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NPR Arts & Life

Obama's Year-End Best-Of List

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yes, this is the season for all of those best of 2019 lists - best books, best movies, best music, best everything. And there is one person whose end-of-the-year playlist is becoming increasingly anticipated. This is the playlist from former president and now music critic Barack Obama. Jay Ruttenberg of the comedy journal The Lowbrow Reader is very eager to see this list, and he's with us this morning. Hi, Jay.

JAY RUTTENBERG: Hi, how are you?

GREENE: So the way you write about this, it's like the most exciting thing that happens over your holidays. What are you excited about?

RUTTENBERG: Well, I mean, I wouldn't go that far.

GREENE: OK.

RUTTENBERG: But I am excited to (laughter) - I am very excited to see the president - or the former president's lists. I am a music critic myself, and this is sort of the time that music critics around the world look back to, you know, as we all know, to the records that have come out during that time. In recent years, there's fewer and fewer music critics, and, in a very strange way, Obama has - I wouldn't say rushed, but he's come in to fill a hole a little bit with these sort of nerdy lists he issues every year. And he does a really good job with them.

GREENE: What does he do well? What makes him stand out as a music critic?

RUTTENBERG: I think the thing that's most surprising about his lists is that he looks for a lot of fresh faces. It's not just the sort of usual - it doesn't feel very PR'd. It feels like he - and maybe I'm wrong, but it really - you get a sense that he's actually drawing from what he listens to.

And there's a lot of new artists that, even if you're paying a lot of attention to music, you might not have heard of before, which is kind of impressive and very unusual for a former president. And there also - there's - it shows, really, he has really (unintelligible) tastes. So there's, you know, hip-hop. There's rock music. There's world music - it really goes across the spectrum.

GREENE: I mean, these are such politically polarizing times. Do you think it's good for sales to be on the list of a politician?

RUTTENBERG: Well, I guess so. I mean, I don't know if anybody buys music anymore. I will say, I mean, you allude to that. I think, you know, he was doing these lists, to my knowledge, throughout his presidency, and it was cute. It was, you know, seemed almost part of the role that a lot of presidents will play.

I do think that it's just been the last couple of years that people have really started to cling to the lists as, you know, some - there - maybe some nastier forces have maybe taken over the country. I think Obama's been silent in many ways. And these lists can almost feel like hostage statements sent in from - you don't hear much from him, and then you hear these lists. Some people think it's frivolous, but I actually think it's showing that culture is important and that it's, you know, it's the country of Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan and not just some other less pleasant people.

GREENE: Jay Ruttenberg of The Lowbrow Reader talking to us about Barack Obama's annual music playlist, which we are awaiting. Thanks so much for joining us this morning.

RUTTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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