Working through albums

Taken before a long journey, June '07

At some point during the Easter holidays of my first year at university, I started to acquire the kind of amount of music only a much richer person could afford to get their hands on via the traditional channels. In next to no time my catalogue of albums and other recordings to “work through” expanded, along with a thirst to broaden my musical experience. The only way I’d have a hope of keeping up with such a rate of expansion seemed to be to take a systematic approach, and I quickly settled on a basic pattern for listening.

The following term, I started each week by picking what seemed like a diverse set of up to 10 releases, and made sure I listened to each of them at least six times during the week. Six looks like an arbitrary number, but that amount of exposure tended to be sufficient to develop an appropriate appreciation of most recordings: it meant that I would avoid too-hasty rejections of music in unfamiliar or uncomfortable styles (say, punk, metal, hip-hop, avant-garde classical music and music from distant cultures), and – the most rewarding part of the process – bring about a new awareness of what fans of different styles of music find to love in their preferred styles. During the term, this amounted to a lot of time listening to music and not a lot of time reading set texts. It was superficially fortunate that the two modules I took that term were primarily assessed by examination, and therefore not particularly difficult to do well in.

There was so much pleasure to be derived from playing new music that way, it naturally happened that I went on listening according to a similar framework. As this practice has continued, I have kept a record – Music diary.doc – a list of albums, EPs, singles and recordings of classical works, ordered according to the date I first listened to them (8 pt font, 1 album per line, since you ask; and the font itself changes with my tastes). The list is 5 years old today, and keeps growing.

In effect, an album is archived after its sixth listen, with numerous exceptions. The most extreme cases are those I loved most and still listen to (e.g. Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, first listen c. 26 Mar 2009, which instigated my slow-burning, as-yet-unconsummated love affair with the man) and those I detested and promptly deleted (e.g. Klaxons, Myths of the Near Future, first listen c. 28 Jan 2008, not long before its unfathomable Mercury Prize win, a little longer before the band’s subsequent, inevitable slide into obscurity).

As a way of getting to know music, this method can sound dryly formulaic, but, as with most compulsions (not that this is quite a compulsion), the process itself remains largely in the background while listening. The focus is on the music, as well as, afterwards, on the periods of time it sometimes becomes associated with.

Footnote: Contrary to what might be a popular opinion, there’s no perceptible reason to suppose that this way of doing things has contributed to the music industry’s woes. The frequency of both my gig attendance and album purchases has risen significantly since it began, and the knowledge derived from all the hours spent listening partially prompted the piles of reviews and interviews I’ve since had published for no money.

Week 1: 23.04.07
Neil Young: After the Gold Rush [1970]
Michael Jackson: Off the Wall [1979]
Talking Heads: Speaking in Tongues [1983]
Aphex Twin: Selected Ambient Works ‘85-’92 [1992]
J.S. Bach: Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, BWV 1001-1006 [Lucy van Dael, 1996]
Elbow: The Noisebox EP [1998]
Midlake: The Trials of Van Occupanther [2006]
Patrick Wolf: The Magic Position [2007]
Grinderman: Grinderman [2007]
Björk: Volta [2007]

Now: 23.04.12
Scott Walker: Scott 3 [1969]
Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here [1975]
Zoltán Kodály: Missa Brevis [Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Stephen Cleobury, 1988]
Sarah Vaughan: The Essential Sarah Vaughan [1990]
John Cage: Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano [Yuji Takahashi, 1997]
Devendra Banhart: Black Babies EP [2003]
Deerhoof & Of Montreal: Split 7″ [2012]
Jack White: Blunderbuss [2012]
Rufus Wainwright: Out of the Game [2012]
St. Vincent: Krokodil [2012]

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3 Responses to Working through albums

  1. josno says:

    My main concern with this is that it’s taken you 25yrs to listen to Wish you were here.

  2. Tom says:

    Nice to see you’ve got round to Scott 3, like that one very much. I remain unsure of Wish You Were Here, but perhaps I owe it another chance.

  3. Pete says:

    I’m afraid Wish You Were Here isn’t quite doing it for me. Some strong periods, but at least as much material I could stand to lose. (But that’s only after 5 listens.)

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