/ 30 May 2024

Lies, damned lies and statistics: The many perils of ranking musical taste

South African Singer Miriam Makeba
NFI: The South African musical legend Miriam Makeba. Photo: James Andanson/Getty Images

Last Friday, I took a walk to 44 Stanley, where all Johannesburg’s cool kids hang out. I needed some air and coffee after seeing Apple Music’s top 100 album list. It had pissed me off, to put it mildly.

I overheard a guy sitting at the next table discussing the very list over the phone — it must have been with a friend because he punctuated every sentence with “chommie”. 

As soon as he got off the phone, I introduced myself and he went straight into superstar mode, granting an impromptu interview. 

Their name is Thato Ramoncha. “What is most upsetting to you about this list?” I ask. 

“The arrangement, more than anything. Usher’s Confessions at 95 — come on! And you cannot tell me SOS by SZA, which is at 72, is better than A Seat at The Table by Solange, which is sitting at 93. Impossible!” 

“Why is Ms Nina Simone somewhere in the 80s? Someone tell me who compiled this damn list.” 

Who makes these lists and what are the criteria, indeed.

Apple Music says its team, together with artists such as Pharrell Williams, J Balvin, Maren Morris and Charli XCX, came up with this list. It claims not to have taken into account streaming figures on Apple Music or any other service. It claims it is based on editorial choices but to me it seems it’s just vibes.

There are some obvious gaps and genres missing, snubbing legends across many genres and generations.

Top-whatever lists did not start with Apple’s terrible attempt. Publications such as NME, The Guardian and Rolling Stone have been putting them out for decades, with the latter releasing its 500 greatest songs of all time this year. 

It said, “More than 250 artists, writers, and industry figures helped us choose a list full of historic favourites, world-changing anthems and new classics.” That sounds like a better plan when curating such lists but still biased. By the way, Aretha Franklin’s Respect was number one.

My coffee shop critic, Ramoncha, made a solid point: “These people are called in to curate these lists. They are feeling whatever they are feeling on that day and a certain artist resonates with their feelings at that particular time.

“Similar to when I wake up some mornings and feel like Beyoncé is the best artist out there, and as soon as I get in a taxi, I feel like Miriam Makeba is the best thing that has ever happened to music. 

“I feel like they use the same thinking — which is not fair.” 

The subjective nature of lists is part of what makes them so contentious. Music, an art form rooted in personal and cultural contexts, cannot be objectively ranked in such a manner. 

Lists like these often fail to acknowledge the diverse tastes and historical significance of different genres and artists. Consider the fact that genres such as jazz, blues and classical are often underrepresented. The contributions of artists such as John Coltrane and Bessie Smith (or even Beethoven) are minimised or ignored in favour of more contemporary and mainstream choices.

This is not just a matter of oversight; it reflects a broader trend of devaluing the roots and evolution of music in favour of what’s currently trending — and selling. 

Moreover, lists can have a detrimental impact on how music is consumed and valued. When people see their favourite albums or artists at the bottom of lists or excluded, it can delegitimise their taste and create a skewed perception of what is considered “good” music. 

This can discourage listeners from exploring diverse genres and artists, limiting their experience to what is deemed popular by a select few. 

The influence of rankings extends to the music industry. Artists who frequently appear on them often receive more attention, awards, money and opportunities, further perpetuating their dominance. 

This cycle makes it increasingly difficult for emerging or niche artists to break through and gain recognition, thereby stifling creativity and innovation in the industry.

In the digital age, where streaming platforms offer an almost unlimited catalogue of music, the idea of ranking albums or songs seems outdated.

Listeners have the power to create their own playlists, discover new artists through algorithms tailored to their tastes, and share their musical preferences with a global audience. 

This democratisation of music consumption allows for more inclusive and diverse musical landscapes, that are not confined by the arbitrary rankings of a few individuals.

Ultimately, reliance on lists to define musical greatness is a disservice to the art form. Music is meant to be experienced, felt and interpreted on a personal level. It transcends rankings and categories, touching souls and inspiring minds in ways that can’t be quantified or compared.