The last thing we need is more record lists, right? Well, maybe. No doubt we suffer from a glut of rock-lists. Glossy consumer mags use lists of all types as selling points ("you need these in your life"). When it comes to UK music monthlies, it usually means the same old rock albums, reinforcing the canon with each iteration. Books and websites are now adding to list-fatigue: sites divide lengthy lists-of-the-best-ever into several pages, thus increasing their click thrus but making for fractured reading (the very opposite of what a list should do); meanwhile, those godawful 1010 Records To Hear Before You Expire books conflate musical experience with the dying of the light.
Of course, the idea of a record list is inherently problematic. It immediately raises questions: records of what type, and limited in what way? What and whose criteria are we judging by? The very existence of a historic list presupposes a musical 'record' of some kind, which rules out the vast majority of music experienced by homo sapiens since time began.
Yet lists are worth celebrating, especially now. Lists are rarely about completism. Only a tiny minority of those who read a record list attempt to collect ’em all. Instead, a list provides a rough-and-ready survey of how the land might lay, and what waypoints on the map might be significant at the present time. Like an old style maps with sketchy outlines of countries and continents and uncharted waters beyond, they are open to correction by the user. And like the notion of music genre, the flaws and exceptions of a list are as important, notable and (crucially) useful as the inclusions. The very idea of a list of records is an acknowledgment that we're in a state of constant change.
A select few lists have been crucial in The Wire's world, and several others have been crucial in setting the agenda since the internet expanded the music world. The Nurse With Wound list is still a thing of wonder with over 200 way-out records (Airway, Brainstorm, Come…) that, contrary to rumour, do all genuinely exist. Thurston Moore's Free Jazz list for Grand Royale magazine contained such obscurities – private press releases, European releases by US exiles, loft sessions – that at the time I thought it could be some kind of jazz head’s wet daydream. "Seeing as there’s no “beginning” or “end” to this shit I have to list as many items as possible," Moore wrote, suggesting that free jazz, far from dead, was still resonating in global after shocks. Alan Licht's minimalist top 10 ("I like minimalism because it ROCKS.") was crucial because it posited minimalism as the hidden wiring of whole swathes of underground music. His original list mentions Niblock and Palestine, but in a third instalment for Volcanic Tongue (which goes all the way up to eleven) he knitted in Harry Pussy and Earth to the minimalist pantheon.
Two record lists stood out in the early internet era, and became, if not bibles, then certainly user's guide to the hidden depths of record collecting. Kirk DeGiorgio's Hall Of Fame (which has more or less disappeared from the internet, but can still be just about browsed here) was a list of primarily soul, funk, jazz and disco, but its forensic ear for producers, engineers, session men, arrangers, songwriters and other unsung heroes meant it elevated David Axelrod, Arthur Russell and George Duke to visionary status in their knitting together of black music, white music and everything in between in the 1970s.
Woebot's 100 Greatest Records Ever, is wonderfully playful despite (or because of?) its pompous title. His list makes a mockery of the idea that the album is king, with white label 12"s from Ruff Sqwad, and places Joni Mitchell and Pere Ubu next to Acen and David Lewiston as the true geniuses of modern music. Woebot's list is rough and opinionated, making you alternately snort with derision and wonder where the hell he found such riches.
Consumer guide record lists can weigh you down, but a good list should open things up. The lists above are about sharing the riches. One of my best musical experiences ever was a week-by-week record swapping session with a close friend, working the way through our respective top 50 albums. This is what the best lists do – facilitate an intimate engagement with someone's world. Despite the proliferation of lists, we need good ones more than ever.