Archive for the 'Music' Category

A poor and wretched boy

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

The other day one of my favorite songs came up on shuffle and I could only remember about half the lyrics. It was “The Chimbley Sweep” by The Decemberists, a fun Dickensian ditty about an orphaned chimney sweep who gets propositioned by a widow. The worst part is I’m not even sure I ever knew all the lyrics.

As I get older I’m starting to notice limits to what I can remember. It’s not that there is a limit to space in my mind (I’m convinced that the brain is malleable enough to store vast amounts of knowledge when needed), but that I’m exposing myself to so much incoming data that I’m letting too much get forgotten. And with music there’s a particular impasse: do I hold onto my cherished favorite tunes or do I relentlessly search for new ones?

Many people give up by my age. They hold onto the songs of their teenage or college years and barely notice anything new except to deride the sorry state of music (the kids keep putting out shittier music, apparently). I know a few who even fill their iPods with music no older than Haddaway’s “What is Love.”

This is somewhat understandable. Music is an emotional medium. We attach memories and feelings to songs regardless of whether the actual song is happy or not.* For me, my comfort music is early-90s pop and alternative (even Haddaway). I also have deep attachment to mid-60s pop because it was my obsession during my teenage years thanks to stumbling onto The Beatles just as I began listening to what I was hearing. When I retreat to heal mental wounds, these are what I retreat to for soothing.

At the same time I fall into the other camp, the new music obsessives. The ones who are always searching for a new experience. There’s a moment with some songs, just after hearing it once or twice, before you have every part memorized,  and you play the song again and there’s this feeling of bliss (or melancholia, sometimes the feeling of sadness or nostalgia is just as strong). And then you play the song to death; but like a hard drug its effect diminishes over time, encouraging continuous pursuit of music that makes you high. There’s even scientific proof that I’m not the only one who feels euphoria with music.

This second group is where music lovers start but eventually age and memory slow down the rate of absorption…sometimes. It used to be there rate of new music being produced was low enough that one could go an entire life in pursuit of new music. Diehard fans like John Peel could pull this off when the barrier to releasing music was still high.

Nowadays it’s almost like there’s more musicians than listeners and more genres than words in a dictionary. And the technology that makes it easier to find music…makes it easier to find music and it’s a whole new form of information overload. My Amazon wishlist – one that consists of only music, has 372 items of albums and tracks, and even if I bought them all I doubt I’d listen to every minute of every recording.

So there’s the songs I already know and enjoy, songs I love but haven’t heard enough (like “Chimbley Sweep”) and songs I haven’t heard but may like just as much. And the latter group can be split into songs that have already been released and I may know about, and songs just being released but I just don’t have the time to process yet. Sometimes this means months or even years go by before I get to great songs that everyone else has played to death.

As a result I have an grotesquely complex system for managing my music:

  1. My iTunes library, which has 21,160 tracks, 1,220 of which have a play count of 0.
    1. Playlists of newly downloaded tracks for absorption sorted by year and month,
    2. A favorite songs playlist,
    3. And about 19,000 songs I haven’t heard in over a year.
  2. Channels for finding new music:
    1. Satellite radio
    2. Friend recommendations
    3. Music posted to Tumblr
    4. Bookmarks of music videos on YouTube
  3. Rdio for listening to whole albums or tracks again to make sure they are good, with several dozen albums and tracks queued up
  4. Three Amazon wishlists for music (regular music, showtunes, and comedy albums)

Last.fm used to be in that mix, both for finding new music and for rediscovering tracks I’ve already heard. But I got rid of that for different reasons.**

In case you haven’t noticed, this is an absurd situation. And probably very familiar.

As part of a larger effort to curb my time wasted on sorting the information that comes my way every day, I’ve instituted a few changes:

  • Canceling my Rdio subscription (this was partly a “why the hell am I paying for this?” decision). It was nice to have the opportunity to listen to whole tracks before purchase but it required yet more time to listen to new music. I may go back later after I’ve reacquainted with my existing library.
  • When I had Rdio I would listen to music there and then mark music I really liked as “High Priority” on my Amazon wishlist. So now I removed all but those high priority tracks. And from no on only music that I respond strongly to gets added.
  • In addition to my favorite songs playlist, I also have a “Songs to Sing” list for songs I want to memorize. I also have a heavy rotation list where I dump music I listen to regularly, and a smart playlist that pulls up highly-rated tracks that haven’t been listened to in over a year.
  • More confidence that I’ll still hear great new music through merely paying attention and the acceptance that I won’t get to hear everything and that’s okay.
  • I deleted half of my iTunes library.

Okay that last one isn’t true. The cost of storing the music is far lower than the convenience of having all that music to listen whenever I want.

No matter what happens, music will always play a major role in my life. Most of my waking life will be filled with its sweet sounds, and my job is to be open to new experiences and cherish my favorites – without going insane.


* For many years I thought Blind Melon’s “No Rain” was a happy song, and it made me happy, until I heard the lyrics. And Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” has such an uppity beat it still puts me in a good mood despite being about a new marriage already falling apart.
** As much as I loved going through statistics of my listening habits, Last.fm only offered cursory opportunities for me to find new music. It might just be how my brain works, but I only occasionally found new music because of the site’s ability to match my listening habits with my friends (Andy McKee’s Art of Motion and Ratatat comes to mind). But that wasn’t why I stopped using the site. It was taxing my attention – I was worrying about things like what music was showing up for my friends to see and what that might say about me to others. I tried to just not care but I couldn’t help massaging the data to improve my image, never mind the likelihood that no one cared anyway. So I deleted all my data and stopped tracking my listening. While I occasionally wish I could go through that data, the freedom to not care is more beneficial.

Why “I’m a Believer” is the greatest pop song

Monday, January 5th, 2009

After listening to thousands upon thousands of songs, it becomes clear that some songs stand out more than others to the point that most of the others aren’t worth more than one listen.

A great pop song makes it very hard to not sing along: you want to be a part of it and share in what emotion is being expressed. A “pop” song, by definition, should be about something that everyone can relate to – that’s why most songs are about love and its various aspects.

There’s no end of unhappy songs about love, but one shouldn’t listen to those all the time. A surprising number are about being “in love”, meaning that they’re about people already in relationships. My second favorite song, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell is such a song. But that can just as easily make someone unhappy as, say, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” by the Thirteenth Floor Elevators.

No, a great pop song should inspire hope - so that there’s something uplifting when feeling down.

Taking all of this into consideration, I stand behind calling The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” the greatest pop song. It’s about love, specifically about falling in love. For me at least, it makes me want to sing out loud every time. The person doesn’t actually get the girl, he may never get the girl, but seeing her certainly lifted his spirits and made him rethink his preconceived notions about love.

I’ve felt that way before, and I’m sure you have too.

There’s far more to loving than what’s in “I’m a Believer” – but the final criteria for a great pop song is that it should be relatable to anyone 12 years old and up. I say 12 because that’s just the cusp of the teen years, when we start discovering what it means to want another person. We may not have understood sex, and certainly not how to have a real relationship with another person, but at 12 it’s not unreasonable to fall madly in love with someone else. Conversely, “I’m a Believer” rings true for anyone who’s ever had a bad relationship, or spurned by others.

“I’m a Believer” was written by Neil Diamond and the best version was recorded by The Monkees.

A note about bias in choosing the song:

The three songs mentioned in this post all come from 1960s pop music. I do have a bias towards that era, as the foundation of my musical tastes was discovering the Beatles  at 13. However, the vast majority of the best pop songs were written and/or recorded sometime from 1964-1968. Also, I listen to nearly every genre of music, and have favorites in all of them. My iTunes playlist of favorite tunes currently has 839 songs (and growing), all of which are nearly equally as good. “I’m a Believer” just happens to be just that much better than the rest.

One last thing: because I don’t want to totally come off as a music snob (even if everyone else thinks so), here’s a few songs on my “Favorite Song” list that a typical music snob would think embarrassing to like:

  • Christina Aguilera “Genie in a Bottle”
  • Dee-Lite “Groove is in the Heart”
  • Monica “Don’t Take It Personal (Just One of Dem Days)”
  • Pointer Sisters “Automatic”
  • SoulDecision “Faded”
  • Stereo MCs “Connected”

Think another song is the greatest?

Bloc Party’s new album Intimacy

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

The English band Bloc Party pulled a Radiohead-like stunt with their new album, Intimacy, by releasing it online early to try and catch all those people who got ahold of A Weekend in the City before its official release (no, I wasn’t one of them).

Here’s a link to buy the album. You can get just the digital version or also get the CD when it’s released in stores.

I like Bloc Party, and I don’t like CDs anymore, so I took the bait. They somehow manage to release the right album for the right time in my life.

This album is fucking brilliant. The songs on this album have all the best qualities of the first two albums, Silent Alarm and Weekend. This rocks hard, dances hard, and has lyrics of authenticity. And, my god, the hooks! I have a soft spot for songs with strong hooks, and Intimacy has some of the meatiest. Not only that, the shimmering guitar riffs are like Ride on speed. The world needs more songs of alienation that get your body moving.

The album is going to need some evangelizing over here in the States to get people to listen to this. It won’t be hard – they just have to listen. The time has come to get rid of all those crappy emo rock bands with the whining vocals and fake sincerity.

The plan was to have a post with a song-by-song opinion of the album, but “talking about music is like dancing about architecture” so I relented out of politeness.

The Best Music

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

I used to think that great songs needed complexity and a deep meaning.

Now I know that the best songs are honest and with as little filler as possible. And yet, my inner elitist is amazed at how many great songs are just about girls.

It just jumped out at me: of my top three favorite songs, none are from my hands-down, favorite band, The Beatles. While they created some of the most thoughtful, and fun music of all time – they didn’t write one song that can beat those three. I get more pleasure from “I’m a Believer” than any other song – it’s positive and hopeful and has the best hooks.

John Lennon Oct. 9th 1940 – Dec. 8th 1980

Saturday, December 8th, 2007

Today marks the 27th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon. May he rest in peace.

If you don’t know much about John Lennon, go here, then here, then here, then buy these (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14), and this, and this, and this.  That’s only a start but you should get the picture if you’ve digested all of those.

Why remember his death? Well we are all defined by the culture we were first exposed to, and music forms an integral part of that, and our identity as humans. And if you grew up in the western civilization – particularly in an english-speaking country, almost every aspect of both popular music and derivatives of rock was either invented or popularized by the Beatles. It’s in our cultural makeup.

I also hope it will inspire an artist in the future to create great music.

Liam Lynch Plug

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

Liam Lynch’s most recent album, How To Be A Satellite is a great little album that I fear is not getting the exposure it deserves. All anyone seems to know about him is he did that really short song a few years back…whatever. I had forgotten about him – his only major-label album, Fake Songs, wasn’t all that great – the songs weren’t that interesting, the singing was flat, and the music felt like he knew all the theory and where to put breaks and hooks – they sounded like he wrote them for a class on pop music instead of being the real deal.

Not so with this album.

While the songs don’t have a cohesive lyrical or musical theme, most of them stand up well on ther own. Lynch has a clear appreciation for melody and a catchy hook – and for someone like me who rates a certain English band above everyone else, I’m immediately attracted to his music. And the three best tracks – “Crow,” “On Waves Low And High” and the title track – are slow pieces that have the most polish and emotional impact. They’re also the three songs that I heard on his podcast, Lynchland, that made me want to buy the album.

It would have been nice if the album had any flow between the tracks, but I’m guessing he wasn’t trying to do that. Lynch seems to me the ideal 21st-century artist – independent, song-based rather than album-based, and less a musician and more a hyperactive artist with the skill and interest to be active in multiple disciplines. Music is just his home base, where he started, and where he’ll revolve around.

Similar artists: The Beatles (duh), Bob Dylan (duh), Paul McCartney, The Zombies, Frank Zappa, Eagles of Death Metal, Todd Rundgren, Beck, Violent Femmes, Wire…sorry, these are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head, but they’re all good starting points (and the may say more about my musical interests than music similar to Liam Lynch).

The Most Important Album Of The Rock Area

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

Pepper-A
This is a few days after the anniversary, but hey, what’s a few days to forty years?

Forty years ago, on June 1st, 1967, The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (well, in the U.K. – here in the states it came out on June 3rd). It’s hard to tell if it’s their best album – about a half dozen of their albums are among the best rock albums ever – but the influence of this album on popular music is massive. Its timing was perfect; although everyone nowadays thinks June of ’67 was the height of the psychedelic era, but it really peaked months earlier. However, by that summer, the effects of the free-whelling social experimentation, drug experimentation, and honest belief in peace had permeated the youth culture. Students who had been waiting for classes to end to come to San Francisco finally could come (and therefore ruin the truly peaceful hippy movement that had been existing.

Nevermind the hippies. This period was most important for liberalizing Western culture and allowing for the multi-culture, mainstream-less society we enjoy today, where people can join what ever sub-, sub-sub-, and sub-sub-sub-culture they choose without ridicule.

Back to the album. There’s the gorgeous cover, the innovative inclusion of album lyrics (apparently a first), the pervasive artiness of the package (how about that cut-out mustache?). Sadly, that great sleeve and its contents are no longer available. Notice I haven’t said anything about the music yet? Sgt. Pepper is one big art project.

The songs on the album, however, are what makes this such an important release. It’s a rock album through-and-through, yet few songs can be classified as rock. It’s also a one of the best examples of a “concept album,” yet only three songs are in any way related to the ‘concept.’ There are thirteen songs on the album, but they’re all really compositions. Quite a few songs are slight in the sense that they can easily be throwaways, yet they fit perfectly with the rest of the songs. Finally, every song has a different style to it – even the title songs are different – and yet every song flows into the next. Chamber music to Indian raga to rag-top-insane-organ-whatever-you-could-call-it.

After Sgt. Pepper, the rock album was never quite the same. Artists really began to treat it as an art form in itself.

As for myself, my feelings for Sgt. Pepper are somewhat complex. The same time I listened to the album every night I was also reading The Catcher In The Rye, so my memories of both are intertwined. Also, while I enjoy the album as a whole the one song that really stands out is “A Day In The Life.” It belongs with the other classic songs from this period of The Beatles: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” and “I Am The Walrus.” From the standpoint of technical mastery these four songs cannot be matched. More was innovated and there was more imagination involved than in almost all other pop songs ever produced. These songs are great for reasons almost entirely different from all of the other Beatles’ great songs: stuff like “Yesterday,” “Something,” and “She Loves You” will be remembered for their lyrics and musical tightness as songs.

Now that I’ve spent 565 words and said little of any weight, I still love The Beatles, their music, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.