Time for the annual bout of listomania


What can account for the deluge of best-of charts? Is it just a male obsession with lists?

WE ARE already deep into list season. Come the beginning of Advent, organs such as this clear space for a matrix of charts detailing the year’s best films, most engaging books, funniest comedy series, largest hats, friendliest waiters and drunkest lollipop ladies. You may, elsewhere in The Irish Times, have perused a superbly balanced assessment of 2011’s best movies co-compiled by this very writer. No problem. Don’t mention it.

By the end of December, more anal corners of the internet set to meshing the results into terrifying classes of meta-chart. Grids appear featuring art works down the Y-axis and periodicals along the X-axis. Fear not. You need no longer strain your brain. In a few weeks, it will be scientifically verified that A Week in Splendificaby Maurice Boxhorn is the best first novel of the year.

It can only be a matter of time before some true fanatic begins assembling a meta-meta-chart of the meta-charts. A year later, his even madder brother, noting that the craze has caught on, will move into a fourth dimension and we’ll discover which LP has achieved meta-meta-meta success. Will the latest Kate Bush album become the musical equivalent of the tesseract? (Probably not. It isn’t very good.)

It’s tempting to date the advance of listomania to the arrival of the internet. Certainly, it has become increasingly easy for any lone enthusiast to post a supposedly definitive end-of-year chart from his or her shadowy eyrie. But the real surge began in the mid-1990s.

Think back to a phenomenon that men of a certain age (ahem) now pretend didn’t happen. In 1995, Nick Hornby published a very popular novel entitled High Fidelity. Within weeks of the book’s arrival, the sorts of chap who wore greasy Dr Marten shoes and knew the B-sides of Josef K singles could be heard repeating an indescribably tragic mantra. “Man. It’s like he looked right inside my brain,” they didn’t quite say. “Hornby even knows what I spread on my cream crackers.”

There were some crude insights about sexual politics in the book. Hornby pinned down a few truths about men and their dads. But what really struck home was a more trivial detail: he was the first person to note that men from the real unnamed generation – too young to be baby boomers; too old to be Generation X – had become completely obsessed with best-of lists.

Think back. In those dark ages, a mild amount of chart fever did set in at the end of the year. But, in an ordinary week, you could still plough through several tons of newsprint without encountering an ordered series of pop-cultural recommendations. The few best-of lists that did emerge were cherished.

Allow me to indulge in a bout of depressing nostalgia. A year or so before Hornby’s book emerged, I was working in the box-office of a West End theatre.

One happy day, we learned that New Musical Expresswas set to publish one of its rare – they came along about once every 10 years – list of the 100 greatest albums of all time. In the lead up, certain colleagues and I (all male) indulged in a competition to predict the final results.

I recall a sceptical workmate (female) perusing my list and commenting: “Since when did you rate Forever Changesby Love so highly?” I had to explain that I had not changed my mind about that minor classic of Los Angeles psychedelia. Our opinions were irrelevant. The aim was to predict the whims of 20 drug-addled layabouts on Carnaby Street.

If I had announced an enthusiasm for beer-mat collecting she could not have seemed more unimpressed.

The sad truth is that the proliferation of lists has utterly devalued any small value they once had. Among the few such charts that still mean anything is Sight & Sound’spoll of the greatest films ever made. A venerable beast, compiled by a distinguished clatter of critics and directors, this much-examined institution has been running for 60 years and, in its admirably serious way, has helped codify the cinematic canon.

The latest will arrive next year. Citizen Kanewill win. Bicycle Thieveswill also figure. 8 ½should also still hold its place. There’s nothing cheap or ephemeral about that class of unchanging conservatism. Elsewhere, all is hysteria.

So what drove the relatively recent rise of listomania? Anthropologists can explain why men are more enthusiastic about the ritual tabulation. It’s probably something to do with our sense memory of slaughtering hairy mammoths. (It usually is.)

But the explanation for the general trend is easy enough to discern. There is, these days, just too much popular culture about the place. The unfortunate punter, assaulted by literally thousands of albums, films, TV series and drunken lollipop ladies, can be forgiven for seeking some sort of easily digestible précis.

Just don’t take it too seriously, folks.