Unlisted Numbers

Or, what happened to one former list-making obsessive when the approach began to tire...

Ten years ago, apropos of nothing beyond a vague idea of “Hey, this would be sorta fun,” I emailed Tom Ewing, editor of the still near-peerless Freaky Trigger, and asked if he’d be into running my own countdown of my favorite albums of the nineties. After casting an eye over my collection and thinking about drawing up a list of what I listened to the most, I looked over the end results – a list of 136 albums all told – and thought, “Eh, who cares about winnowing it down to a hundred. I have 136 albums, I’ll write about 136 albums.”

So I did, and you can read the list to this day, still floating around on the net, each album described in hopefully reasonable detail plus an introductory essay trying to guess at the future of music. So much I would change about it now, stylistically, organizationally, but as a portrait of a time and place in my head, I stand by it – it is exactly what it is. Ever since then, I’ve received any number of comments about it, mostly positive, for which I thank folks. One friend just said the other week about how he refers people to it when it comes to describing particular albums that he also enjoys – very flattering indeed. I’ve also been asked a few times, most recently in the context of this one-off Stylus revival, if I would do either a similar list or even a basic ballot along the same lines. The answer is always the same:


But it’s not because I simply don’t want to do so. It’s because I can’t.

In trying to think about this essay, and the ballot which I turned down from participating in right from the start, I explored a slew of loose trains of thought regarding music, all in a way that leave me somewhat unsatisfied. I can trace arguments, though, thanks in large part to my irregular participation in this decade to the Pazz and Jop poll and Idolator’s own Jackin’ Pop polls as well.

As the years went on I found it harder to draw up any sort of list; there was something about the process I didn’t completely recognize in myself anymore. It culminated last year in my intentional non-ballot ballot for Pazz and Jop, instead sending in an essay (itself linking back to a previous essay for Idolator the year before, though that’s no longer available to my knowledge) tracing my disconnection, or disenchantment if you prefer. I’ll spare you the retelling of it all – the link is there, read as you choose.

The summary, though, is a sense of letting go, of releasing from a previous state – I have no real wish to bore anyone with a statement of general philosophy, but in broadest, simplest terms, it reflected a change from being a focused proclaimer on cultural elements to being a more relaxed observer of them. If the musical crisis I allude to in my Pazz and Jop piece from the start of the decade was one such moment, my current one comes down to sensing process over product: the series of continuing experiences rather than a rigorous accounting for them, though notes can and are taken along the way, and retrospective thought can be pulled together every so often, much like now.

I don’t present this as either a recommendation or a confession, but merely as a description of an awareness that I’ve reached a certain sense of calm. Now I can more readily enjoy music than I used to do – though that is potentially loaded as a conceit. It’s not that never stopped loving music, but in the same way that in the previous decade my stint in grad school almost buried my love for reading under a larger institutional drive and goal that I realized wasn’t for me, on a much more diffuse level once I felt less of a need to be on top of everything musically – the early-decade crunch that I’ve mentioned already – I found a new centered critical self that reflected and responded rather than categorized and locked down. The strengthening of this viewpoint over time lead me to these smoother waters in which I now find myself.

Of course, it does so in partially conscious reaction to external events. A great shut-off point was reached with me after the events of 9/11, and while it is by definition grotesque to compare what I did with the blood and loss and misery since, a new spasm of violence for humanity’s sorry history, nonetheless it’s crucial to note that I stopped using TV as a regular information source. The noise and mess of a decade in which mass media assumed newer forms and pumped up old ones, in which it became a true hyperpower, was more of a strange glow or a random buzz, something I sensed more often than directly encountered. Yet while I noticed this difference I never felt completely disconnected from it either – ultimately a healthy, necessary balance to maintain, at least for me.

Engaging with music in this fashion created new levels of experience and expectation. Some years back I reached another pithy conclusion, whose significance has grown: pop is the biggest musical subculture among all the rest, first among equals but all increasingly equal. This was prompted in part by the decade-long angst over what music means now, what relevance it must have in the time of free access, most often an unwanted access on the part of its creators. In part it was also prompted by the increasing self-selection process on the part of what we may call active listeners, those that prioritize and seek out music on a whim, where the previous contexts of wider shared experiences are more and more irrelevant beyond the broadest of groupings, where what is ‘pop’ as such is simultaneously the most potentially open and the most potentially insular of putative genres, talking and focusing upon itself. But you could say the same thing about metal, hip-hop, country, and that’s just to name Anglophonic styles familiar to a wide variety of the US audience.

Therefore, if today’s anchor figures of pop now project less of a fascination or repulsion for me – if Kanye’s impulsively maddening actions and self-deification vaguely intrigue but don’t resonate as strongly as my eighties triad of Madonna, Prince and Michael Jackson; if an act like the Black Eyed Peas irritates but doesn’t prompt me to go on the fatwas I invoked against the likes of the Black Crowes and Rage Against the Machine in the early nineties – then a part of it is growth, age, and that bugbear called maturity. But part of it lies too in the willingness to consciously resituate and reposition in a way that welcomes without letting oneself get steamrolled.

So, for instance, it’s simple enough for me to say that in discovering my favorite act of recent years, VNV Nation, it’s because of my ability to let that which works for me – in this case, melodically immediate, anthemic trance-industrial-pop – push my buttons without claiming it as a cudgel to wield against things that irritate or as an example of something that ‘must’ be celebrated in a wider context or else. It just is, and its own inspiration for me was profound, and quite non-musical in the end. If I have lost something by stepping back from the vortex of music’s wider obsessions, I would not exchange my peace of mind for it in the slightest.

Certainly not in a time when I could go on with the stories I know from people I know and love, friends, relations, more, about tragedies and setbacks and horrible places to be, personally, financially, spiritually, otherwise. And I worry about not being able to create a list of loved music on request? I have nothing to complain about in comparison. With luck, perhaps I never will – with luck.

I have no list to offer here or elsewhere. I may never again. Who knows? But I write and comment and think and write and comment again, and I have received kind words in turn, from musicians, fellow writers, readers, enough to satisfy the prickings of ego and to know that there’s something which I can provide. I listen, go to shows, discuss, try and capture indescribable thrills through the poor medium of language, and hope that photos taken on impulse portray some sense of what it was to be there. I still happily trash bands that make rubbish too because if you as a musician commit the cardinal sin of wasting my time, I owe you nothing but the very best in acidulous reaction.

As part of all those larger experiences in life to treasure, I can’t wait to see what songs, albums, shows thrill me next, what ideas come forward to grapple with. There’s always a future to be part of. There will always be something more.

This decade is done. Wrap it up. No summary needed. No list made. Onward.

– Ned Raggett