Receiving his Video Vanguard Award at this year’s MTV VMAs, Kanye West gave one of the most deeply ambiguous (and confusing) acceptance speeches of any awards show in recent memory. Among the many topics Kanye touched on—including his supposedly planned presidential run—was the contrived injustice of awards shows generally.
“I still don’t understand awards shows,” said Kanye. “I don’t understand how they get five people who worked their entire life—sold records, sold concert tickets—to come stand on the carpet and for the first time in their lives be judged on the chopping block and have the opportunity to be considered a loser!”
In his characteristically frank manner, Kanye was sharing an artist’s version of the uncertainty many of us feel regarding music awards shows and best-of lists—a flood of which are being unleashed as 2015 draws to a close. Even when there’s still a good chunk of the year left, critics share their lists of the year’s top releases. Where’s the fairness in that? Where’s the sense? What’s behind our persistent fascination with lists and awards?
In his speech, Kanye shared his opinion that Justin Timberlake—or at least Gnarls Barkley—should have nabbed the 2007 Album of the Year Grammy, which went to the Dixie Chicks. That assertion, of course, gets at the heart of exactly why we love lists and awards: because we all feel like we know which album was the best of the year, what should have won. It’s not that there wasn’t a best album, or that art is beyond rankings and ratings—it’s that they (whoever “they” happen to be at any given moment) just keep getting it wrong.
Despite his reservations, Kanye did decide to show up, accept his award, and give a speech—albeit an unconventional one. Fundamentally, he’s still buying into the awards system. Should the rest of us be doing so? Do awards and best-of lists serve a valid purpose, or should we give it up and just let everyone groove to whatever feels right?
As someone who loves music and wants to see musicians thrive, it’s hard to argue with anything that draws people’s attention to the art form. Awards shows and best-of lists help shed light on exceptional new releases, and that helps a mass audience engage critically with a type of entertainment that often just washes over them. When a critic or a panel stops to evaluate music, and to say “this is the best,” it causes listeners to stop, and think, and talk.
Lists and awards also help to sell music—something that’s especially important for artists who have yet to reach their full potential audience. These days, even the Swifties yawn when Taylor wins: there’s nothing particularly interesting about saluting a commercial juggernaut who boasts a massive international fan base. It’s much more interesting when a major award goes to an artist like throat singer Tanya Tagaq, who last year beat out the likes of Arcade Fire and Drake for Canada’s Polaris Prize.
If awards and lists were all about repping the underdogs, of course, they’d—ironically—become irrelevant. As any critic who’s ever made a best-of list knows, a list should have some surprises but not too many. A list that drifts too far from conventional wisdom seems out of touch or willfully eccentric. Most people like their best-of lists as they like their friends: slightly idiosyncratic, as opposed to totally weird.
When considered in aggregate, though, lists and awards can be stultifyingly boring and offensively exclusionary. The website BestEverAlbums.com compiles a master ranking based on dozens of lists from publications like Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, even allowing users to submit their own lists. The result should theoretically be a definitive ranking, but instead it illustrates just how problematic such rankings can be.
When user rankings are omitted, the critical consensus seems to be that there are 23 albums that are better than the best hip-hop album ever made (Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”). When user rankings are factored in, hip-hop doesn’t show up until slot number 71 (this time, it’s Kanye’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”—four slots behind Coldplay’s “Rush of Blood to the Head”). Both versions of the best-of meta-list are heavily stocked with chunky rock releases by the likes of U2, the White Stripes, and Led Zeppelin.
That would seem to epitomize the “rockism” that’s been attacked by some progressive critics, often counterpoised to the views of the “poptimists” who want to see the likes of Madonna get their critical due. Various critics come down on various sides of that debate, but when you slosh all the lists together, the white guys still seem to come out on top. Even if you’re the world’s biggest U2 fan, that doesn’t seem right.
Another interesting exercise is to compare those best-of lists, and lists of award recipients, to the lists of best-selling releases over time. In some cases (poptimists will point out), albums that were widely beloved at the time of their release failed to gain critical momentum; but as to whether this is an injustice, hindsight is 20/20. When major awards do dovetail with popular success, sometimes you get Michael Jackson—and sometimes you get Christopher Cross.
So we’re back to where we began: intrigued but conflicted, like Kanye. You can’t live with awards, you can’t live without ’em. One thing an ordinary music fan can do now, something that was much harder before the Internet era: you can make your own list and post it for the world to see. The best way to criticize a list you hate is to make a better list. Maybe that’s why we have so many year-end lists these days—and why that might not be a bad thing.
Editor’s note: This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and 89.3 The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at thecurrent.org.