Now that Christmas is over, I have a new seasonal tune stuck in my head. Maybe it wasn't intended as a holiday song, but it's one I often find myself humming around the end of December and start of January: "Nothing Was Delivered," an obscure Bob Dylan track from 1967 whose chorus opines, "Nothing is better, nothing is best / Take care of yourself, get plenty of rest."
It's a song that gives me strength as a recovering list addict. I have so far steered clear of whiskey, heroin, gambling and other vices, but for a long stretch of years beginning around high school and ending some time in my mid-20s, I had an insatiable inclination to list things in order of preference — movies, songs, right-handed starting pitchers and just about anything else quantifiable.
Every year in college, as a ritual, my critical-minded friends and I would trade our annual best-of lists: Ten best movies of the year! Ten worst songs of the year!
While others fretted about Western civilization ending with Y2K, we fretted about whether Lucinda Williams should outpace Gillian Welch on our best-albums-of-the-decade rankings.
I'm better now, of course. (That "Nothing Was Delivered" chorus may have helped; in fact, at the time I stopped making lists, it was my 37th favorite Dylan tune and steadily gaining on "Mr. Tambourine Man" at No. 36.) But just as alcoholics can suffer a relapse during the holidays amid all the wine and merriment, list addicts can find those old temptations nagging them again.
Day after day, left and right, we're bombarded in December with lists from different publications trying to condense the year into five or 10 definitive slots. The New Yorker recently got into the spirit irreverently when it posted a list of "The Hundred Best Lists of All Time," which included Schindler's list (No. 13), the Apollo 11 surface checklist (25) and the National Register of Historic Places (66), with an option to choose Generations of Adam from the Book of Genesis or the Periodic Table of Elements for the top spot, depending on which state you live in.
With so many numerals out there, I found myself the other day toying with my own best-movies list of the year. No. 1? Let's say "Lincoln" — as a prestige picture, it looks more in its element there than "Wreck-It Ralph." But that one has to be somewhere on the list; how about if we slot it at No. 10 as a novelty, then fill in Nos. 2 through 9 later? "Argo"? In the top five, sure. How about the 10 worst? I saw too few bad movies last year; let's make it three instead.
If you've seen the movie "High Fidelity," whose protagonist doggedly creates "top five" lists to cover everything from favorite songs to his own failed romances, you may realize that there's a bit of a power game in that activity. When we create lists, we assign things and determine their rightful place; we program things that aren't meant to compete with each other into a competition and declare the winner. And we have that brazen voice at the back of our head declaring that our list — and not, say, Kenneth Turan's or Robert Christgau's — is the one that got it right.
But that's assuming that any critical list gets anything right at all, and I'm convinced, after so many enlightening years, that it never does. So, just for old time's sake, here's a list of the Top Three Reasons Why I Despise Best-of Lists:
1. They're entirely subjective. If two runners finish first and second in a race, what does that mean? It means one of them ran faster than the other. But if "Ulysses" edges out "The Great Gatsby" for the best novel of the century, what's the margin of victory? Slightly more plot? More social significance? Or how about the difference between 77 and 78 on a top-100 list? Do we have a mathematical formula, as Rolling Stone no doubt does, to determine whether Jimi Hendrix's guitar solo on "Purple Haze" is 1/100 better than John Fogerty's on "Bad Moon Rising"?
2. They create broad categories for wildly dissimilar things. The Golden Globes, at least, has the good sense to divide its best-film categories into comedy and drama (although the former gets paired with musicals, which means "Les Miserables" has a shot at technically being named the best comedy of 2012). But throw together any list of acclaimed films, songs and the like, and you'll find that some simply can't be clustered with others.
The ultimate case in point: In 1999, Entertainment Weekly compiled a cover-story list of the 100 Greatest Moments in Television. No. 1 was John F. Kennedy's assassination and funeral. Finishing narrowly in second place? Mary Tyler Moore tossing her hat in the air in the opening credits of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," which placed six spots ahead of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon.
3. They get in the way of pure enjoyment. Over the years, I've spoken to several people who watched "Citizen Kane" or listened to the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and came away disappointed. Perhaps it was a matter of taste — but perhaps it was also because they've been officially anointed for years as the No. 1 Movie and No. 1 Album of All Time.
When we give works of art a mathematical reputation to live up to, they're bound to underwhelm. Leaving those digits off can let us appreciate the qualities — candor, experimentation, pure anarchic fun — that caused people to fall in love with them before they got mounted on a pedestal.
Looking back at that list, I think the third item may be most important (and in that case, I'm proud of myself for randomly slotting it third). Art, as John Keats implied, is about truth and beauty, and both of those things can reveal themselves unpredictably. Can we always explain what makes us fixate on a painting? Do songs ever grab us the 70th time more than they did the first? There's no applying a number to those things.
And besides, when we consider — oh, the heck with academic reasoning. The bottom line is, no movie released in 2012 could possibly be more wonderful than "Wreck-It Ralph." And I refuse to honor any top-10 list that puts it in a corner.