Sunday, February 1, 2015

Ranking Is A Young Man's Game

It is youth which can afford the luxury of ranking the good and less good of life.  That isn't that hard to figure out, once you think about it.  After all, if we all make it to some certain point in our days, the most meaningful days may well be the last 10 that we woke up, got out of bed, and dragged a comb across our head.  Period.

I work with that youth.  And so they want to know:  who's my favorite band of all time?  What is my favorite restaurant?  What, as if it were possible to choose, is my favorite song?

But, really, don't you get to a certain age, and, were someone to be so forward as to say, 'Hey, what were your best 5 sexual experiences of all time?'  Wouldn't you say the last 5?

A friend of mine sent me tonight a ranking of the 9 Steely Dan albums from worst to best. And, if you don't know, I am a self-proclaimed aficianado of the Dan.  But it could have been any band.  It could have been your favorite.  In fact, for my purposes, it would be better if it was.

Because what are you supposed to do with the ranking?  Are you supposed to order your listening, to only listen to CDs or songs that someone else says are the best?  Are you supposed to stack your playlist with only the best regarded songs and albums?

A couple of cases in point.  I like Freedy Johnson, or at least liked him pretty well for a few years after he broke out.  But one of my favorite songs of his is his hardest rocker, "On The Way Out."  I never listen to the rest of the CD.  Am I to ignore that because nothing else on that particular CD speaks to me?

Similarly, although the writer for Stereogum ranks Everything Must Go as the worst Steely Dan CD, does that mean a) that it is a bad CD, and b) that because it sits at the bottom of his heap that there is nothing there I'd want to listen to?  Because, actually, I find moments of this maligned CD as beautiful as anything Steely Dan had ever done.  While they have always given license to their musicians ( band members or session people) to take over a song with a stellar solo, it is on "Pixeleen" where a female background singer first steps out from that role and actually duets with Donald Fagen to great effect.

The other reality, at least in music, is that the new can revitalize the old.  So when a band releases a CD after a long wait, even if it isn't their greatest work, its mere presence and some of the better tracks can send a listener back to older stuff with a new understanding and appreciation.

And, yes, I think even the years work this way.  A person is lucky to get, what, 80 to 85 Christmases? As such, that magical season has a precious, transient quality each time it comes around.  Well, this particular Christmas wasn't among our best.

If I had to rank it, I wouldn't put it in our top 20 as a family--we were slow and late to get our decorations up, my wife and I were both sick, the main gift I bought both of my children is still, to this day, back ordered, work schedules didn't allow us as many carefree days as other years, my father was depressed.  Still, it was Christmas, and, therefore, pretty darn good.  And did it inspire us to reflect on other Christmases, to do our best to work for a fuller experience next year?  Yes, it did.

Back to music, often when I think of what is best, what ranks most highly, it is what bubbles to the surface, what stands out on the iPod, what calls to me for reasons unknown when I want to sit in solitude and listen on that occasional, free Saturday night that feels like it is best or favorite at that moment.

There is no rhyme or reason at that moment, no best of or greatest hits.  I do not think, "I want to listen to Bruce Springsteen's top-ranked album right now."  No, it is the song, the artist, the playlist that fits my day at that moment, the song, long forgotten that suddenly calls to me, the singer or guitarist who feels right for the mood, month, or year that is going to reach the top.

Should I ever have occasion to end up on a desert island with nothing but, miraculously, the means to play recorded music and a library of it to choose from, then I guess I will look at it differently.


troutking said...

Although I agree with everything you say about the real validity of rankings, I still love them. I like reading rankings, I like asking people their rankings and I like making my own. I always have, which is why my family makes fun of me for, as a ten year old, ranking every tuna sandwich I ate for an entire summer. Not just where I get it but each visit, as if I could tell the difference between Stop and Shop visit 4 and Stop and Shop visit 8. Why? It's fun, it makes you think about what you value and it's just something to talk about. The fact that you make a ranking in some way requires that you know enough and care enough to think about it. Case in point, I know Adam Raised A Cain is one of your very favorite Bruce songs because at some point you ranked it such. That caused me to go back and listen to it and think about it much more than if you had just said, "I like it." So, in the end, is it kind of pointless and unnecessary. I suppose, but most fun things are.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. Maybe this will just be semantics, but it seems like hearing about someone's "favorite" something is open to all of the arbitrary intangibles, while lists like the Steely Dan one are carefully-wrought arguments of superiority vs. inferiority, as if the desire is to create common agreement. I prefer the former.

troutking said...

That's fair. I don't think of lists--at least the ones I make--as in any way trying to manufacture consensus or even permanence. Just a snapshot of my thoughts at the time. That's kind of the way I view other people's lists too, I guess.

Billy said...

I don't like making lists because I want lists to be what @troutking thinks they are, but they feel more unjustly permanent, as if changing my mind about the ranking of Rush's albums could result in having to face a Senate Judiciary Panel to explain my "convenient" waffling.

If I could ever convince myself @troutking was right, I'd enjoy making lists more.