The Mid-year Best-of List Is a Travesty

If you’ve been alive between Christmas and New Years, you’ve probably read a Best of the Year list. Best movies of the year. Best albums. Art. Social-media trends. Anything, really. Last year, according to The New York Times, Víkingur Ólafsson’s recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” the actor Bella Ramsey, and a sushi-and-scuba video game called Dave the Diver were worthy of your time and attention. These annual rundowns arrive during a period of reflection, when a full year’s worth of human art and industry is about to recede into history.

A new take on this list has now emerged: the Best So Far list. The best books of the year so far. The best movies so far, best songs so far, best anime series so far. The best wristwatches so far, even. What does it mean to offer an account of the best culture of … the first five months of 2024? So-farness makes for arbitrary timing, and endless repetition. You and I and everyone else live in the present, and we may wonder what television show, comic book, or quick-service-restaurant bowl has become the most worthy of our limited attention in all the time that has elapsed since the last best-of list came out—whether that happened in December, on a day in early spring, or just last Tuesday afternoon. A Best So Far list can arrive at any moment. A Best So Far culture has no lower limit to its attention span.

Traditional best-of lists have always provided an actual service to ordinary people. We have bounded time, and the sea of culture is vast. All of us are doomed to miss most of the films and video games (and wristwatches?) on offer, and we could certainly use some help in choosing how to spend our time and money. Even if you don’t ever buy or consume something that you read about on such a list, it has at least given you some literacy in what’s current.

These lists also benefit the outlets that publish them. Best-of lists are predictable, and newspapers and magazines can plan for them in advance. They’re light, easy reads that bring in traffic. They come up high in search results, because everyone seems to Google for the “best” of whatever it is they seek. And such stories are also an editorial indulgence, because they forgo the work of making a substantiated aesthetic judgment, replacing it with an annotated to-do list.

Because each outlet’s best-of lists are fundamentally in competition with every other’s, the timing of their publication has been shifting. Like state political parties vying to hold the first presidential primary, the best-of listers have long been jockeying to claim the earliest publication date that can plausibly be construed as “year-end.” Thus rankings that once appeared in the torpid week after Christmas have drifted back into the early weeks of December, and then to Thanksgiving, where they fused into another journalistic indulgence—the holiday-shopping list. But with the innovation of “Best So Far,” the guardrails have fallen off completely.

These lists have rules, and those rules have consequences. A best-of list is finite, and may be ranked or otherwise enumerated (best family film, best retro dive watch). Bestness assumes a value without naming it: the most moving or accomplished, perhaps, but more likely, the least controversial. Who could possibly object to naming Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga the sixth-best film so far this year? The lists typically offer a brief blurb about each selection, which absolves both writer and reader of the messy business of evaluating substance. Dune: Part Two is “sprawling”; Billie Eilish “bop[s]” in “Birds of a Feather”; read Marie-Helene Bertino’s novel Beautyland for its “funny-sad” vibes.

So far, best-of-so-far lists seem constrained to mid-year publication dates. But they’re already getting pulled back across the calendar, indulging outlets’ old compulsion to give the quickest long view—to post their retrospective first. I found a couple dozen that came out just last week, presumably in anticipation of the end of June, 2024’s halfway point. But not every outlet could manage this restraint. Some Best So Far lists appeared in May. Esquire rationalized an early-April take on the best horror books so far, given that “our freshly unstable world is proving fertile ground for the growth of new budding nightmares.” Vanity Fair published a best-movies-so-far list way back in March, marking the end of the first quarter on the grounds that “the year in film is off to a rocky start,” presumably necessitating a summary of counterfactuals to that arbitrary account. Earlier Best So Far lists can be found—the best hip-hop albums and movies, as of the start of February—but those seem likely to have been pure search-engine-optimization plays. And then there’s Kyle Orland’s paean to a one-dimensional version of Pac Man called Paku Paku—the best game he’d played in 2024 so far—which was published by Ars Technica on January 4, after two business days of 2024 had elapsed.

This last article, whose so-far headline was surely written as a joke, encapsulates the genre’s risks. Paku Paku is a simple take on the classic, played in a straight line. Orland uses it as an opportunity to celebrate the “zen design of small games.” He discusses the creator’s inspiration from classic games, and his attempt to push that simplicity to its limits, both as a way to create new work quickly and as an artistic goal in itself. These are value judgments about what cultural work demands and deserves. But the “best so far” headline, whatever its tone, repackages art criticism in the language of internet thirst. Orland even calls the game “perfect filler for the usual post-holiday drought of major game releases in early January,” as if its best-so-far-ness had been determined by the simple absence of alternatives.

That’s just where these new best-of-lists are headed. Rankings, constantly updated, absolve us of the burden of discernment. Streaming services give instructions when they present most-watched lists; even magazines like this one offer readers guidance in the form of most-popular reads. With so much media and so little time, why would anybody turn away from free advice? Alas, best-of-so-far lists do something worse than merely telling us what to watch, play, read, eat, listen to, or otherwise consume: They beg amnesty on the part of critics, whose purported job is to assess the culture based on expertise and taste. Such criticism still exists, but the fact that best-of lists have colonized the early summer marks, in a small but important way, the exhaustion that now afflicts media and their audience alike. It’s less work to sum things up than it is to break them down.

The Atlantic

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