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The best and worst of irresistible 'best of' lists


We are now nearing the end of list season - you know, that stretch of time between the end of one year and the beginning of the next where every publication puts out their best-of lists from their previous years - you know, best albums, movies, books, whatever. And there's also a list of things to come in the next year. There is something almost irresistible about these kinds of lists, no matter the topic. You know, there's usually some grumbling from fans about who and what got left off or who or what got included.

And so when Rolling Stone released their list of the 200 greatest singers of all time on January 1, people came in hot with their opinions about who was overrated and who was done dirty. One extremely notable exclusion from this list, again, of the greatest singers of all time - Celine Dion. To talk about the somewhat obsessive love-hate relationship with best-of lists, we called on two people who have contributed to more than a few cultural best-of lists themselves, Stephen Thompson and Aisha Harris, hosts of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. What's up, y'all? How are you doing?

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: I am really excited to have this conversation.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Same (laughter).

LIMBONG: All right. So I'm sure you both saw the Rolling Stone list. Aisha, what'd you make of it?

HARRIS: I was kind of shocked to not see Celine Dion there 'cause it just seems crazy to me when you look at some of the people they did include. But I think - I like that the Rolling Stone list included a lot of international artists I'd never even heard of, so it made me actually want to go and check them out. And I think that's another benefit of these lists, when they're done well, or at least thoughtfully, is that you're not just arguing about who was left off, but maybe you're turned on to something you wouldn't have been turned on to before.

LIMBONG: Yeah. Like 30 years ago, there would not have been, like, a K-pop star on their list, right?

HARRIS: Right, right. Or Celia Cruz, who I think made their top 20. Like, it's very doubtful that they would - she would have made it on there 20 years ago.

LIMBONG: Yeah. When you guys make lists - right? - what kind of discussions are you guys having?

THOMPSON: Well, I think it's important to keep in mind that - I don't know - Pop Culture Happy Hour at least doesn't really necessarily go down this particular rabbit hole too often. We're often more kind of approaching these things anecdotally, talking about the stuff that really, really matters to us instead of kind of trying to collect a consensus around ranking the best - though at NPR, we have. You know, I'm part of NPR Music. NPR Music has been doing this series called Turning the Tables that's kind of tried to re-envision the musical canon through the lens of the contributions of women.

And I think that that kind of speaks to a larger movement around putting these lists together, which is trying to reframe the collective received wisdom of what the greatest things of all time are and then trying to look at what has gotten short shrift and what deserves more attention. And I think that's where these lists - kind of like Aisha said, these can be hugely valuable if they're giving the readers of that list an opportunity to go down rabbit holes and discover new things that they would love if only they'd encountered them.

HARRIS: Right. I mean, I, several years ago when I was at Slate magazine, put together the Black film canon alongside my colleague at the time, Dan Kois. And the purpose of our creation of that, quote-unquote, "canon" was to emphasize that Black filmmaking had come a long way and that, also, it had always existed, and it deserved to be celebrated. And so we chose 50 films. We didn't actually rank them, but we collected 50 films. We interviewed and spoke with different filmmakers and critics and had them include their picks. And it was a great way to both, like, celebrate the obvious choices, like "Do The Right Thing," you know, or "Boyz N The Hood," but also highlight other films that people might not have heard of, like "Touki Bouki" or "Losing Ground." So I like it when we can create things that hopefully generate conversation and also are just different or feel new or introduce people to new things.

LIMBONG: You guys both actually brought up ranking, which I know I don't like and I think, like, NPR is genuinely, like, allergic to, right? And I'm curious, what about putting a number to things makes it feel squiggy (ph)?

THOMPSON: I mean, you know, it's very - the most common word that is used to describe this sort of list is clickbait, right? A lot of people like to dismiss these things as, you know, you're just using this to get clicks. You're just using this to call attention to yourselves. You're just using this to, like, start a big argument that you can be at the center of. And I think a ranking really ties into that idea. If your favorite singer is ranked No. 6 and your least favorite singer is ranked at No. 4, you will have a big, grand statement to make about it.

Instead of just kind of looking over a list of conventional wisdom and saying, OK, these - this looks more or less like the canon to me, putting things in a ranking will often create these little sub-arguments within taking in these lists where, you know, you'll say not only, like, where is Celine Dion? She's not on the top 200. But why is this person at 196 when they should be at No. 11 or whatever? I think it just provides one more layer of argument, which is kind of one of the big purposes of lists like these.

HARRIS: The other thing is, like, ostensibly, we're talking about art, right? And we don't like to - or at least a lot of critics, like myself, don't like to put a number to that. Like, we already have enough - a hard enough time trying to wrestle with the fact that art and commerce go hand in hand. Like, you just can't discount the fact that capitalism plays a role in art and how we make it and how we consume it. And I think when you're ranking things, that kind of adds another layer of, like, taking away from the art itself and trying to assign a specific meaning to this art that is hard to codify because it's art.

LIMBONG: But I don't know. It is interesting. I get what you guys are saying about how, like, ranking, you know, increases the opportunities for argument and clickbait and all that. But it does also contribute to that sort of course correction of the canon, right? Like, I think from 2008, Mary J. Blige jumped from 100 to 25, right? Mariah Carey went from 79 to five. There's all this, like, shuffling around, and I'm curious what you think that represents in the culture today.

HARRIS: Well, I mean, look, the canon needs to expand because as time goes on, more art is created. So there's going to be the classics. There's going to be the Shakespeares. You're going to have the "Citizen Kanes." Like, those are the things you must see. But you have to account for the fact that there are going to be other films that have been made after that might be better or might be worth putting alongside. And I think part of the issue that I find when people like to criticize these lists for being, you know, pandering to progressive sensibilities is that, you know, just because now Toni Morrison is considered canon, that doesn't mean that Shakespeare is no longer considered canon. It just means they both live alongside each other.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I think the way these lists evolve tells us a lot about not only history but how we are reacting to history in real time. And I - you know, I'd love to see the canon shift where you're releasing - like, Sight and Sound has this poll of the greatest movies of all time. And all of a sudden, a movie most people have never heard of is No. 1 instead of "Vertigo" or "Citizen Kane." Like, that's really interesting to pick apart why. I love the fact that there is not this fixed canon. This is the only best movie that's ever been made, and nothing can ever be better. Like, no. It's constantly shifting. And, you know, maybe the best movie is "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure." Maybe it's "This Is Spinal Tap." Maybe it's "Paddington 2." Let's have that conversation.

LIMBONG: That was Stephen Thompson and Aisha Harris of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Thanks so much, y'all.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)