Thursday, August 23, 2012

A List Of The Top 5 Lists Of All-Time.

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.
  1. Neil Armstrong Walks on the Moon (July 20, 1969)
  2. Lucy in the Candy Factory (Sept. 15, 1952)
  3. John-John's Salute at JFK's funeral (Nov. 25, 1963)
  4. The Beatles First Appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (Feb. 9, 1964)
  5. Newhart Final Episode (May 21, 1990)
  6. The Final Episode of The Fugitive (Aug. 29, 1967)
  7. The O.J. Simpson Verdict (Oct. 3, 1995)
  8. The Wedding of Charles & Diana (July 29, 1981)
  9. Bette Midler Serenades Johnny Carson on his final episode (May 21, 1992)
  10. The Opening of Elvis's 1968 Comeback Special (Dec. 3, 1968)
TV Guide would update this list over the years — the towers falling on 9/11 has overtaken Neil Armstrong's walking on the moon — but did so in lists that were less historically-rounded & with descriptions so small they felt like captions, not summaries.  Perhaps this was only telling, as it felt as though TV Guide had fallen victim to the superficialities of the very movement it helped create.

2.  Entertainment Weekly's 100 Biggest Oscar Snubs (c. 2003)

List-making, like so many other forms of intellectual expression, often falls into a cliched, gray-area laziness.  So many magazines & books have put out their lists of the "all-time greatest" movies, television, & albums, that they all start to run together.  But every once in a while, a list comes along that is unlike any other before it, proving its worth by presenting an overlooked area in a well-rounded & succinct manner.

Such was the case when the creative folks at Entertainment Weekly put out their list of the 100 biggest Oscar snubs.  This is not a list of people who lost the Oscar — this is a list of the greatest performances that weren't even nominated in the first place.  The thrill of the list goes hand-in-hand with the shock it radiates.  But any descriptions will only blunt the impact of its top ten, which truly has to be seen to be believed:
  1. Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo 
  2. Anthony Perkins in Psycho (1960)
  3. Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story (1941)
  4. Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942)
  5. Samuel L. Jackson in Jungle Fever (1991)
  6. Susan Sarandon, Bull Durham (1988)
  7. John Cazale, The Godfather, Pt. 2 (1974)
  8. Judy Garland, The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  9. Marilyn Monroe, Some Like It Hot (1952)
  10. Dennis Hopper, Blue Velvet (1986)
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.
  1. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
  2. The Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols (1977)
  3. The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street (1972)
  4. John Lennon: Plastic Ono Band (1970)
  5. The Jimi Hendrix Experience: Are You Experienced (1967)
  6. David Bowie: The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars (1972)
  7. Van Morrison: Astral Weeks (1968)
  8. Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run (1975)
  9. The Beatles: S/T ("The White Album") (1968)
  10. Marvin Gaye: What's Going On (1971)
In summarizing rock's story from 1967-1987, it seems to make an argument in hindsight that, even without classics from 1965 (Highway 61 Revisited, Rubber Soul) & 1966 (Pet Sounds, Revolver, Blonde on Blonde), this two-decade span may just be rock's finest era of them all — taking the story from rock's artistic breakthrough (Pepper) up through the era just before rap & grunge defined an era that was unimaginable even a few years earlier.

4. Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Music Videos of All-Time (October 1993)

It used to be that MTV & VH-1 would put up "Greatest Music Videos of All-Time" specials every few months, with usually predictable results.  Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was always #1 on both lists, until MTV bumped it off with Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" & Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," if memory serves.  But you always knew the top five would include Guns N' Roses' "November Rain," Madonna's "Vogue," & Metallica's "Enter Sandman," thus speaking more about the most popular music of the era, than the actual quality of the music videos.  With a focus on MOR junk, VH-1 pulled off the feat of being both more focused & more scattershot, as "Thriller" stayed at #1, yes, but things like Gloria Estefan & Phil Collins found their way uncomfortably near the top.  It was as though your mom & all of her friends had made their own list, & VH-1 aired it.

Enter Rolling Stone, whose list was as bold & innovative as MTV probably thought theirs was.  The list went back further (to 1967!) & included videos that were both obscure (The Art of Noise's "Close (To The Edit)"; The Replacements' "Bastards of Young") & controversial (Neil Young's "This Note's For You," which was banned from MTV before going on to win Video of the Year at the MTV Video Awards).  There were no sacred cows — "Thriller" made #16, "Vogue" made #28, "Jeremy" made #36, & "November Rain" & "Enter Sandman" were nowhere to be found — making a list that was so refreshing, it didn't so much celebrate the music video canon as it did entirely remake it.

  1. Peter Gabriel: "Sledgehammer" (1986)
  2. Nirvana: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (1991)
  3. R.E.M.: "Losing My Religion" (1991)
  4. Neil Young: "This Note's For You" (1989)
  5. Sinead O'Connor: "Nothing Compares 2 U" (1990)
  6. Van Halen: "Right Now" (1992)
  7. Bob Dylan: "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (1967)
  8. Michael Jackson: "Leave Me Alone" (1989)
  9. a-ha: "Take On Me" (1985)
  10. Madonna: "Express Yourself" (1989)
Wow, I forgot how much I freakin' love this list.  Plus, I'll always believe that Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was included as a dig to MTV's love of INXS's "I Need You Tonight/Meditate," which directly steals Dylan's placard-holding original; it goes without saying that INXS's video is nowhere on the Rolling Stone list.

That, & they're not too cool for "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Smells Like Nirvana," which makes the list at #68.  Now there's a durable & innovative music video visionary you'd never find on an MTV list.

5.  Sight & Sound's Top Ten Films of All-Time (1952)

The granddaddy of all lists.  When the British film magazine Sight & Sound held the first of its once-every-decade polls, one has to wonder if they knew it was going to turn into the snob-of-all-snobs standard for polls, as Criterion-collecting hipsters everywhere wait with bated breath for the new list.  Even Roger Ebert, who things "ranking" lists are silly, included the Sight & Sound polls on the back of a definitive movie book he released in the late '90s, essentially saying, "Best-ever film lists are completely counterintuitive, but here's the one you should pay attention to, not that they're worth paying attention to, because they're not.  But here it is.
  1. Bicycle Thieves (1948) (25 mentions)
  2. City Lights (1931) (19 mentions) (tie)
  3. The Gold Rush (1925) (19 mentions) (tie)
  4. Battleship Potemkin (1925) (16 mentions)
  5. Intolerance (1916) (12 mentions) (tie)
  6. The Louisiana Story (1948) (12 mentions)
  7. Greed (1924) (11 mentions) (tie)
  8. Le Jour Se Leve [Daybreak] (1939) (11 mentions) (tie)
  9. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) (11 mentions) (tie)
  10. Brief Encounter (1945) (10 mentions) (tie)
  11. La Regle Du Jeu [The Rules of the Game] (1939) (10 mentions) (tie)
  12. Le Million (1931) (10 mentions) (tie)
I included the first list not because it's the best, but because it's the first.  It's just as interesting to see what does make it — Louisiana Story & Le Million have all but fallen off the face of the earth, while The Passion of Joan of Arc The Rules of the Game have become Sight & Sound staples.  Conspicuously absent is Citizen Kane, which shot to number one the following decade & stayed there until Vertigo kicked it off the top earlier this year.

Actually, Citizen Kane is on the list — sort of — in the "bubbling under" category of the next closest film to the ones that made the list.

It got 9 mentions — the same number as Grand Illusion & The Grapes of Wrath.

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