds that Eric Clapton, say, is a highly gifted guitarist and has been for centuries, and that he has released more than one album in the Noughties, but he would not be included on a best-of list because he is not exciting or cutting edge. But there is no plausible reason for the exclusion of Lily Allen or hip-hop's Kanye West, apart perhaps from mass popularity which is always a bit of a turn-off for the more serious music industry types on the NME's voting panel.
But, really it's best not to look for reason. Musical taste is a visceral thing. It's part of our emotional make-up and a proclamation of who we are. There are no objective criteria stated when these "best of" lists are compiled, because there can be no objective criteria for musical taste. And all the best album lists in the coming weeks should state alongside: "It's only a point of view."
How many layers can you fit into one joke?
Alan Bennett's new play, The Habit of Art, is multi-layered. One of the many layers is that one of the actors in the play within a play ends the day's rehearsal saying that he is off to do a voice-over, more fun and more lucrative.
According to at least one critic, this line was written with great actor/ voice-over specialist Sir Michael Gambon in mind. However, the great actor/voice-over specialist, who was indeed in the original cast, had to withdraw because of ill health to be replaced by Richard Griffiths, not so well known for voice-overs.
The first-night audience laughed at the line, but it was a laugh that had to take into account a joke with an extra resonance if you knew that it was about someone who should have been in the cast, but was no longer in the cast, but if he had been in the cast, it would have added an extra layer of humour to a joke about the cast.
It's a complicated business, being in the audience, and a serious business knowing why to laugh.
Those cheeky students
One of the most lauded museum initiatives of the year has been the £61m revamp of the Ashmolean in Oxford. The museum's stunning new look, allied to a rigorous PR campaign, has ensured that the beautiful building has won plaudits in every newspaper – well, every newspaper except one.
The museum has reopened 37 of its 39 galleries, and a couple of enterprising student journalists from the Oxford University newspaper managed to sneak into the two unopened galleries (not surprisingly far from ready), took pictures of the mess and published them under the headline "Ashmolean in disarray".
I rather admire that display of journalistic initiative. And I'm not the only one. Though the museum is funded by the university, the story was told to me, with a mighty chuckle, by Oxford University's vice-chancellor.Reuse content