A friend of mine texted me the other day to tell me that he’d taken the morning off work to sit in a coffee shop and work on his top 100 albums list. If this seems like a waste of PTO to you, then you and I don’t speak the same language, because my first reaction was intense jealousy. My second reaction was to start working on a list of my own.
Now, as anyone who’s ever tried to compile a top 100 list of any kind knows, it’s no easy task. Whittling down all of the (for example) albums you’ve ever listened to into a list that represents your tastes fairly and accurately requires a clear mind and a disciplined approach. It’s easy to be intimidated by the sheer scale of the effort or fall prey to hard-to-account-for biases. If you’re going to do the thing, you need a system.
This is where I come in. I spent years perfecting my list-making methods to ensure that, whenever I sat down to hammer out a new list or update an old one, I get the purest possible results.
And now I’m passing the results of all those years of patient practice on to you.
Know what you’re about, son.
Nothing kills a list faster than having poorly defined criteria, so it’s critical that you establish a clear set of rules that your top 100 list is going to abide by. If you’re trying to come up with the “greatest” albums of all-time, you might weigh your personal enjoyment less than cultural impact, but the opposite would be true if you’re simply trying to name your 100 favorites. I know people who have gone as far as creating rubrics to determine the order of entries on a list, but a few key questions are usually enough to get on solid footing.
If I were stranded on a desert island, which of these albums would I wish I had more?
If you told me I could never watch either of these movies ever again, which would I miss more?
Which of these books am I more likely to read again?
Now, it may be that these questions don’t work for the kind of list you’re building. That’s fine. The important thing is that you have some guiding principles to help you make the tough calls that you’ll inevitably run into.
Be generous (at first).
Any good top 100 starts with a net cast as widely as possible, so when you sit down to brainstorm, be liberal in what you allow onto your initial list. If it pops into your head, write it down, even if you know that it has almost no chance of ending up in the final 100. If you end up with an initial list of 300, so be it. Having a bigger pool to draw from makes it less likely that you’ll leave out something that deserves a spot, plus seeing all the things that fall firmly into the “not-going-to-make-it” category makes it easier to establish those that are truly in the running.
Think in batches.
The hardest part of making a top 100 list comes after you’ve established the 10 or 15 entries at the top. Your absolute favorites are likely to be more obvious than numbers 51–60, for instance, and trying to split those hairs can be difficult. Plus, staring at 200+ items and trying to carve it down and order it can be so intimidating that you’re put off making the list before you even start.
Whatever you do, don’t start at the top and try to build the list one entry at a time; that’s a recipe for disaster. Instead, sort your huge list into smaller batches using your criteria (and your gut). For a top 100 list, you might make a bunch of batches of 20, trying to cluster together entries that are likely to end up next to each other on your final list.
Once you’ve gotten every entry in a batch, you can start the hard work of making direct comparisons and shifting things around as needed, but you’re able to do it on a much more limited scale and keep from getting overwhelmed.
Let it soak, then revisit it.
Another potentially intimidating element of list making is the sense of finality that accompanies writing or typing an entry next to a given number. But unless you also plan on chiseling your list onto stone tablets, there’s no need to worry that much if, say, The Usual Suspects is really, truly your 48th favorite movie or whatever. Treat every list you make as a living document. Once you get down a draft, let it lie for about a week, and then take another look at it. Chances are, you’ll notice that some stuff seems out of place. No biggie; just make a few adjustments, rinse, repeat. Eventually, you’ll shape it into something that feels a little more solid.
And that’s it, fellow dorks. It’s gonna take time, but now you’ve got a blueprint for crafting your very own top 100 list. I’ve done everything but make the list for you; now get to scribbling.