Twenty or more years ago, my father and I were driving somewhere and talking about music. My father was a willing participant in the discussion, as he always had an interest in the subject. Lots of times I would act as disk jockey and play different songs to listen to. At some point I turned to my Pop and said, “Dad, I bet you I can name ten thousand songs and the artist who performed the song.”
He quickly responded, “Nah. No way.”
Quick math reveals I would need to learn a new song every day for thirty years to recognize ten thousand songs well enough to name them. At the time, I knew I might be wrong, but was not convinced. I know lots of songs, and especially when I know a certain version of a song, can often recall both title and artist by knowing one part of two piece puzzle. My dad had the gift of remembering songs, and would often amaze me with his recall of pop songs from the thirties and forties when we would spin the radio dial looking for amusement. Words and melody.
Flash forward to August 23rd, 2008, the day this blog begins. The iPod supersedes all previous personal music library systems. Not only does my current iPod store well in excess of ten thousand songs, it also stores valuable data on each song in an iTunes library. The purpose of this blog is to document the creation of my personal music collection. Although the ten thousand song figure as a general guide, I will let the collection expand to twelve or even fifteen thousand songs if appropriate. As of June, 2014, nearly six years after beginning a serious analysis, there are about nine thousand seven hundred individual recordings.
This blog is dedicated to the memory of my parents, who shared my love of music, and made it possible for me to freely pursue my passions.
The Collection: A Reflection Of My Environment
In terms of popular music history, 1958 is a good year to begin life. I grew up with The Beatles and witnessed the peak era of rock music during my childhood. Living in a middle class neighborhood meant you listened to a lot of AM radio, and the major music stations were KFRC (610 AM) and KYA (1260 AM). In those days, popular music was quite diverse, with a wide variety of rock and roll and soul music, with a few instrumentals and even a few country songs. Nowadays, the music world is more specialized, and doesn’t feature the broad variety of the top 40 hit parade from days gone by.
I was into sports as a kid, and played basketball on my high school and college teams. Being involved with the basketball community meant having many black friends and acquaintances, which may account for my affinity for soul and jazz music, though it’s clear that Afro-Americans have provided much of the 20th century’s musical innovation and brilliance. On the other hand, where I grew up, I knew no one who listened regularly to country music, so my life experience with country music is limited.
After following new pop music trends until the mid-eighties, I began to lose interest, and started to expand my knowledge by researching the past for inspiration. My musical tastes are quite a bit older than the typical baby boomer. In my opinion, the popular song art form exhausted itself; by the late seventies, it had been fully explored, and new ways to reinvent it were increasingly difficult.
How I Collect Music
The few music review books I use for reference tend to present music opinion by album. A couple, like Dave Marsh’s The Heart Of Rock & Soul, look at individual songs. Between 1985 and 2005, collecting a single song was very difficult, but iTunes and Amazon.com make it possible to collect music on a song-by-song basis, a great development. We can also acquire favorite album tracks as a single song, something we couldn’t do in the past. For example, “Blue Sky” by The Allman Brothers can be acquired from iTunes for 99 cents, without having to purchase the entire double album Eat A Peach. It now makes sense to recommend songs individually, and present a body of recommended work on a song-by-song basis.
YouTube Videos Make It Worthwhile
Thanks to YouTube and similar video services, we can see many of the great musical artists in their prime. They will be the most instructive aspect of the music blog. I am grateful to Google, YouTube, the performing artists, and the corporate and independent contributors who make these available to the public. I hope my positive promotion of these great artists is considered a reasonable compensation for their generosity.
The Autobiographical Account
Are there songs that remind you of specific experiences from your past? That is true for me; there are dozens, maybe even hundreds of songs which take me back to a place and time. Some are happy memories and some are painful. It’s a quality of music I like to highlight when I can. If appropriate, I will share stories about my life, and when certain songs evoke memories of specific episodes. I am a calculating and obsessive man, with a powerful memory which associates songs with events. I am a recovering alcoholic, and had abstained from drug and alcohol use for over five years, when a series of events prompted me to try drinking yet one more time. After two and a half years of heavy partying, the first year of which was lots of fun, I finally stopped again a few months ago, and am feeling much better. Drugs and alcohol have played a role in painful episodes of my life. These episodes are shared as lessons learned. I am not afraid to share them.
The Process of Creating the Collection
I received my first iPod as a Christmas present in 2004, and began to create “The Perfect iPod Collection”. I built the collection as follows:
1. CD Collection
I own about fifteen hundred compact discs. Starting alphabetically by artist, I transferred every song I could name, as my original motivation was to prove I knew ten thousand different songs. It didn’t take long to realize that I didn’t want every ABBA and Air Supply song I could name. I quickly adjusted my goal to a quality collection of songs I like, with a sampling of well known or notable popular songs that I liked less.
I worked on and off transferring songs for about a year. As of September, 2008, there were about seven thousand songs in the library. I wasn’t always selective about adding songs that first year; since then, more than a thousand of these original songs have been eliminated, or replaced with a superior sounding file of the same song.
2. Record Collection
Music collectors my age started by collecting vinyl records, both long playing “albums” of music, plus smaller “singles”, with only one song on each side. I have a thousand of so albums and a few hundred singles. At this point, the search for songs becomes more specific, for songs not replaced by a CD copy. Sometimes, favorite songs were never made available on CD, or a favored version of a song never made it onto a CD.
Next, I checked if these songs were available on iTunes. If so, I would spend a buck and add the song that way. You have to be a bit careful. Quite a few pop songs, especially those from the fifties and sixties, have inferior remakes alongside the famous hit recording. If I couldn’t find the correct version of iTunes, I had a program which allowed me to transfer the vinyl recording to MP3 format, and transfer the file into the library. There are about a hundred songs which required the special treatment, but some of my favorites are included in this manner. In the last few years, some of these have been superseded by new additions to the iTunes library.
3. Filling Holes
The next step is adding songs as they come to mind. I hear a song on the radio, or remember one by reading about it. Even after a few years, this still happens occasionally.
Typically, I can add the song from iTunes or Amazon.com, but sometimes that option isn’t available. The next step is to see if a CD (or rarely, an album) is available on Amazon.com or another retail firm. Generally, songs over ten minutes in length can only be acquired by purchasing an entire album on iTunes, in which case I will usually purchase a CD. If that song is the only song I want, then I may think twice before spending ten or fifteen dollars for one song.
Finally, those few songs that I cannot or do not acquire, are added to the Wish List.
4. Adding New Songs — Keeping My Ears and Eyes Open
I am always researching and adding new songs. More effort is made identifying the early masters and adding older music, as I consider it more important and less derivative. I do add newer music, but the addition tends to be more haphazard, more by chance, and much less influenced by what is considered popular or important. There may be more great musicians performing today, but they are handicapped by the limited ability to create new and innovative forms of pop music, as the artform has fully matured. Here is a list of resources:
- The “All Music Guide” reference books and website
- Jazz Standards website
- Rolling Stone Magazine and Record Guides
- The Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings
- “The Heart of Rock & Soul” by Dave Marsh
- “The Faber Companion To 20th-Century Popular Music” by Phil Hardy & Dave Laing
- “Christgau’s Record Guide” by Robert Christgau (rare)
- AM/FM radio, especially public, non-commercial stations
- XM or Satellite radio, usually on DirecTV
5. My Musical Tastes
My tastes are rather mainstream, and cover most genres of popular music. When listening to new music, I look for:
A. Clear, Understandable Singing: Call me old fashioned, but I like the style of singing where the lyrics can be easily understood. I like plain, controlled singers, and don’t care for singers who sustain notes unnecessarily. Overly emotive singing has the opposite effect; songs lose their emotional impact. Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles are examples of good singers who don’t wail and sing effectively.
B. Musical Virtuosity: Perhaps more than anything I admire skillful musicianship. Though I lack a formal musical education, I’ve listened for a long time, and believe I can tell who can play. Skillful musicians often play with restraint; it’s not always about being the center of attention. Great musicians and great bands play fast or slow, in different keys and different rhythms, and use their instruments to convey a variety of emotions.
C. Swing It and Move Me: Even as simple as bobbing your head back and forth, music that moves the body is the greatest kind. Dance is the timeless mating ritual, where two people express themselves physically. Some songs are too fast or slow for dance; at any speed I’m looking for songs that move the mind.
D. Different Rhythms, Different Sounds: In recent years, popular music seems to have strayed from the use of complex, danceable rhythms, choosing to play it safe with a 4/4 tempo with the emphasis on the 2nd and 4th beat. This would limit both the creativity of the dance, and the musician’s ability to improvise. My music collection should offer good examples of both traditional and non-traditional music rhythms.
Variety is everything. There should be a grand variety of instruments and sounds, and the recognized masters of the common popular instruments shall be included.
E. The Lyrics and The Story: Defining great lyrics is hard, and may require repeat listening before they make an impact. More than half of my collection features songs about love, sex, and the concepts of home and God. Since I like “moving” songs, I also have many songs that remind me of trains, or driving along in an automobile. I tend to like simple, direct lyrics, and often tire of deciphering dense, complex subjects. On the other hand, ambiguous lyrics that can be interpreted differently by two people are special. As are catchy songs with unique subjects. I recently added a song called “Plea From A Cat Name Virtute”, sung from the standpoint of the cat trying to cheer up its owner. There are infinite possibilities for a good song.
What constitutes good lyrics is personal, though there are consensus favorites. The lyrics should fit to the melody and the cadence. How the singer emphasizes the syllables is essential. Bob Dylan is a master of punctuating his lyrics. Dylan is also the rare author who tells a long story well. Overly abstract lyrics, and nonsensical lyrics chosen for their sound rather than their meaning, have limited value. As always, there are exceptions. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is rather abstract and nonsensical, but it evokes dreamy imagery well, of plasticine porters with looking glass ties.
F. Exceptions To The Rule: There are exceptions to the rule, good songs about nothing in particular, good songs where the singing is unclear, or the music is crude and amateurish. Once again, variety is the key.
G. Perfect Sounding Music is a No-No: I dislike overproduced music, where every human imperfection is filtered out of the final product. There are few exceptions, as it dehumanizes the music. I have a tough time enjoying modern popular music, though part of the problem is the well established repertoire developed over fifty plus years. In contrast, accomplished musicians can take a loosely rehearsed concept and create something spontaneous and beautiful with limited preparation. Many great jazz and pop songs were completed in just a couple of takes.
H. Variety Within an Artist’s Career Almost without exception, the greatest bands and musicians evolve, and have distinctive stages of their careers. The Beatles are still the gold standard in this regard, from their beginnings as a rock and roll quartet singing overt love songs, to a mature phase, writing songs on a variety of subjects, and incorporating the instruments and studio sound effects deemed best to achieve the desired result.
I. Originality: The first musicians to introduce a new style of music, and the best practitioners of that style, are considered valuable traits. I study traditional forms of popular music, including some that originated in foreign countries. Less attention is paid to recent musical trends, after the demarcations between musical styles started to blur. Even the roots of rap music, a genre I listen to infrequently, can be found in the dub poetry of men like Linton Kwesi Johnson, or the socio-political rants of Gil Scott-Heron.
A songwriter’s original version of a song tends to be the highest rated and most coveted interpretation.
J. Short Songs Are Best: When I first started listening to music, most popular songs were brief, often with a short instrumental break between the second and third verse. Beatles and other pop music songs were two to three minutes long. Before the development of long playing records, and the advanced recording techniques of the late forties and early fifties, musicians were limited to about three and a half minutes per song, the outside limit for recording on 78 rpm records. By the late fifties, jazz musicians were creating longer songs with well developed improvisations, and eventually all musicians followed suit. I tend to like short songs better; longer songs, and especially longer improvisational passages, must conform to a higher standard, as it more difficult to maintain the listener’s interest. Ten minute songs are a rarity, about one percent of the collection, and multiple improvisational pieces by a single artist are the exception rather than the rule.
6. Perfect iPod Collection Goals For the last few years, I have been writing a “countdown” of artists with the most songs in the iPod collection. I will continue to add new songs, at least until a refined version of the countdown is completed. Eventually I will publish the list of songs. I want to include the best versions of the famous and important pop songs of the 20th century. I want to include a representative cross section of the important musical genres of pop music, especially folk, country, bluegrass, jazz, rock and roll, and reggae. I want to include at least one song by all notable artists, even if I dislike that artist. I hope to create a collection of ten to twelve thousand songs, but I won’t force the numbers to work out.