Why We Make Best of the Year Lists

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As December rolls around and pumpkin-spiced lattes morph into peppermint bark mochas, the critics of the world -- myself included -- begin to end sentences with “of the year.” And what an exciting time! A chance to look back on the last eleven or so months of pop culture and organizing it all into one solid list of favorites. I spoke with a few people to gain insight on their processes and how, ultimately, the reminiscing might just be the best part.

“A top ten list is not just a list of ten movies,” San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle tells me. “It’s an organic whole. This is hard to explain but the list itself has to work as a list. As a thing in itself.” Friends might tell you you’re crazy for allowing that particular album or movie into your top ten and might even go so far as to question your taste and your allegiance as their friend. But in the end, the choice is yours and yours alone. We all have the right to rank our favorites. Once the list is complete, we show it off for the world to see, and friendly debate ensues. And in some cases, like with Pitchfork, the list is revealed in installments, building the anticipation.

Numbering your list is, of course, part of the fun. The thrill of the countdown from ten to one. “In a good year,” LaSalle says, “I might have 16 or 17 to start with. In a bad year, I might have six or seven. Usually I have at least four or five that have to go in. Usually I make two lists, one for the top five and another for the bottom five. If I have seven movies in my top five, then obviously two are going to disappear from the bottom five.”

It seems like such a practical and common process. They do it with book awards and peace prizes. Starting with a longlist is the easy part. It’s like brainstorming where there are no wrong answers. Just get your thoughts down on paper so you have something to work with. Decisions for the longlist can get pretty specific. “I make a big list in my notebook of any and all records that are contenders,” my buddy Jon Baxter, a teacher in New York, tells me. “And then, I follow the money trail. This means first dibs on my list has to be anything I shelled out for. I can only afford like 10-15 contemporary records a year and if I bought it, it means it’s on the longlist automatically. Also, any record that I got to see the band tour on always shoots it up the list.” Baxter goes on to tell me he also takes into account repeated plays on Spotify and Rdio, which if you think about it, makes perfect sense. After recently organizing my iPod by “Plays,” I found that I’ve listened to Vampire Weekend’s “Step” 76 times. And so, it will most likely make it into my top ten songs of the year. (It also helps that the song mentions San Francisco, Berkeley, and Alameda!)

After traversing these paths, Baxter ends up with a list of 25 albums. “I then just go by emotional connection, simple, visceral effect,” he says. Where making any kind of list (best of, to-do, laundry) is a very pragmatic process, the choices are truly emotional. “I’m behind on new music besides the big big songs that float into all our lives that you just can’t get away from,” another friend of mine, Angela Workoff, writes to me. “I’ll likely compile a top ten list for 2013 based on very heavy memories from certain parts of the year. They’re all trigger songs. They’re all old-ish picks: Tom Petty’s Wildflowers (more or less the whole album) from my trip to Santa Barbara this year. Going on long runs to The Who’s Greatests Hits in Prospect Park and specifically hitting "I Can See for Miles" at the start and hitting ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ by the time I get to the big north hill. Dancing on a bunch of couches at an Ultimate Frisbee rager to Daft Punk’s "Get Lucky" (cuz who didn’t?).”


It’s rare you see a top ten list that includes albums, movies and books from decades ago, but what a joy it is! These lists are an individual’s list. Where Blue Jasmine might have struck a chord with one person in July, Joni Mitchell’s Blue might have struck another chord with someone in August. To exclude items from your best of 2013 list because they are from 1971 makes perfect sense. But if you want a list that reflects the past 11 months that have flown by, it might also make sense to reconsider that silent movie you watched with your grandmother on her yellow velvet couch.

The way we get to our top tens may be a grueling (and welcomed!) process, but in the end, we like what we like. “I just look through what I thought were the best movies of the year, that is, I look through my reviews.” LaSalle says. A simple but important statement about recalling the past year. In the end, whether movies or songs or books, it’s our own list that includes pieces of our own hearts, what has affected us. “It’s an opportunity to take stock of what happened through sense-related memories,” Workoff tells me. Although she believes it to be a very personal process, once her memory is properly jogged, thoughts of other people float in as well. “This will get me to start my list,” she says. “And start doing some remembering.”