As 2017 draws to a close, columns will be festooned with lists and accolades. I myself will more than likely compose such a list. However, I can only urge you to read this or anything I write for that matter with two things: An open mind and a discerning ear. The other bombardment we suffer through daily are the traps laid known as "clickbait", where just the simple hook can drag you through a pond of muck you would barely glance at in reality. It is for that reason (and with a great deal of thought), I present this list.
Face the Music.
Music is everywhere. It is omnipresent. What is not everywhere? Taste. Look, our tastes are different and that is what makes us different. When we find similar likes - we commune. When we disagree about some artist, album, style of music - the real conversation begins. Be straightforward about what you like and what you dislike - but be ready to defend your choice with civility. When you are with friends and you do not like their music, just tolerate it. We have reached the point since the 2001 invention of Napster where we cherry-pick everything, it's time to better listen to music that our minds may quickly want to turn off.
The Crowd is Wrong.
The idea of crowdsourcing is troubling in music to me. Just take a glimpse at any three-day festival and you can see how many artists are on the bill because they put an exciting show, or they have personality or stage presence. While these are extremely important, those facets are simply not everything. Say you watch your favorite artist on TV with the sound down - it is as compelling? The same can be said for the environment where we hear music. If I am on a sunny beach, with my feet in the water and surrounded by a complete nest of loving, similar people - this will likely be a positive experience. However, not all music is made for sunny beaches and (more importantly) crowds of people.
Most music and musical taste are individual. Therefore, the same music (and not necessarily the memory of the aforementioned experience) should really be experienced alone. Look, I do not want to draw ire but music is generally best when it lets us draw something from it. While I love indie rock, let's face facts, there are legions of indie rockers that we thought we could not live without just five years ago - who you would likely skip on your playlist today.
While I do not know the particular reason, I would guess it is because we (I blame myself too) gathered some experience with the music and are always looking to recapture that. Five years later, alone and confronted with 100 songs and even more experiences under our belts - we simply pass on it.
Stop playlisting in full, start playlisting in parts.
The idea of a playlist is one of my favorite things personally. A great playlist says so much about you and is honestly like you being tapped to fly a 747 full of people home. Too many of our playlists are assembled with ourselves in mind. When honestly, we should be thinking: "Would I play it for someone else?" So, with that I would like you dear reader to start breaking up your playlists into mix and match segments. Then you can flip from one playlist to the other, or use just that song you hear that day that piques your interest to dive into that lucky artist's catalog. However, I think this should be totally random. No more "Afternoon" or "Chill" lists. Instead, be absurd and ridiculous.
The Spanish Inquisition!
The famous Monty Python skit is solely based on the gleeful scream of "Noooooobody expects The Spanish Inquisition!" That is how you can really expand your horizons. Pandora with all its DNA and mindful programming thinks it is random - but it is not. Seriously, do you really want a computer to know how you think about music? No, of course, not. So skip "fear" and go with "Surprise" and "Ruthless Efficiency."
These playlists you are making, these mixes you are working on - you need to have those who you want to hear it thinking two things: "What is this song?" and "I wonder what they will play next." If you lose the curiosity, you lose the listener. So think about larger connections and smaller blends - but if you ever find that one song sounds a little too much like the other...
The Left Turn
In DJ speak, "The Left Turn" is where you radically affect your mix by changing direction. The same should go for anything you are listening to. In the fantastic book, "Love Saves The Day: The History of American Dance Culture 1970-1979," the DJs who contributed often talk about how they could spin records in a variety of different places with roughly a handful of records. In fact, many of the pioneering DJs publish their lists in the book.
Now, just take a handful of CDs and only listen to those. See how some songs affect you and perhaps others do not. While you are experiencing this, note how well you can pick out the ones you really like and put them together. I know this sounds like an exercise in futility with all the music we have in the world and on the internet, but the music you hold in your hands is your music.
Now, out of these chosen tracks ask yourself two questions: "Which ones did I enjoy for familiarity?" and "What surprised me?" Sounds ridiculous but those surprises, those "left turns" are often what allow us as listeners and consumers to always want something new. That sense of renewal is what will draw you even further into the music you own and make you want even more unfamiliar music as well.
Embrace the Unfamiliar
With so much music being readily available, your connection from an item piquing your interest to then hearing it is really just a click away. With so short a path to this world of adventure, it is time to try a few things you might think you do not like. Jazz music is often one of the hardest genres of music for listeners to explore. However, one hundred plus years of it lay out there waiting for you to try. Forget what people say about any music being too complex or requiring too much thought, simply listen to it and go after the feeling. Start with the greats: Miles, Coltrane, Monk, Holiday, Armstrong and find those songs you connect with. With those you enjoy, start tossing them into one of your playlists and see what happens. If you really feel adventurous, dive into some World music, Classical music - anything you are knowingly unfamiliar with.
The Bad News: There is a lot of music not to like.
I cannot tell you how much music I listen to. But I will gladly divulge that when you listen to a lot of music you do not like - the best music REALLY sticks out. Carbon is the component of both coal and diamonds. I would not hesitate to warn you that in music there are a lot of "lumps of coal." However, as you tolerate this music that you simply do not like - at least see if there are parts that stand out or maybe even a lyric or a break that merit a second chance. Listening to an album, I often look for the "handle." This handle is what introduces the artist's sound or even the idea of the album to me. When you endure six or seven tracks and get that precious handle - you might want to start it again and rethink this whole experience.
Pop is a prejorative.
Years ago, Your Hit Parade was the place that you wanted all the best songs to be. These songs were carefully written and composed - then designed specifically to fit into a canon of previously great songs. Today it pains me to say that is just not the case.
Pop music stands for Popular music and while some of what is popular is indeed great music - most of it is now designed specifically to replace another song or artist in the canon of great songs. That is not to say that the artist did not work hard, but anything that sounds too similar to something else should be regarded with and discerning ear.
Moreover, you should be doubtful of any song that you begin to like because of the frequency you hear it. That is unless, it is you choosing to listen to that song over and over and over again.
Listen and playlist with a sense of purpose.
I understand that a lot of music is simply written to make us feel good for just that sliver of time it plays. However, that time is wildly important to a lot of people. To me, a good song needs to make me want to know more and hear more from that artist. So, a song is not just a song - but a means to get you to at least check out the album.
Most music is written to fit into the course of an album and this running order can be the most baffling goal for artists. Having completed the tracks for Thriller, Michael Jackson slept on Quincy Jones' couch for months while they toyed around with the order of the songs. An album is the artist's full statement of purpose. You may like one or two cuts you hear, but when you hear those songs from the album - they may gain another dimension.
This habit of cherry picking or purchasing a few tracks may be cost-effective, you may be missing out on some real surprise from the album. Moreover, this precious cut you unearthed could become a staple on your playlist or even that precious left turn that you can count on to cleanse your pallet down the road. An album is far more than a collection of singles, it can be just as important from beginning to end as the songs you have been plucking away.
In music ideally a playlist or your collection for that matter function as a huge reflection of yourself. In the end, music is not about passing time or settling for what everyone else is having. Music is about contemplation and how it makes you feel. The conversations you have about music will introduce you to more music. The time flipping from playlist to playlist, or detouring into something entirely different will help you further your catalog of experiences in life. Deciding what is and is not for you will make you the master of your domain and keep you from putting a little too much trust into what others think you should be listening to. Finally, that music collection you are building is making Music better. Thank you for listening.
Mik Davis is the record store manager at T-BONE's Records and Cafe and a GED instructor. At other stations of life, he has been a musician, writer and much more. However, he would much rather talk about music.