It's 2019 so prepare for the end-of-decade rankings

Donald Clarke: Come the post-Brexit woes, we’ll all love a good round-up, right?

Time to look forward to 2019. In the coming year we will continue to wonder why anybody would want to be host of the Oscars or manage Manchester United. We'll suggest that a film revival of the TV series Deadwood is a mirage. We'll whine about the durability of reality television. Well, probably. If the UK's exit from the European Union goes as badly as suspected we may be too busy squabbling over the last boiled rat to concern ourselves with such trivialities.

Here's one thing we will be doing. Even if we're living in caves and worshipping the owl deity, we'll still be compiling lists of the best stuff from the 2010s. Beyoncé's Lemonade. Get Out. The first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. That time earlier in the year when the Mog tribe of the Lower Bann massacred the WakaWaka and captured their entire supply of baked beans. Those sorts of things.

This is not a drill. There is no escape bar death. The last year of the current decade starts here. Every day brings us a step closer to the final reckoning on the best and worst stuff from that period. If you found yourself dizzied by the recent 2018 retrospectives then you may wish to spend December of 2019 on the nearest isolated island (assuming your head isn’t dashed to granules during the great sugar riots of mid-summer).

It was not ever thus. The passion for lists did not properly get going until the end of the last century. Nick Hornby's High Fidelity is a key text here. When the novel was published in 1995, a million men discovered the need to arrange the "best synth-pop albums released in odd-numbered years" into a ranked chart was not theirs alone. To that point, the list-minded fellow had to wait to the end of the year for satisfaction. John Peel's Festive 50 was a treat. Organs such as The Irish Times would print a polite "10 best films" in some corner of a December number. That was about it.


There are all kinds of brooding apocalypses on the horizon. Oh well. At least we've got Game of Thrones

Newspapers and magazines cottoned on to the Hornby market and started covering every spare gap with “best of this” and “greatest ever that”. The arrival of the internet and the turning of the millennium helped cement such lists in publishing culture.

Nobody was compiling top plainchants of the first millennium in 999. They were too busy hurrying to the highest spot in anticipation of apocalyptic lava. There's no suggestion that the Victorian equivalent of MojoMaster Humphrey's Almanac of Vintage Harmony? – ranked the finest comic songs of the 19th century. Indeed, nobody bothered writing cultural histories of decades until the last century came along. We got the roaring 1920s. The 1930s were characterised by slump. Then the bleeding 1960s happened. The notion that those supposedly revolutionary years formed their own exciting island in a temporal ocean of humdrum reality helped press home the theory that a decade really meant something. Now each one was supposed to have its own character. Combine that with post-internet, Hornbyesque list mania and you have a solution to every editor's needs during years ending in "9".

It’s a tedious business, but it has generated some creative thinking. Apart from anything else, we now have fun working out when a decade really begins. Don’t worry, we’re not entertaining the “21st century started in 2001” mob. (They have every broadsheet letters page to themselves, after all.) The question addresses the point at which those cultural and political forces we associate with a decade kicked off and when they went away again.

Philip Larkin helped us out with that bloody decade. "Sexual intercourse began. In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles' first LP," he wrote. For "sexual intercourse", read the 1960s. The first few series of Mad Men – all thin lapels and cool jazz – were tensely waiting for hair to creep over collars. The American 1960s may have ended neatly with deaths at the Altamont festival in December 1969. Perhaps it kicked on until the Manson murders in 1971.

In global political terms the 1990s probably lasted for 12 years, beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and ending with the fall of the World Trade Centre in 2001. You could make a case for the first decade of this century lasting from that date until the near-simultaneous 2008 crash and election of President Obama.

The bad news here is that there's a very real chance the 2010s could end in 2019. There are all kinds of brooding apocalypses on the horizon. We may be smearing our decade highlights on the walls of the warmest bunker. Oh well. At least we've got Game of Thrones.