A few weeks ago, I was asked to write a Baker's Dozen for the Quietus, a breezy exercise in which I would pick my 13 favourite recordings, write a short paragraph about each one and, voila, the job would be done. I've done plenty of things like that in the past, so why not once more? I started to do it, mentally flicking through some records that have mattered to me, typing out some names. Then I just stopped. I couldn't go on. My mind kept rejecting the assignment, spitting it out like a mouthful of rotten food. It felt wrong to contribute to the mountain of spurious listicles that our online music culture now gorges upon. It felt wrong to play favourites about something as complicated as my feelings about music, to single out a virtuous few, to imply that these 13 recordings were somehow the "best". Best at what? To what end? I asked if I could write about my cranky refusal to do this and was told that that would be okay. So, with that in mind, here are 13 reasons why I cannot pick my 13 favourite records.
Reason One: It Is A Promotional Exercise And Thus Compromised. Musicians talking about favourite records can produce writing that is funny, vulnerable and sweet: love letters back to the records that saved us, helped us, kept us going, inspired, challenged, resisted, stayed restlessly out of our reach but that we kept returning to. But all too often, it's egregious posturing, with artists writing their own ticket by modelling for the reader their beautiful soul, their "good taste", their access to obscure or insider material, their relevance to scene X or status as spokesperson for demographic Y. There's an acrid stench of narcissism that haunts the scene when artists write directly about themselves, but even at a remove, there's no doubt that these selections are expected to function as indirect self-portraiture and, in a sense, as branding exercises. When the narrator of Lana Del Rey's painfully apt song "Brooklyn Baby" coos at us that "my jazz collection's rare", the savvy distance and difference between Lana herself and that hapless narrator tells the story: there's something self-serving and suspect about Public Displays of Taste.
Reason Two: The Phrase 'Favourite Record' Is Conceptually Incoherent. In her essay "The irreducible complexity of objectivity," the philosopher Heather Douglas has argued that the word "objectivity" can be understood in at least eight distinct senses, none of which are equivalent to each other, and all of which are, as she puts it, "operationally accessible." You could say the same about the word "favourite", breaking it down into some of the many things it could mean: Does favourite mean "had a powerful impact upon my personal sense of what music can be"? Does favourite mean "record that I loved with the greatest subjective intensity at some significant moment"? Does favourite mean "strikes me as most successful as a work of art now"? Does favourite mean "record that I have listened to with the greatest numeric frequency of plays over time"? Does favourite mean "record whose cultural survival I long to ensure against tough odds"? Each of these distinct possible senses of "favourite" prompts some basic objection or other: Why would the contingency of one's influences matter to others in the first place, or be reliable in hindsight? What does "success" mean when we're talking about artworks? How could the intensity of an aesthetic experience be measured? Why would the frequency of playback necessarily correlate to quality? When cashed out in any of these particular senses, "favourite" is thus worryingly unclear. Taken collectively, the sheer incommensurability of these various definitions, and the unlikeliness that a single word could ever rope them together, suggests to me that the very concept of "favourite recording" is doomed to fatal incoherence, and would be best abandoned.