Over the last two decades or so, there has been a list-mania that has gone hand-in-hand with the whole multimedia explosion of everything being edited into cut-down, Tweet-ready soundbytes. No one has the time anymore to read a ten-part analysis of anything, but they do have time to glance through a ten-point list. Besides, lists are more fun.
Maybe it's because the tradition has some of its roots in David Letterman's signature Top 10s, or are celebrated hipster-nerd culture movies like High Fidelity &, to a lesser extent, Juno & most of the Wes Anderson movies. But maybe it's just the inherent structure that goes all the way back to the Top 40 countdown, which was later carbon-copied by MTV & VH-1's weekly top 10 video countdowns, as well as bigger events like their annual "Greatest Videos of All-Time."
What follows is a list of what I consider to be the greatest lists that I've encountered in the modern era, including the top ten of each list (because writing about lists is like—as I believe Zappa once said about music—dancing about architecture). I've restricted myself to film, music, & television because sports are boring, politics is too divisive, & books take too long to read. It may be a bit skewed to my lifetime & opinions, but what good is a list that isn't a subjective reflection of your own passions? I mean, why do we even read them?
As the man once said, "Because your kiss, your kiss is on my list."
1. TV Guide's The 100 Most Memorable Moments in TV History (June 29, 1996)
The mother list to end all lists. Released just on the cusp of when younger, list-heavy magazines like Entertainment Weekly was blazing the trail for older ones like Time to follow, TV Guide put out this amazing summary of a half-century of television essentials. In the months & years that followed, TV Guide became the go-to place for lists, as they slowly worked out of their expertise (greatest TV episodes & TV commercials to greatest movies, etc.), but this was their finest one, the one that broke the mold.
There are two things that make this list such a success. One is that it reads like an armchair primer of television history, which itself is basically a capsule of the postwar generation, as seen through the things that mattered most (presidents & wars, yes, but also Elvis & the Beatles). Secondly, the list chose moments that were actual moments, unlike countless lists that followed in its wake. There are no entries like "The 1968 Olympics" or "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," but rather, the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics & Mary cracking up at Chuckles the Clown's funeral on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Moments big & small, old & new, & utter surprises & things that had been in the works for years all further reinforce the point: These aren't necessarily the greatest or most important or most famous moments on television, but rather the most memorable.
Walter Cronkite speaking out against the Vietnam War; Jack Benny choosing between his money & his life; Kramer declaring himself out in the "The Contest"; Jack Palace getting betrayed on Requiem for a Heavyweight; Paul Newman endearingly flubbing his speech at the end of Pride of the Yankees; OJ Simpson's white Bronco car chase; Norton teaching Ralph how golf ("First step is to address the ball. Helllloooooo, ball!"); Clarabella speaking on the final episode of Howdy Doody, Big Bird learning about Mr. Hooper's death on Sesame Street; Sam & Diane's first kiss; Captain Kirk & Uhura in TV's first interracial kiss; Archie Bunker & Sammy Davis Jr.'s kiss; Apple's infamous "1984" ad; Nixon's bizarre, smiling "two V's for victory" wave as he left the White House in disgrace; LBJ announcing he will not run for reelection; Edward R. Murrow taking on McCarthy; Dan Rather getting punched in the stomach while covering the '68 Democratic National Convention; Michael Jackson's first moonwalk on the Motown 25 special; the Bookworm breaking his glasses on The Twilight Zone; the streaker at the '74 Oscars; Mr. Loud asking for a divorce on the proto-reality miniseries An American Family; the opening to Bonanza's first color broadcast; The Andy Griffith Show's opening sequence; Fonzie's entrance on Happy Days; Lee Harvey Oswald getting shot on live TV; JR getting shot at the season finale; Henry Blake getting shot down over the Sea of Japan; Mary Lou Retton getting a "10"; Carol Burnette wearing her drapery dress in the "Gone with the Wind" sketch. Man, I could literally do this all day.
Unlike movies & music, TV always had an instant quality about it, which in hindsight set the stage for the internet just as radio had set the stage for TV before it. The result is more than just a microcosm of television culture; it's a microcosm of modern American culture, period.
Yeah, you read that right. No Ingrid Bergman for Casablanca. No Anthony Perkins for Psycho. & Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story was the one lead who was not nominated, despite getting top billing. A third-billed Jimmy Stewart beat him out for Best Actor, which probably had more to do with Stewart losing in 1939 for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington than it did for his performance in this film. Just think of it is the 1940s equivalent of Al Pacino's Scent of a Woman consolation prize. Cary Grant, meanwhile, went the Peter O'Toole route & never won a competitive Oscar.
3. Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Albums of the Last 20 Years (September & October 1987)
Long before they came out with their much-publicized Top 500 lists for the best albums & songs of all-time, Rolling Stone made this, a much simpler — & more on target — list for their 20th anniversary. It's lovely mix of obvious & the surprising make it a very effective list, best summed up by its top two rankings: #1 for Sgt. Pepper, 'natch, & #2 for Never Mind the Bollocks, a pretty bold middle finger to the baby-boomers for an album that has strangely fallen out of critical failure in recent years (The Clash's more family-friendly London Calling — which hit #14 here — seems to have taken its place).
& aside from the perennial favs like Beatles, Stones, & Dylan, you get some longtime Stone-championed stalwarts (Lennon's first solo album Plastic Ono Band; Van Morrison's cultish Astral Weeks; Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica; the original Nuggets compilation) alongside artists that have bubbled back under the swamps from they had appeared (Linda & Richard Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights; Graham Parker's Howlin' Wind; Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes' Hearts of Stone), to name a few.