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New Vinyl Day #1: 5/18/19

sons of kemet your queen is a reptile and dark night of the soul album covers

Yikes. Been a bit! Let’s get to it.

Life has been crazy lately due to the fact that through a series of events not necessarily fit to discuss on this forum, Ev and I are bailing out of the PNW and heading back to New England. Currently the plan is to buy a house in Maine, but a number of factors could mean that doesn’t happen. We’ll see.

At any rate, this evening, I am boarding a redeye bound for Boston and not planning on returning to Washington in the near future. I’ve spent my last two nights here with Nikki and Bonnie and Beckett, having packed up all our belongings and turned the house over to the realtor. This afternoon, Nikki suggested we go to the record store as our last outing for a bit. I thought it was a fitting time to debut this type of post to honor my time near the Puget Sound – forever the inspiration for this blog name.

The first one we hit was Silver Platters in Lynnwood, which is a pretty typical shop. I found two records to buy, so let’s talk about them.

First is Your Queen Is a Reptile by Sons of Kemet, an album I have heard exactly once and not even all the way through. It is incredible. I knew I had to buy it immediately. Partially this is informed by my obsession with an album by Shabaka Hutchings’ other outfit, Wisdom of Elders by Shabaka and the Ancestors. My vocabulary for this kind of music is limited, but I’ll call it jazz-adjacent, which is wholly inadequate. You just have to hear it.

sons of kemet your queen is a reptile

I also picked up the 2010 release from Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Dark Night of the Soul, which featured guest appearances from just about everyone. It’s a great, chill, dark, very Danger Mouse-y production. I recommend it.

dark night of the soul album cover

dark night of the soul liner notes

dark night of the soul back cover

After Silver Platters, we plugged “record store” into Google just to see what we’d find. And hoo boy, did we find A Thing. It was called The Vinyl Garage, which we suspected was just a clever name. It was not. It was about 20,000 records in some dude’s garage in the middle of a cul-de-sac.

It was mostly 60s-80s rock, with the requisite sections for jazz and blues. The proprietor was exactly the right amount of loud and crazy with outdated views. He’s the dad of the judge-y record store clerk you imagine, but somehow it was fine.

I couldn’t dial in my classic rock brain enough to find something to buy, but Nikki found about $75 worth of cool stuff including this:

howlin' wolf evil album cover


My Brother Likes Tapes: The Case for Loving a Physical Format

charmed by the sound cassette tapes

Siblings often end up very different from one another, despite their similar upbringings. I’m sure there’s loads of research I could cite here about birth order and the differing amounts of attention each child gets. I don’t know, that’s really not my arena. What I’m interested in, particularly as it relates to music, is how those differences actually serve to highlight the similarities.

To wit: My brother loves music. Not in the way that I do, certainly. There was definitely a time when, as a young elitist douchebag, I’d have even said that my brother liked bad music. Time marches on, we learn and grow, etc. I now appreciate my brother’s appreciation for music for what it is: a deep, enduring love of his favorite things — which is just as I relate to music.

Andy’s favorite band is Barenaked Ladies. Stemming from that, he prefers lighter fare with some vaguely comedic upside. He likes late 70s rock, but with Jim Croce and Doobie Brothers where AC/DC and Led Zeppelin would otherwise be. Major keys over minor. Nerdcore rap, video game-inspired tracks, parodies and, I think, things that inspire in him a sense of true nostalgia in the anemoia/fernweh/sehnsucht sense of it. He has an affinity for “vintage” feelings, as well as storytelling. He’s not big on heavy metaphor and abstract impressionism; he wants to understand what’s being said.

That vintage feeling thing is something to which I can relate. I watch a lot of YouTube videos on retro tech, even though I have no use for it now and had limited experience with it in my youth. It fills me with that similar longing for times before I had a well-developed consciousness that could be brought to bear on my experiences. I didn’t have any context for the technology I grew up around and consequently, took it for granted. I still do; gadgetry fails me, by and large. I don’t always appreciate what I’m seeing.

That brings us neatly on to the point: My brother likes cassette tapes. It speaks to his age to some degree and the fact that he had a collection of pre-recorded, major-release tapes during his youth where I primarily had mixtapes created from CDs. Some of our mutual fondest memories are based on a kind of live performance band lipsync game we used to play. We played that game a lot over the course of a number of years.

Unlike me, I don’t think Andy ever had a highish-end stereo, preferring a series of boomboxes and maybe one of those shelf stereos at one point. But now, in the year of our lord 20 and 18, he has a relatively late-model car with a cassette deck that has inspired him to reinvest in a tape collection in earnest. I am only so happy to encourage this obsession.

As I said before, I’m a vinyl guy. It’s my physical media of choice because it exists at the intersection of sounding good, being readily available and offering a really nice tangible experience. I’m not going to go into any crazy audiophile nonsense and explain all the ways vinyl is better than streaming or CDs or MP3s, except to say that the primary difference is that, assuming a good master and pressing, vinyl is full-frequency and anything rendered at CD quality is not by design. There’s information on a record not present in any of these forms, but who cares. (Cue a million comments about modern mastering techniques and compression destroying the sound of everything, anyway. Like I said, who cares.) If you can’t hear it, it doesn’t matter. And don’t even get me started on hot stamping. Everything’s a compromise; stop chasing the dragon.

As for tapes, in case you didn’t know, there’s a nascent tape revival ongoing in the shadow of the vinyl renaissance. At first, I was indifferent to it, since I can’t imagine ever owning a tape deck again. I didn’t ever get really into tapes except for making mixes, so for me, the whole thing is an intellectual exercise. (Although, I had a GE 3-5476b portable tape player for years, which I dearly loved, so maybe I’m wrong.) I fully condone and support any obsession with physical media (except for you nutcases spending 450 Euros on new reel-to-reel releases, come on, man), but tapes just aren’t my jam. But my brother likes them and so, as a dedicated enabler of music loving, I am buying them again, promptly shoving them in a box and sending them to him.

Bandcamp’s Discover function (about 3/4 down the page) has a filter for cassette tapes, so that’s extremely handy for finding new releases. Vintage stores and flea markets usually offer tapes for a couple of bucks, which makes tracking down older stuff a pretty simple endeavor. For the most part, except in extreme cases, collecting tapes has none of the drawbacks that trying to find original pressing vinyl has. While tapes are definitely on the rise, they aren’t getting re-released at nearly the clip that records are. It keeps the price down, too.

Here, let the always-excellent VWestlife explain:

Tapes are cheap, equipment is (relatively) cheap, they’re easy to use and store, super portable, and, man, they’re just cool, really. I get it. The J-cards approximate a record cover as well as anything. The whole tactile experience of a tape is maybe even a little better than vinyl. It’s a substantial thing and for the most part, you don’t have to hold it any kind of way. The tape cases are far, far superior at protecting the media therein, too.

The sound quality is…well:

Maybe not up to my semi-picky standards, but not nearly as bad as you’d think. If you’re not a sound engineer and/or you’ve been listening to MP3s for 20 years and/or you just don’t really care about that stuff, tapes are great!

Thus, in my quest to make everyone as excited and obsessed with re-centering music in their lives as I am, I vowed to build my brother a small tape stereo.

As you read previously, my turntable setup is as simple as it gets. I have an Audio-Technica LP3 turntable hooked up to a Fluance Fi50. I’m using the internal phono preamp for now and that’s probably the area that I will look to upgrade eventually. A nice phono preamp (and possibly an needle upgrade) will give me a significant boost without having to invest in any other expensive gear or expand the footprint of my setup. Andy is looking for something similar. Or, well, he wasn’t, really, but because of my enthusiasm decided to give me some constraints.

His requirements, once I cajoled him into caring about this exercise, are as follows:

  • Must play tapes
  • Should be relatively small and/or not difficult to lug around
  • Bluetooth enabled
  • It should look kind of cool…?
  • Keep the fussy maintenance to a minimum
  • Try not to include components he doesn’t understand or care about
  • A remote, maybe?

There are so many options for this. At the very most basic, you could buy a cheap faux-Walkman and plug it into any old Bluetooth speaker. As a matter of fact, I sent him one of those cheap players at Christmas last year along with a haul of tapes, just to encourage him to play them other places than just the car. That’s okay. It’ll work.

One thing to know about currently-produced tape players of any kind is that every last one of them uses the exact same mechanism, made by the last Chinese company who can be bothered to assemble them. They’re merely fine, but they aren’t anything like what tape decks used to be. Again, my brother probably doesn’t care about that, but I kind of do, and since I’m buying this, I want something a little better.

That said, it seems a waste to spend a great deal on this for someone who a. Isn’t going to abuse it and b. Doesn’t at all care about the vintage hi-fi wars. It should be in good working order, preferably a substantial unit from a brand known for producing quality pieces, probably from closer to the end of tape’s heyday. So that’s the framework I used when I went out for a casual look at Tacoma’s thrift store locations.

I found something first try. At the closest Value Village to my house, there it was: a Yamaha K-903 Natural Sound Cassette Deck. The price on it was $6.99. It was super clean and the doors opened freely. It was, if such a thing exists, fate. It was also the only stereo component on the electronics shelf at the time, as though it had been conspicuously placed there just for me.

Honestly, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about this. Yamaha makes/made good stuff, so I feel good about that. It has Dolby C noise reduction, so that’s nice. It was a mid-range unit at the time it was sold new, and it looks pretty fresh now. Bearing all that in mind, my impression is that it has relatively low miles. I didn’t think I would find anything horribly concerning about this unit, and even if I did, there’s very clearly room in the budget for a professional to give it a once-over and still not spend $100 on it. Good value, I’d say.

I plugged it into my Fluance and found that it’s basically new. Everything works, there are no weird squeaking sounds and as far as I could tell, the belts aren’t even worn. It’s really a fine piece of equipment despite its late entry, humble beginnings and lack of audiophile cachet. It plays tapes well and looks fine doing it.

Now for the speaker part. Again, so many options. Bluetooth speakers are a dime a dozen these days. Any of these with an AUX in would do. But I looked for something, say, $100 or less that looks good with a 90s black stereo component.

I own one of those cheap Bluetooth speakers and it sounds pretty good. It wouldn’t hold up to direct comparison or in a dedicated listening room or to your pal who prattles on about bitrates and resolution. Or anyone who swears by tube amps. Still, right off the bat, I ruled out anything that’s meant to be recharged. Like I said, they’re a dime a dozen, so he can pick one of those up anywhere if he wants to use the portable player I sent him. This will be plugged in to the wall, so the rechargeable battery pack would be ruined in no time.

Though I found the component tape deck, I decided against a traditional receiver amplifier, since he told me he wanted his television/video game setup to be entirely separate from his tape stereo. Better for directed listening, anyway. I dig it. I also ruled out those plasticky shelf systems we all had as teenagers. They look a mess. That left me with two primary options: a modern, compact all-in-one unit or a mini shelf system with separate speakers.

My brother is an apartment dweller for now, so tons of power isn’t required. Enough for clear sound and accurate reproduction, but not enough to get evicted. My Fluance is 40 watts, which is probably the upper range of his needs. I have a standalone house and play guitar, so I can play things as loud as I like.

Initially, I was aiming for a Sound Freaq Sound Platform, preferably version two. I chased a few around eBay, but since they’re out of production, they weren’t always good value, really. A Fluance would work, but it didn’t quite seem my brother’s style. Then, just as with the tape deck itself, a solution found me, this time at the local Fred Meyer as I casually strolled by their electronics department.

The thing I found was the iLive Portable Wireless Speaker System, which is notable for being neither particularly portable nor wireless. And that’s perfect. I did not want anything rechargeable, so the portability doesn’t matter. It’s “wireless” in the sense that it has Bluetooth, but otherwise is kind of interesting in that the audio input is RCA cables, not a 3.5mm jack. Perfect for hooking up a component piece. The subwoofer, while unnecessary, was a nice touch. I think it provides that modern sense of “richness”, which is to say, makes it a bit bass heavy. And for the purposes of listening to largely older cassettes, I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Here’s what it looked like before I packed it up and sent it along:

Stellar photography, I know. Thank you, thank you.

Slightly contrasting finishes, but I don’t think they look a million miles apart. It takes up a similar footprint when compared to my turntable setup and sounded surprisingly good when I got it all plugged in for testing. It’s not quite as loud as I imagined it would be, but that’s just as well. My brother has neighbors and roommates on all sides, so best not to have something super loud.

Anyway, he got it and set it up right away. He was thrilled. I think he started this whole endeavor just sort of going with the flow, letting me be excited about this silly project but not being too invested. But once he received it, the excitement was pretty clear. Here’s what it looks like set up at his place:

Pictured: The anguish of 1,000 audiophiles and the total delight of my brother.

Of course, I had to include some tapes in the package, too.

Only the weird stuff.

At the end of the day, if you rely on streaming to stand in for a music collection, you’re essentially one software update away from your access to music disappearing into the aether. Apps are designed to update relentlessly, spurring you on to your next computer or phone purchase. For the most part, players of physical media can be maintained long after they’ve been discontinued, as evidenced by the market for 70s audio components. Sure, the media itself can wear out, but it’s ultimately pretty unlikely, as VWestlife’s 50 year old cassette and cheap record player videos suggest.

I’m just as guilty as anyone; I have tracks I bought from iTunes as my only copy of a particular record. iTunes is already pretty horrific, growing ever worse with each passing year. Though they’ve denied the rumors that they’re killing downloads in the near future, it can’t be that far off. Only so much of a concern as long as Bandcamp and CASH Music remain alive and well, I suppose.

All this rambling to say: Don’t let your entire music collection be an ephemeral transmission played from someone else’s computer. If you love music, or art in general, endeavour to own it in some form. I’m (clearly) fine with possessing digital files, but you should strongly consider owning physical media. Those pieces you can hold in your hand represent something lasting and properly respect the time and money and talent the artist put into them. Own your music one way or another, preferably in a format not so proprietary as to rely on a single piece of software.

Maintaining a physical media collection is a good hobby to have. I’ll even help you set up your stereo.

Digital Music Library A-Z: The Letter A

charmed by the sound

In this series, I’m going through my entire digital music library to see what I have in there and deep dive into my holdings.

At the time of this writing, the stats on my archive are as follows: 632 artists, 6,243 songs, 44.3 GB, total playtime of 18 days, three hours and 34 minutes. I’ll start with the bands I have a healthy collection for, then move on to the random detritus of this decades-old collection.

Aesop Rock: None Shall Pass. Purchased on CD and ripped, I believe. Great album, with “Coffee” being my absolute favorite song.

Aidan Baker: Triptychs: Variations on a Melody. Bought on CD as part of a lot Important Records offered as a fundraising effort to get their new warehouse barn built. Ripped and passed the CD on to a friend. There are a number of those like this in here.

Almanac Mountain: When In Nature, So Many Seas, Almanac Mountain Is In Like With You, and Cryptoseismology. I know I also bought Black Collar Vices, but it is, for some reason, not in Rhythmbox. I’ll have to rectify that. The creative force behind Almanac Mountain, Chris Cote, found me, actually. He invited my old band to play in a music series he was hosting and we’ve been following one another musically ever since. So Many Seas appears on my top 25 albums list.

A Narcotic Frog: self-titled album. I…honestly have no idea how I acquired this. I can’t seem to find it out there on the internet, but I know that it was an RPM Challenge album from 2011.

Angels of Light: Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home. It’s a shame that this is the only Michael Gira creation I own, but it is a good one. I bought this CD and ripped these files years ago. “Kosinski” is a really excellent track.

ann annie: cordillera. Purchased solely so I could give the cassette to my brother for his growing collection. Really nice. Probably going to grab more of these.

Anoice: The Black Rain. Also from the Important Records fundraiser. Really good, really dark, based as it is on the Great East Japan Earthquake.

another cultural landslide: last days last days, live your life as if your ass was on fire, woof, not enough bullets, and the single “new digs” from Ramen Music #3. Former RPMers, current Twitter friends, good people. Going out of their way to make the least-predictable music possible.

Arcade Fire: Funeral, Neon Bible, and The Suburbs. Hoo boy. Yeah. I don’t think I paid for any of these, although I do now have Funeral on vinyl. As you can see, I trailed off after their mainstream heyday.

A Silver Mt. Zion: He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts Of Light Sometimes Grace The Corner Of Our Rooms…, Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward, “This Is Our Punk-Rock” Thee Rusted Satellites Gather + Sing, The “Pretty Little Lightning Paw” EP, Horses In The Sky, and 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons. I’m pretty sure I owned all of these on CD at one point or another. If not, I might have borrowed them from friends to rip. I think The “Pretty Little Lightning Paw” EP and Horses In The Sky are my favorites, but I really didn’t like 13 Blues For Thirteen Moons.

Aun: VII. From the Important Records fundraiser. Ripped and gifted on. Dark, ambient, good.

And a bunch of random singles:
A.C. Newman: “Homemade Bombs in the Afternoon”, courtesy of a mix CD.
AFI: I have four songs from Davey Havok’s punkish-rock outfit: “Halloween”, bought from iTunes for my Halloween playlist; “God Called In Sick Today”, origin unknown; “The Boy Who Destroyed the World”, origin unknown; “Love Like Winter”, courtesy of a mix CD.
Aaron Kent: “There Is a Poverty Line (Innereyefull Remix)”, from Ramen Music #11.
Aimee Mann: “Wise Up”, probably file shared. Sorry, Aimee.
Al Bowlly: “Guilty”, origin unknown. Because of Amelie, though.
Akeli Friedenssonne: “White Dove”, courtesy of Ramen Music #08.
Alexi Murdoch: “Song for You”, courtesy of a mix CD from Evan.
Alice Cooper: “Dead Babies”, bought from iTunes for one iteration of my Halloween playlist.
am/fm dreams: “Drown”, both from a mix CD and from Ramen Music #1.
Amos Lee: “Careless”, bought from iTunes.
Amy Seeley: “Surprisingly So”, courtesy of a mix CD from Evan.
Andrew Duncan Brown: “All That You Need”, from Ramen Music #12.
Andrew Weathers Ensemble: “Ecstatic, Unchanging”, from Ramen Music #9.
Andy Berkhout: “Love of Mine”, from Ramen Music #4. Great tune.
Andy Hentz: “Parlor Tricks,” from Ramen Music #5.
Any Kind: “Sunny Daydreams”, from Ramen Music #9.
Apostle of Hustle: “24 Robbers”, courtesy of a mix CD.
Arabb: “Chief Running Sauce”, from Ramen Music #5.
Archive: “Dolphinator”. I have no idea what this is or where it came from.
Artichoke Heart Souffle: “Follow Me Upstairs”, courtesy of a mix CD from Evan.
A Seated Craft: “Shell” and “Celestial Mechanics”, both from Ramen Music #10.
Asfandyar Khan, “Hello, Morocco”, from Ramen Music #9.
Ashley MacIsaac: “Brenda Stubbert” & “Sad Wedding Day”, ripped from CD, I think. There’s a secret track at the end of “Brenda Stubbert” that is one of the saddest songs I’ve heard.
Assateague: “13 Sleep”, from Ramen Music #6.
Assemblage 23: “Lullaby”, origin unknown.

Aw, man. Ramen Music. What an amazing thing that was. I hope it comes back from the dead someday. I can’t even link to it anymore, but the gist is that it was a digital magazine/playlist of independent musicians curated by a judging panel. It paid the artists, too, something like $75 a track, I think? Very slick. I guess it makes sense that it wouldn’t last.

My Top 25 Albums: Something of a Journey

evergreens and powerlines in snow charmed by the sound

In contrast to making the list for songs, I found albums to be much harder.

This is a product of age, I think. As I said before, I developed my listening sensibilities with significant help from downloading singles during the file sharing era. Before that, I was listening mostly to classic rock on the radio, which itself was preceded by a relatively short period of having a handful of (mostly country) cassette tapes and listening to a local pop radio station’s weekly top ten countdown. Somewhere between two-day-long downloads of songs like “Otherside” by Red Hot Chili Peppers (incidentally, probably the only song of theirs I can even remotely stand) and the dawn of my album buying career, I made mix tapes and CDs like they were going out of style.

As a matter of fact, my current music tastes were set into motion almost entirely by a single mix CD made for me during my junior year of high school. That mix was made by a friend after she recovered from her shock that I’d never heard a Radiohead song. We had briefly debated the merits of commercial radio (I was firmly for it at the time), and she tried to suggest that, Radiohead aside, there was better music to be found amidst the very many albums that received little to no airplay.

That mix was the first time I ever heard Modest Mouse (“Out of Gas”), Bright Eyes (“Waste of Paint”), and a bunch of others. I think there were 22 songs on it. I wish I still had it, as well as the mix Mark handed out to all of the members of a class (I forget which) in college. My dear Remi also once made me a mix of entirely low-profile indie bands, which included Built to Spill, but I really didn’t start listening to them until Sarah recommended the album below.

There were others, too, and it’s a good thing, because you would not believe the horrifying musical choices I made before getting these assists. I had (subjectively) abhorrent taste in music, aside from my appreciation of classic rock, which still has its place. To wit: At one time, I had harnessed the power of Napster to collect every single Creed recording ever made. I had not one, but two MiniDiscs of Nickelback albums. I was still listening to and defending the music of Bush in college, which prompted my professor at the time, Michael, to write out a list of probably 25 bands I should listen to instead. I was a disaster. I needed all the help I could get.

My point in saying this is that I wasn’t naturally or genetically inclined to have any sort of discerning taste in music. Despite being a guitarist, I have such tragically limited knowledge of the components of a song, from either a social or musical standpoint. I always say I have pretty varied tastes in music, but then again, you’ll note the dearth of hip hop/rap, metal, noise, or punk among my absolute favorites. I still really enjoy a bunch of stuff from each of those genres, but nothing quite connects with me on the same level. I definitely have a slightly broader knowledge of my favorite area of music compared to the average person and I’m always open to hearing new things, but anyone who has ever worked for three days at a record store knows more than me by a long shot.

Anyway, that’s the long way of saying that my journey to album appreciation has been somewhat fraught. I had to reverse engineer a lot of them from the one or two songs I might have received from any number of sources. My golden late high school through college years of digging through the crates at the indie record shop helped a lot, but I’ve never possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of music by release date, the lineage of certain bands or even movements, nor really a good sense of where the things I listen to fit in the pantheon of music as a whole. I just like what I like, man.

Okay, here it is. This list will provide a framework for at least some of the posts to come, and inform some of my vinyl buying decisions.

1. Have One on Me by Joanna Newsom
2. Middle Cyclone by Neko Case
3. The Lonesome Crowded West by Modest Mouse
4. The Color and the Shape by Foo Fighters
5. Something to Write Home About by The Get Up Kids
6. Left & Leaving by The Weakerthans
7. Tapestry by Carole King
8. So Many Seas by Almanac Mountain
9. Perfect from Now On by Built to Spill
10. Juliet On Fire Keep Clear by Pilot to Bombardier
11. Either/Or by Elliott Smith
12. There and Gone by Ed Gerhard
13. Algiers by Calexico
14. Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins
15. Misery Is a Butterfly by Blonde Redhead
16. Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven by Godspeed You! Black Emperor
17. Challengers by The New Pornographers
18. On Lost Nation Road by Justin Carloni
19. The Magnolia Electric Co. by Songs: Ohia
20. Fever to Tell by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
21. Trouble Will Find Me by The National
22. White Lighter by Typhoon
23. Third Eye Blind by Third Eye Blind
24. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd
25. Wiretap Scars by Sparta

As with the songs list, here are some thoughts:

  • Boy, is the gap between The Lonesome Crowded West and The Moon & Antarctica mighty slim. I think the latter is a better album, and it has one of my favorite songs of all time on it, but the former just beats it out. I’m not sure if I could explain why, except that Modest Mouse was still ascendant here, whereas The Moon and Antarctica feels like the arrival after which everything gets dicey.
  • Some of these took a really long time for me to finally get, as it were. I straight up did not like Typhoon at first, but once I cracked the code, they really hit me. Same is true of Joanna Newsom on the whole, but compared to Ys and The Milk-Eyed Mender, it took forever for me to wrap my head around the staggering Have One on Me. I also really hated Blonde Redhead the first…million times I heard them. But one day, they just made sense.
  • I don’t even like Foo Fighters. Okay, that’s not quite true. But they are closer to the Weezer side of things than not, which is to say, they should have quit before In Your Honor.
  • I hope Billy Corgan gets hit by a bus before I have to buy Siamese Dream on vinyl as part of this exercise. At least let me luck into a used copy. What a garbage person. I didn’t link to buying it above because I don’t think you should. Stream it somewhere. Don’t give him any money. This album was almost disqualified because of how much I think he sucks, but it stands in as my alternative to a lot of grunge and grunge-adjacent inasmuch as it defined a sound I truly love.
  • Look, I don’t know what to tell you if you don’t like the first Third Eye Blind album. Take in all those melodramatic turns and learn to love yourself.
  • Boy, is the gap between Middle Cyclone and The Worse Things Get… mighty slim. Neko Case is great.
  • “Time” is the deal-breaker between The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, though I think the keyboards do get a little carried away on the latter.
  • Again, it was tough choosing between Ed Gerhard’s There and Gone and Sunnyland. “5 to 99” might be my favorite track of his, but as an album, the nod had to go to the former.

There are a few bands that aren’t represented here despite the fact that I like them quite a bit. Queens of the Stone Age is one, but none of their albums in total are very good as discrete units, and Josh Homme is a piece of shit, anyway. I like Arcade Fire, but have ruined their album experience by too often listening to them in iTunes, sometimes right after one another and sometimes on shuffle. I can’t really tell them apart super well. In my brain, “The Suburbs” is on Neon Bible for that reason. Anything Pixies or Belle and Sebastian is the same way; it’s all a jumble. Crystal Castles was disqualified from my entire library because of this.

Some near-misses: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel, The Wild Hunt by The Tallest Man on Earth, En Garde by Puzzle Muteson, The Photo Album by Death Cab for Cutie. By virtue of lifetime plays, Picaresque by The Decemberists should probably be on here, but they experienced the opposite of the Blonde Redhead phenomenon, in that once I became too aware of the schtick, the spell was broken forever.

Of this list, I have #1, #2, #3, #7, #15, #16, #17, #20, #21, #22 on vinyl so far, mostly bought new as reissues. I know that #12, #18 and #24 never had vinyl releases; #18 exists only in the far reaches of the internet and on several dozen handmade CDRs. I may still talk about those albums by referencing the digital versions I have, because they deserve the mention. According to Discogs, vinyl pressings of the rest of my list exist somewhere out in the world, even if the prices are occasionally exorbitant. I guess time will tell exactly how much I’m willing to splash out to get a few of them. I’m not going to be at all precious about original versus reissues. Either will serve the purpose here and I’m not a purist.

I wonder what a word cloud of Music Genome Project genes would look like based on my list.

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My Top 25 Songs: An Exercise in Futility

mount rainier charmed by the sound

Have you ever tried to come up with your top X of any given thing? If you don’t keep up with it in some small way all along, it can be a brutal experience to generate it from scratch. You’ll start off strong, but eventually trail off. You’ll get derailed by the ranking, waylaid by long-buried sentimentality. Doubt will set in. The reality of your shifting priorities over the years will play a major factor, so you’ll have to make hard decisions (about this trivial and pointless exercise).

Fortunately for me, I do these kinds of dumb, unnecessary rankings from time to time. I also still scrobble to Last.fm, though the largely-unsupported software struggles to perform as it did in the good ol’ days. I had a starting point, if not the entire thing ready to go when I came up with this idea. It still took some work to get this list into shape.

The first thing you have to wrestle with is finding out that your most played songs/albums/artists aren’t necessarily your favorite. One thing Last.fm users find out pretty quickly is that a short but intense obsession can really skew your charts. I believe that a favorite album has to stand the test of time, at least to some degree. It’s highly unlikely that an album released this year, for example, would rank. Some albums take time to break in; an album you hated at first may later make your list because it required careful consideration and wasn’t instant favorite. It goes the other way, more often than not. Albums that enjoyed a hot streak when you first discovered them usually cool down with time, and are sometimes relegated to the parts of your library you don’t revisit very often.

By way of example, I’ll start this blog not with the list of the top 25 albums, but by first talking about my top 25 songs of all time. This is in part because the groundwork vetting for these was done long ago when my good friend Desi and I were bored at work one day. But it also helps illustrate something else: a favorite song may bear no connection to your favorite artists or even albums. It could be something out of the clear blue, your own personal one-hit wonder.

If you compare the list below with my top songs on Last.fm and in iTunes, there’s only some overlap. There are a few reasons for this, key among them the many, many plays lost to digital record keeping because I couldn’t scrobble from CDs or records at the time. Sometimes I just get stuck on a thing, but six months later, I’ve stopped listening to it altogether, while my favorite songs may languish for a chunk of time without getting played at all.

This also gives me a chance to set some ground rules for my albums list. The first and most important being that artists/musical groups can’t have two entries. Individuals can appear more than once, but they must be in different incarnations. This, of course, begets some hard decisions, but limitations and editing breed quality. Another rule, as I touched on, is that they have to still sing to me after years of hearing them and after encountering other material. My feel-good jam of last summer is not going to make the list. (Incidentally, my last feel-good jam of the summer I can remember was “Coo Coo” by Weaves.)

Finally, sentimentality counts. I won’t cut something just because my tastes have moved on from centering that kind of music, or because it might be embarrassing. Loving something isn’t conditional upon it being objectively good. Despite my considerable hours spent analyzing music, I’m neither a musicologist nor talented enough a musician to comment on how objectively good something is. If it sucks but I love it, it’s on here. Same goes for ignoring that it was a ubiquitous MEGA-HIT that everyone else is sick to death of hearing. Thems the breaks.

So then, here are my top 25 favorite songs of all time:

1. Short-Haired Girl by The Water Section (from ...and Then the Hum of the American Diesel Engine)
2. This Tornado Loves You by Neko Case (from Middle Cyclone)
3. Hey, Johnny Park! by Foo Fighters (from The Color and the Shape)
4. Farewell Transmission by Songs: Ohia (from The Magnolia Electric Co.)
5. Maps by Yeah Yeah Yeahs (from Fever to Tell)
6. Baby Birch by Joanna Newsom (from Have One on Me)
7. Oh Mandy by The Spinto Band (from Nice and Nicely Done)
8. Evil Urges by My Morning Jacket (from Evil Urges)
9. The New Year by Death Cab for Cutie (from Transatlanticism)
10. Velvet Waltz by Built to Spill (from Perfect from Now On)
11. Perfect Disguise by Modest Mouse (from The Moon & Antarctica)
12. It Will Follow the Rain by The Tallest Man on Earth (from The Tallest Man on Earth EP)
13. Quiet by This Will Destroy You (from Young Mountain)
14. Scatterheart by Bjork (from Selma Songs)
15. Ashamed by Deer Tick (from War Elephant)
16. Splitter by Calexico (from Algiers)
17. How Even the Sky Thought to Rain by Pilot to Bombardier (from Juliet On Fire Keep Clear)
18. Please Don’t Give Me What I Want by Kat Frankie (from Please Don’t Give Me What I Want and Ramen Music #11)
19. Can’t Make a Sound by Elliott Smith (from Figure 8)
20. Failsafe by The New Pornographers (from Challengers)
21. Reckoner by Radiohead (from In Rainbows)
22. Glasshouse Tarot by Sparta (from Wiretap Scars)
23. Rapunzel by the Sea by Almanac Mountain (from So Many Seas)
24. Say It Ain’t So by Weezer (from The Blue Album)
25. Ex-Hive by Tom Thumb (from The Taxidermist)

(Yep, I listen mostly to, as it was explained to Evan, “sad white people music.”)

This list is more or less in definitive ranked order. That said, this is merely a snapshot of the current status, as must be the case for all such things. A few thoughts:

  • “Short-Haired Girl” and “Failsafe” are the only songs from which I have lyrics tattooed on me. “This Tornado Loves You” and “Failsafe” are the only songs from which Evan has lyrics tattooed on her.
  • “Evil Urges” might be the only MMJ song I know. “Please Don’t Give Me What I Want” by Kat Frankie is definitely the only song of hers I know. That’s sort of an odd facet: You’d think this list might only be comprised of my favorite bands, or at least tracks from my favorite albums, but when making lists like these, you quickly find that what makes each of those great has somewhat limited overlap.
  • “Baby Birch” gets something of an assist from the fact that the guitar tone in it reminds me of “From Here to Ear” by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, which I unabashedly love more than a lot of things. Not that it needs the help.
  • Some of these songs remain on the list long after I’ve fallen out of love with a band as a whole (looking at you, Weezer [!!!!], Death Cab, Foo Fighters, and Modest Mouse [my former undisputed favorite band]). “Say It Ain’t So” was my favorite song for probably ten years before the band tainted my memories of them so badly, I could no longer defend even a top ten ranking for any of their music. I can’t bring myself to cut it completely, though.
  • Speaking of favorites, Joanna Newsom is far and away my favorite artist and would have multiple entries on this ranking if not for the rule to limit it. Same with Neko Case.
  • The Moon & Antarctica just barely missed a spot on my top albums list, but I never, ever get sick of hearing “Perfect Disguise”.
  • “Reckoner” battled its way onto the list against two of its Radiohead stablemates, “Exit Music (For a Film)” and “Airbag”, both of which spent time as my favorite from that band.

Most of these songs seem to occupy two categories: 1. Longish, epic, building songs with multiple movements or 2. Very tightly composed, relatively static tracks with minimal instrumentation. What’s more, there’s virtually zero overlap with the kind of music I like to make. This poses something of a problem when it comes to composing my own music, since my influences have tenuous connections to the types of sounds and textures I want to hear in my own music. Go figure.

Some notable misses that are probably in the top 50: “Wolf Like Me” by TV on the Radio, “Plug-In Baby” by Muse, “Backwards Walk” by Frightened Rabbit, “Confessions of a Futon-Revolutionist” (or, like, five others) by The Weakerthans, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” by Paul Simon, “Bulletproof” by La Roux, “July Flame” by Laura Veirs, “Hey” by Pixies, “Wildcat” by Ratatat, “Life on Mars” by David Bowie, “Highway Patrolman” (or “Atlantic City”) by Bruce Springsteen, and so on. “Heartbeats” by The Knife (and/or Jose Gonzalez’s excellent cover) was a difficult cut; I prefer the slower live version on which Gonzalez’s cover is based, but I like the original, too. It should probably be in the top 25, but I’m conflicted about it.

If you know me and my tastes, feel free to comment what I might have missed in my considerations. Once you get beyond the top ten, it feels increasingly prone to shorter-lived love affairs. Also comment if you have your own top songs list because I need to know.

Next up: Favorite albums.

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Charmed by the Sound is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

Let’s Re-Evaluate

I’m embarking on a project.

The increasingly intangible nature of our music collections seems to have resulted in a lesser focus on music in general. Sure, some people utilize streaming services as massive, free libraries and rack up hundreds of streams without all that business of having to buy and maintain a music collection. That sounds awesome, but it has a deleterious effect on our relationship to music as a medium.

Notwithstanding the obvious issues of not paying for music, the problem is that whether it’s Spotify or iTunes or really any other screen-based music platform, the program itself flattens the total experience. It isn’t a discrete unit of music anymore; it’s a bottomless portal with a flat, unchanging visual experience.

I’m oversimplifying to make a point here, but you get the idea. By contrast, having to interact with physical media to initiate a listening session creates a more specific experience. It’s less immediately convenient (among other concerns), but it’s also more directed.

My observations about this are informed by my own experience and choices. I’m more or less a modern person, so my listening habits have kept pace with the general consensus of each era. Over the course of my life, I’ve transitioned from a Walkman to a Discman to a MiniDisc player and then to a used 3rd Gen iPod. (I later had a Classic, which is the best iPod ever made.)

I had a boombox with a top-loading CD player and two tape decks (which I used to make countless mixtapes) that gave way to a three-disc changing shelf system. After that, I built up a component system that included a mid-level receiver, five-disc CD changer and a record player only to dismantle them to sell or give away — twice. Being a minimalist who moves around a lot is at odds with having a physical media collection, unfortunately for me.

My music consumption habits of late more or less lapsed into the following:
On both my computer and my iPhone, I use Spotify Premium. Spotify has become my terrestrial radio replacement, in particular because dreadful mainstream radio stations played a leading role in murdering music for everyone by being so awful. (But I digress.)

When I find something I love, I buy a digital copy, preferably from Bandcamp. Then I circle back and listen to that album on Spotify to drive a little long-tail revenue to artists I love, however slight that might be. For reference, my iTunes (/Rhythmbox, now that my primary computer is a Linux machine) library weighs in around 40GB and would play for just over 18 days straight from end to end.

Of course, now I am fully in vinyl buying mode, which to be completely transparent began anew thanks to Evan indicating it as an activity we should do together. For the most part, we’re beginning with backfilling music I already have on my computer. I have lately begun to think that it’s very important to preserve music in a physical, high-fidelity format, lest an EMP (or something, I don’t know) renders my devices expensive paperweights. I’m also just beginning to think it’s important regardless of what the future holds.

In terms of hardware, I currently use:

  1. iPhone 6S. My entire iTunes library fits on my phone, augmented by the Bandcamp and Spotify apps.
  2. HP Compaq 6200 Pro with UbuntuStudio Xenial Xerus. I’ve transferred my music library across four computers now, often culling unloved items as I go. Normally used with headphones or a first generation Soundfreaq Sound Platform. I also have a Mid-2011 Apple iMac 21.5-inch, which is my music production machine, as well as an Acer Chromebook 14, though any listening is accomplished with Spotify or Bandcamp on that.
  3. Bose OE2 and Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones. Both are very good headphones (without being excessive), which I see as being non-negotiable. I don’t really believe in the audiophile arms race, so I’ll probably not stray too far from this level anytime soon. The Bose are for playback and the Sennheisers for recording monitoring.
  4. Audio-Technica LP3 turntable hooked up to a Fluance Fi50. This is our main “hi-fi” stereo, I guess you could say. I think it sounds great, but I’m aware of its limitations. I’m considering buying an external phono preamp to sweeten things up a bit.
  5. TaoTronics TT-SK11 omnidirectional speaker, which is perfectly adequate for most things. I use it in the kitchen and the backyard.

Regarding Bluetooth, I usually use it in the car, even though I’m kind of sensitive to the volume drops and ever-so-slight speed and pitch changes that happen occasionally. I vastly prefer things to be hardwired when possible. Besides, nothing kills a device battery faster than running the Bluetooth radio.

This is a pretty good system. It’s reasonably modern, but certainly not bleeding edge. In my mind, a bleeding edge system might be to possess no music at all in any form and stream Amazon, Pandora, or Spotify through a multi-room Sonos system or equivalent. Which is totally valid. Conversely, you could also consider a five-to-six digit, high-end audiophile component system that uses only pristine physical copies bleeding edge, as well.

I’m no audiophile, but I’m definitely pickier than the average person, so I prefer larger files with a little more detail. I don’t always go for lossless files when I buy from Bandcamp, though that’s mostly a consideration for the dwindling free space on my phone. I’ve also sampled things like headphone DACs and largely don’t think they’re worth the money, at least within the ecosystem I’ve outlined.

I relay all this primarily as a starting point for this project. I love music and it’s still a major focus of my life. I’m not one of those people who could probably get by without it, or whose only remaining experience with it is the radio at work. I’m also not one of those with an extensive collection of low bitrate MP3s from the golden age of file sharing who can listen through anything remotely resembling a speaker and be happy. (For example, I fucking hate earbuds.) Music is important to me, and I want it to sound good, within a reasonable definition and cost.

That said, it’s time to take stock. I feel music, and more specifically the experience of just listening to music as an activity, growing more remote by the day. These interfaces, as I said, have flattened the experience for me significantly. New albums have an anonymous quality to them unless I get hooked enough to obsess over ancillary materials, which usually have to be sought out via web search. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but as a musician, I want to invest in the listening of music as much as the artists I love invest in the creation of it.

By virtue of our consumption habits, music has been pushed to a supporting role, a present but distant second to the visual in cinema, video games, television, and web channels. Imagery and video specifically is the dominant form of entertainment. Our ubiquitous smartphones are capable of delivering an endless stream of high-definition visuals, so rarely are we satisfied with audio-only experiences. I hate this, yet clearly, my adoption of newer technologies is just as responsible for damaging my engagement with music.

I also suspect, but obviously cannot by any stretch prove, that the general abandonment of directed music appreciation might have some correlation to the state of our culture as a whole. I mean, look at the discourse. This place is a mess and I fully believe some small element of that is related to the fact that the general populace doesn’t love music anymore. It’s just radios playing classic rock or country in the background while we work or get oil changes. The same can probably be said for books. Obviously I know that a great many people still love these things, but I’m not sure we value those experiences as a culture anymore.

At the very least, music is among the top five great coping mechanisms. As I write this, many of us are merely managing that: coping. If you feel absolutely terrible, wracked with anxiety and stress, but you haven’t put on an album you love for the sole purpose of listening to it and doing nothing else, try it. See if it doesn’t help a little.

To that end, I conceived of this project. Part of this blog will be a record of my slower, more deliberate listening habits. I want to re-center music in my life, and this will be my primary way of doing that. There will be four major themes, accented here and there by other as-yet-undetermined content.

  • First, I’m going to buy my top 25 favorite albums of all time on vinyl. Much has been discussed about the vinyl revolution, so this is not new territory. I’m choosing to rebuild my record collection (for the third time) strictly because it’s such an intentional experience to play a record. There’s the maintenance of all the components, but also the large format packaging, the need to be attentive so you can flip the record, and the distinct nature of each play session. As I write this, I don’t even know if all of these albums are available on vinyl, but a future post will outline the list and answer that question.
  • Impulse buy album highlights. I hesitate to call them reviews. Some will approach review territory, but mostly I’ll just give you the details about some random album I bought just because I was interested in it.
  • A re-evaluation of my digital music library in total, going from A to Z by artist. I came of age in the download generation, so there’s a kind of fragmented, almost incidental relationship to much of the music I own digitally. I’ll talk about how I acquired the files that make up each single and album I have by each artist, if I can remember. Some of it, shamefully, may never have been paid for at all. Taking stock will help me identify the areas I need to shore up, the files I can safely delete, and just what you get for 40+ GB of music.
  • Nurturing the love of music in others. This will take many forms; the very existence of this blog is one of them. Gifts I give will shift to centering music, especially physical media. Exploring minimalist, modern audio playback setups that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Literally sending people things to make and listen to music. Whatever helps people obsess over music again.

I’ll also talk about music production from time to time. Maybe just show off my guitar rig. Who knows on that front.

I’m putting this in blog format not only to hold myself accountable, but to really dig into this material. Maybe seeing this will inspire others to reconsider their music consumption habits, and to glorify the work that goes into creating it. In decades past, fanzines and solid music journalism helped create a reciprocal culture that supported the wider ecosystem. This is just a very small version of that.

Music is good. Listen to more of it, okay?

Disclaimer: Affiliate links allow me to generate a little pocket change. Read more about that here.
Charmed by the Sound is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.