Why are our favorites our favorites?

I’ve had a few debates in the comment section recently about what some (read: this ‘Dana’ character) believe is a tendency of mine to celebrate the work of new artists over established ones. Specifically, the claim is that I will consistently rank a new work by an old favorite lower than a new work by somebody “fresh.”

I have a theory about this that I’ll get to in a bit.

Admittedly, if you look at my album lists over the past six or so years I’ve been ranking them, the top albums tend to be newer artists. And while the work of my long-time favorite artists usually shows up in the top ten, it’s generally below at least a couple of releases by newer acts.

(Note: I’m going to concentrate on music in this analysis, though some of these ideas could well translate to the film discussion)

I guess the first step is to establish exactly who is on this list of favorites. With the disclaimer that lists like this are constantly evolving, here’s a look at my ten favorite solo acts (in alphabetical order):

Fiona Apple
Elvis Costello
Bob Dylan
Ben Folds
Lyle Lovett
Aimee Mann
Josh Rouse
Paul Simon
Rufus Wainwright
Lucinda Williams

And my favorite bands (keeping this to six because my enthusiasm drops off from there):

The Beatles
Belle & Sebastian
Counting Crows
R.E.M.
The Smiths
Talking Heads

Most of these artsits have been around for awhile. The youngest/least prolific of the bunch are Fiona Apple (12 years, 3 albums), Ben Folds (13 years, 6 albums), Josh Rouse (10 years, 8 albums), Rufus Wainwright (10 years, 5 albums), Belle & Sebastian (12 years, 9 albums) and Counting Crows (14 years, 5 albums). But even that batch has at least a decade apiece under their belts.

Now here’s a look at my #1 and #2 albums since 2002:

2002: #1. Beck – Sea Change, #2. Counting Crows – Hard Candy
2003: #1 – Rufus Wainwright – Want One, #2. Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress
2004: #1 – Rufus Wainwright – Want Two, #2. Rachael Yamagata – Happenstance
2005: #1. Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine, #2. Ben Folds – Songs for Silverman
2006: #1. Belle & Sebastian – The Life Pursuit, #2. John Mayer – Continuum
2007: #1. Rufus Wainwright – Release the Stars, #2. Bruce Springsteen – Magic

So eight of those twelve albums were recorded by my favorite artists, which contradicts the argument that I favor up-and-comers. However, complicating matters is the fact that all eight of those are the “young” artists I listed above. You don’t see any albums by Lyle Lovett, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, R.E.M., etc. in that list. Many of those artists released albums (and good ones) over the past six years, but they weren’t able to crack my top two.

Why is that? Here’s where my theory kicks in.

What is it that makes a group or artist a favorite? In my experience, it’s two or three albums in a row that knock my socks off. Maybe I hear them all at once, in the case of somebody who is established but I’m only getting around to discovering. Or maybe I hear them as they’re released.

Let’s look at some details:

Elvis Costello
I first heard King of America (a much-appreciated birthday gift from my sister) and was blown away. I immediately picked up Imperial Bedroom and that was it… he was a favorite for life. I gobbled up the rest of his catalog and found every title impressive. The first new album I heard from Costello was Spike, and I’ve owned every album he’s released since then.

But if you ask me what Elvis’ best albums are… I’m going to go right back to King of America and Imperial Bedroom, with Get Happy!! in the mix as well. He’s not one of my favorite artists because of his post-Spike output.

R.E.M.
Similar drill. It was Fables of the Reconstruction and Lifes Rich Pageant that hooked me. They have put out some great music since then, including Automatic for the People (which could be their best work) but it’s those two that brought me on board.

Lyle Lovett
Again, a similar experience: … and His Large Band and Joshua Judges Ruth were the hooks, with The Road to Ensenada in the Automatic for the People slot.

But with the newer artists, it is their recent albums (by definition) that propelled them onto my favorites list. Fiona Apple’s When the Pawn… and Extraordinary Machine are her King of America and Imperial Bedroom. Rufus Wainwright’s Want albums are what secured his place among my favorites. And Belle & Sebastian, who I already loved, put out what could be their two best albums in 2003 and 2006, erasing any doubt that they’re my favorite band.

Looking at this year… will My Morning Jacket, who put out an album that blew me away and currently sits at #2 on my list, find their way into my favorites? Well, I picked up Z, their last critically-acclaimed album, and it’s OK but nowhere close to Evil Urges in my book. So the answer is probably no. But that doesn’t mean Evil Urges isn’t worthy of its spot.

Tift Merritt, on the other hand, is lingering just outside my top ten list of favorite artists. Another album as good as her first three and I’ll have to boot somebody to make room. I feel like three albums isn’t enough to crack a list like that (though I make an exception for Fiona Apple).

Finally, I absolutely hope Elvis Costello has another King of America in him. As great as Momofuku is, it isn’t that. Same goes for Lyle Lovett, R.E.M. and all the rest. There’s a sense sometimes that when artists get fat and happy they lose the spark that helped them produce their very best work, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I look forward to them proving me wrong.

10 thoughts on “Why are our favorites our favorites?

  1. Dana says:

    I look at all of this a bit differently. It seems to me that you have an entry point for each artist. That entry point is not necessarily the artist’s first album or even the most current album. Rather, the entry point is the first exposure you have to the artists. Thus, in each case, to paraphrase NBC’s old ad, “it’s new to you.” So, for example KOA and Imperial were your entry points for Elvis–they were at the time new to you. And so they remain your favorites, while later works somehow pale, not only relative to the entry point albums, but to newer artists. Ditto for Lyle, Ditto for REM, Ditto for Crows, etc., etc.

    Now, I will not argue that Elvis has topped KOA and IB, as they are also my favorite albums (and were also my entry points). But, I do not see the same type of qualitative drop off as you apparently do. I think Spike is a great album. And I was impressed with When I Was Cruel and Delivery Man, and am impressed with Momo. I didn’t get into Juliette Letters, but found Useless Beuaty very satisfying as well (though arguably a bit weaker than others). But my argument would go something like this: if you had never before heard Elvis, and I handed you Momo–I think you would be more impressed than you presently are, and it would rank higher this year. Now maybe it gets ranked lower by you because the bar was raised so high with KOA and IB, or maybe you would have been blown away by Momo, then gone back and picked up other CDs like KOA and IB, and Elvis would then have catapulted into a fave. WHo knows?

    I do know this — Hard Candy was arguably every bit as good as the Crows first album if not better. And yes, you appropriately ranked it high in 2002, but not as high as your more newly discovered Beck. So, if Hard Candy had been your entry point into Crows, would it have topped Beck? Which album do you reach for more frequently today?
    That same year, you ranked Eminem’s 3rd album relatively low. I would argue that this album was, from start to finish, his best album. More mature, but still with some humor. As great as the Marshall Matthers LP was, it had songs that I consider a bit weaker than the stuff on Show. So, again, if your entry point had been Show, do you not think it would have fared better than 5th in 2002?

    03 finds you loving Mayer’s 2nd LP–arguing it seems that it was even better than his debut, but it drops behind your newer faves. Again, if Mayer’s 2nd LP was the entry point, would it have fared better? Also, note that you didn’t even rank DMB’s album (a former fave), noting you had to listen more—I suspect those newer artists were taking up your music listening time:)

    2005 had you raving about Devils and Dust–saying best album since Nebraska–which is high praise indeed. Now, I know you are not a huge fan of the Boss–but I would still venture to say that if your entry point to his music were Devils–it would be ranked higher.

    Anyway–that’s all I got for now:)

  2. Clay says:

    I do think there is merit to the ‘entry point’ theory, though it’s a bit tough to challenge the hypothesis. We can’t really argue that When I Was Cruel or Momofuku would be our favorite Elvis Costello albums had we heard them first… there’s no way to know.

    I guess the question is, are there artists whose best albums are not the first ones you were exposed to? I rank The Road to Ensanada #1 for Lyle Lovett, though my entry point was …and His Large Band. Sea Change is far and away my favorite Beck album, though it was the fifth of his I owned. Tidal was the first Fiona Apple album I heard but it’s my least favorite of the three.

    I do think you have a point about these artists setting a bar that their new releases have to rise to. I usually ask myself if anything on a new album by an old favorite would make it onto a mix tape of the artist’s best work… obviously that’s a harder threshold to cross when they have 10 albums chock full of good music in their discography.

    Looking at the examples you pulled out….

    I actually owned more Beck than Counting Crows when those albums came out, so there wasn’t a clear “newcomer” between the two (yes, the Crows took a lot more time between albums). And I absolutely play Sea Change more than Hard Candy, though I love them both. Looking at the rest of that ’02 list now, I would likely move the Eminem up a spot, because the Badly Drawn Boy hasn’t aged as well.

    In ’03, the Mayer album is definitely strong but it didn’t stand a chance against the three albums I have ranked above it. And I did return Mayer to the #2 spot when he released his next (and best) album… another exception to the “entry” point theory.

    Devils & Dust has grown on me even more since ’05, and would probably jump over Kanye West if I were to reorder things now. I’m not sure what my Springsteen entry point was, and I don’t really have an absolute favorite album of his… so I’m not sure how he fits into the discussion.

  3. Amy says:

    I think you guys are actually in complete agreement here! Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!

    And I appreciate this exchange because it confirms the point I’ve been making for weeks. With so many “entry” albums we cherish, who the hell (well, other than Clay) has the time to devote to listening to new albums and new artists. I love King of America, Fables of the Reconstruction, Hard Candy, The Road to Ensenada, yet Road is the only one I’ve heard in its entirety in recent weeks (months?) If I can’t even listen to all the music I’ve already determined I adore, then why am I looking for the next My Morning Jacket?

    Of course, I know the answer to that question. Because my “entry” to that group may just rock my world in a way that Elvis, REM, Counting Crows or Lyle Lovett once did. And everyone wants to allow for that possibility.

  4. Dana says:

    I think your reordering of Devils and Show supports to some extent my theory: That, at least in the year in which you are ranking, you give deference to the new—then, upon reflection a year or so later, when the new isn’t so new, the reordering comes.

    And the Lyle example is a bit off the mark, as the question would really be where you would hae ranked Ensenada in the year it came out relative to other newer artists (or new to you) in that year.

    Likewise, Beck was still the newer artist when Hard Candy came out, no?

    Anyway, certainly interesting fodder for debate:)

  5. Clay says:

    Beck and Counting Crows both started around the same time, and I had more Beck albums in my collection, so they were pretty much on equal footing.

    I think the Devils & Dust example is also a function of another theory of mine, which is that you can’t really know what you think of an album (or movie) until a few years later. Amy might call this the Grizzly Man theory. 🙂

    Examples of newer artists who I ranked too low in retrospect are Tift Merritt’s Tambourine and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And 2006 was a very strong year, but I feel like Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is too low even at #4.

  6. Amy says:

    Grizzly Man is a first-rate film ;-P

  7. Dana says:

    Which was on YOUR radar screen first, Beck or Crows?

    And yes, certainly, albums, movies, etc, do fade or become enhanced with age…but that isn’t the point. The point is that when, in a given year, you buy 2 new albums by 2 artists and presumably give them equal play through the time of ranking, why does Eminem’s wonderful Show rank lower than Badly Drawn Boys, etc?

    My theory, again, is that YOu give the edge there to the new…

  8. Clay says:

    I owned my first Counting Crows album before my first Beck album, but only by a year or two, and I was a fan of both for six full years before the list in question. That’s why I don’t see a huge difference in them in terms of “new kid” status.

    Badly Drawn Boy and Eminem are also not a great example, because in both cases, I bought their first album in 2000 and their second in 2002. So they were on equal footing in terms of newness. I understand Badly Drawn Boy is “new to you” but he wasn’t new to me.

  9. Dana says:

    Okay, okay…whatever.

  10. Clay says:

    I said good day, sir!

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