> but a lot of what I've read ends up being marvel because every time I try to get into DC I get absolutely lost on trying to find a continuity.
What if I told you that some DC readers say the EXACT SAME THING about Marvel? Marvel has had pretty much the same continuity since the 1960s. DC had 2 major reboots that let readers start fresh, post-Crisis (1985) and New 52 (2011). But none of that matters. How are you getting "absolutely lost"? Are you hyper-focusing on overall continuity before having read many of the important stories? Don't do that. That's a skill that should have been learned from reading Marvel too. Let it all come together over time. These companies aren't doing anything DRASTICALLY different from each other storytelling-wise. They are both decades-old superhero shared-universes with thousands of characters with ongoing continuity published in monthly/bi-weekly installments and the occasional crossover/event.
> I read batman year one, long Halloween and so on, but all the reading order lists make absolutely no sense and prompt you to read things like the death in the family right after
Why/how does that make no sense? Is it because you didn't read Jason Todd's "origin story" in Batman: Second Chances (which takes place in the issues surrounding Year One)? Does that mean you'd want to read Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying for Tim Drake too? Are you just saying that YOU, personally, require more backstory than those lists suggest? What's wrong with ComicBookHerald's Batman Reading Order? Is that too much backstory? How are they/we supposed to know the exact amount of "important" backstory you're looking for? You should list examples that you've encountered.
> Why do no lists have this and how am I supposed to know what's going on?
Because there's so much of it, it's not all good, and it can usually be explained in a single sentence: Batman steers street hoodlum away from life of crime by training him to be Robin. I mean, how have others been managing to get it? Likely by understanding that comics don't follow a perfect story through-line unless you read everything (not recommended either). You can either (1) wiki the missing information or (2) ride along. Some people don't even recommend reading Death in the Family. The well-written, self-contained, Batman-centric story arcs are much more interesting than his continuity/Bat-family, imo.
> I'm not asking for a grand list where they all fit, just a skeleton of important stories that don't jump around.
Those two lists are not as different as you think. You want (1) no jumping around and (2) just a "skeleton". That's still a long list with plenty of subjective input about which stories are considered "important". For example, are every story about each Robin, Batgirl, Nightwing, GCPD chars, Detective Comics characters, rogues, etc. important to BATMAN's story? What if Batman isn't Bruce Wayne anymore?
There's also an approach to comics that involves reading just the popular/acclaimed stories and ONLY reading all of the in-between stories if you're interested. For example, you might not care about one of the 4 Robins enough to read more about them. There might be enough recaps/re-tellings that make the original story redundant/unnecessary.
Keep in mind, this is just ONE character at ONE publisher. You might spend years reading most of Batman's stories. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of series about other characters or even from other publishers yet to be discovered that you might like even more.
These are the "modern essentials" I recommend to new readers (Black bold titles were added to flesh the original list out for you):
There are plenty more good Batman stories, but at least this will give you some direction.
Forget about continuity, universes, timelines, etc; it's all very confusing, even to creators/fans. The best way to jump in is to just start reading. Check out the /r/DCcomics sidebar.
How much time do you have for comics? More time = more comprehensive recommendations. Regardless, don’t try to read everything. First appearances & early origins are not always good starting points—older comics can be an acquired taste for modern audiences. Remember, there are so many other great characters/stories/publishers to explore (and not all comics are about superheroes).
Think about your favorite stories from other media. What you might like to read in a comic? Are you more interested in good storytelling or becoming a DC knowledge nerd?
Creative teams change often and characters get re-worked e.g. I never cared for Aquaman until Geoff Johns’ run. Focus on well-received and relatively self-contained stories. Pick an interesting character/team and seek their “greatest hits”. You may encounter the occasional unexplained reference/character/event—just ride along (Wiki if necessary).
Comixology for digital. instocktrades for physical (US). ISBNS for price aggregate.
Modern DC characters/teams:
Alternatively, if you want to skip to the newest stuff, read the Rebirth event (2016) and then any series’ Rebirth #1.
Events/crossovers can be fun and/or tedious. They are most appreciated by readers well-versed in relevant continuity. Generally, the best non-event comics integrate these seamlessly or avoid them entirely (notwithstanding editorial/executive mandates). Regardless, you may want to familiarize with major plot points.
Modern DC events/crossovers:
Discover your preferences and let them inform your next comic selection. Do you like older/newer comics? Weird concepts? Super-smart meta-analysis and social commentary? Family-friendly content? Hyper-violence? Male/female protagonists? Humor? Horror? Have you noticed that a specific artist, writer, and/or creative team consistently produces content you like? Follow these instincts.
Suggestions to improve the list are welcome.
In suggested reading order (*bolded = great Joker moments):
There's plenty more good stories beyond these "essentials", but this will give you some direction.