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Colleen Sheehy, Published January 09 2013

NxNW: Obsessed with the best (of)

Welcome to a new feature of The Forum, NxNW – a capacious exploration of music, art and culture.

Thank you to publisher Bill Marcil Jr., for inviting me to write occasionally on artistic expressions that are compelling, bewildering, stirring and thought-provoking, and to share my reactions and questions with readers.

I chose NxNW as the title as a counterpart to the SxSW (South by Southwest) conferences/festivals in Austin, Texas, that have grown into huge, annual stock-takings of music, technology, film and ideas. I also like recognizing geographic locations as a base from which we view the world as well as from where we experience our own local and regional cultures.

So to begin, I share my year-end quandaries, irritations and opinions about 2012 best-of lists in popular music, when every music website, publication, and writer compiles lists of the very best releases of the year.

Popular music has been my sport of choice since I was a kid, when the Beatles helped me find joy and deal with some tough family experiences, and when my sister and I undertook a spontaneous petition of our St. Louis Park, Minn., neighborhood to argue for the supremacy of KDWB over the other local pop music station, WDGY.

But unlike sports, where scores clearly determine winners and champions, pop music (and all art) rests on subjective opinions, tastes, sensibilities and exposure. Sales and Billboard charts tell a limited, if objective, story.

I find myself obsessed with year-end lists, whether from professional music critics or by popular vote. I love to gauge my own best-of list against these others. I find my practice laughable because I rarely agree with any other lists, and I bet most others don’t either.

Your best-of list is a personal imprint of your year’s experiences. What music were you exposed to via radio, iTunes, YouTube, Saturday Night Live, concerts and clubs, local records stores, friends, commercials, movies? Your best-of list is about how you felt the year, what pricked your ears, what was on your mind, what touched you, what stimulated you, what took you down new streams, what merged with earlier currents of music that you’ve followed and loved.

When I read other best-of lists, I do so with the knowledge that these compilers spend all year surveying the vast array of music and listen to much more than I do. I cheered when Rolling Stone magazine recognized Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” as the No. 1 record of 2012 for speaking to experiences of the Great Recession. I laughed when I reviewed Pitchfork’s and NPR’s top choices and didn’t even recognize 90 percent of the artists and albums (am I that out of it?!). I have been mystified that one of my absolute favorites of the year – The Walkmen’s “Heaven” – hardly registered on most lists.

Despite my disagreements, I believe in the value of our own best-of lists. They are testament to our engagement with art and our deeply felt responses to the creativity, ideas, words, beats and rhythms of our time.

So here is my very idiosyncratic, eclectic best-of list based on my idiosyncratic, eclectic listening experiences of 2012, not in ranked order. May the arguing begin.

• Trampled by Turtles, “Stars and Satellites”

• Howler, “America Give Up”

• The Walkmen, “Heaven”

• Bruce Springsteen, “Wrecking Ball”

• Bob Dylan, “Tempest”

• Patti Smith, “Banga”

• The Killers, “Battle Born”

• Titus Andronicus, “Local Business”

• Metric, “Synthetica”

• Fun. “Some Nights”

• Beach House, “Bloom”

• Cat Power, “Sun:

• Bruno Mars, “Unorthodox Jukebox”

• Dum Dum Girls, “End of Daze”

• The Raveonettes, “Observator”

• Lana Del Rey, “Born to Die”

• Sharon Van Etten, “Tramp”

• The Shins, “Port of Morrow”

• Iris DeMent, “Sing the Delta”

• The Cactus Blossoms, “The Cactus Blossoms”

• The Minnesota Beatles Project Vol. 4

• Paul D. Miller/DJ Spooky, “Ice Music” (with the Reno Philharmonic).

• Best Earlier Release Revisited: “Read Music/Speak Spanish by Desaparecidos” (2002)

• Best Live Release: “The Pogues in Paris”

Colleen Sheehy is the director and CEO of the Plains Art Museum