Category Archives: Music

What I Listened To In 2013

I’ve been writing this yearly overview of what I’ve been listening to for several years. And yet, despite feeling that I am discovering new music every year, the top few bands somehow remain the same. This year seems particularly bland and uninspired, with hardly anything new in the list. Maybe Spotify has made me complacent about listening to new music; despite feeling that I’m experiencing more different music than ever before, it’s all an illusion.

Top 10 Artists listened to in 2013

  1. Metric
  2. Ginger Wildheart
  3. The Wildhearts
  4. Hey! Hello!
  5. Pearl Jam
  6. Young The Giant
  7. The Joy Formidable
  8. Guns N’ Roses
  9. The New Pornographers
  10. David Bowie

Comparing this year’s top ten artists to last year’s list, the top three remain the same, albeit in a different order, and two more entries from 2012 are still in my top ten. I don’t even remember listening to that much GN’R or New Pornos over the last twelve months, yet somehow they still manage to wind up near the top of the list year after year.

Top 10 Albums listened to in 2013

  1.  Synthetica – Metric
  2. Young The Giant – Young The Giant
  3. Hey! Hello! - Hey! Hello!
  4. The Big Roar – The Joy Formidable
  5. The Very Best of Ella Fitzgerald
  6. Tricks for Dawn – Mary Lorson
  7. 555% – Ginger Wildheart
  8. Copper Blue – Sugar
  9. Black Pudding – Mark Lanegan & Duke Garwood
  10. Fantasies – Metric / Spilling Blood – Oceanographer

Now this list of the top albums I listened to is at least a little more interesting and varied than the artists list.

I discovered Metric towards the end of last year, and I’ve spent a lot of time listening to their back catalogue, particularly 2012′s Synthetica. This year I also finally listened to Sugar’s excellent debut, Copper Blue, 20 years after everyone else in my generation. A single album that was actually released in 2013 sneaks in, in the form of ex-Screaming Tree Mark Lanegan’s collaboration with Duke Garwood. And I spent quite a while listening to the various excellent projects produced by ex-Madder Rose singer, Mary Lorson.

Track of the Year

According to Last.fm the track I listened to the most over the last year was actually Massive Attack’s Teardrop. But a close second was this standout track from my #1 album – Breathing Underwater by Metric:

album covers

2012, My Year In Music

album covers Almost exactly one year ago, I sat down at this desk (albeit in a different country) to draw up a set of lists collating my listening habits for the previous twelvemonth. Looking back at that post, it’s fascinating how wildly my favourite artists (at least, measured by volume) change each year. Only two bands — Pixies and Arcade Fire — feature in both years’ lists, and 2011’s favourite The Afghan Whigs, played obsessively last year, barely made it into the top twenty.

2012 was the year of the fan-funded music revolution. Three of my top five albums were released through the PledgeMusic site, where fans can pledge money to fund the production of new music by bands that might otherwise struggle, and in return participate in a much closer relationship with the artists concerned as they follow the production of ‘their’ album. By the end of this month, Ginger Wildheart will have released six(!) full albums through this route; the triple album 555%, Hey! Hello! with Victoria Liedtke, and the heavy-as-hell Mutation double album.

Top 10 Artists listened to in 2012

  1. Ginger Wildheart
  2. The Wildhearts
  3. Metric
  4. Pixies
  5. Foo Fighters
  6. M83
  7. The New Pornographers
  8. Guns N’ Roses
  9. Jackdaw4
  10. Marillion / Arcade Fire

Aside from the various Wildhearts material (which accounted for more than five times as much as the next artist) my only really new discovery this year was Canadian indie-rockers Metric. After two tracks from their 2010 album Fantasies somehow made their way onto my Spotify ‘starred’ list, I gave them a proper listen, bought the CD, and highly recommend them to anyone.

Top 10 Albums listened to in 2012

  1. 555% – Ginger Wildheart
  2. Fantasies – Metric
  3. Dissectacide – Jackdaw4
  4. The Suburbs – Arcade Fire
  5. Hey! Hello!
  6. Wasting Light – Foo Fighters
  7. Doolittle – The Pixies
  8. Living Things – Linkin Park
  9. Saturdays = Youth – M83
  10. The Lumineers – The Lumineers / Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – M83

555% was a triple album, but still — more than six times as many listens as the aforementioned Metric album isn’t bad. Again, it’s been an uninspired year for me; no new mainstream albums apart from Linkin Park at eighth and The Lumineers sneaking in at joint tenth, and two albums (Foo Fighters and Arcade Fire) appearing two years running. I must try to listen to some new music next year.

Track of the Year

Aside from a weekend away during which the kitten managed to play Sonic Youth’s 100% 619 times in row, my top ten tracks are unsurprisingly dominated by Ginger Wildheart’s 555% album. Top track, by a small margin, was ‘Lover, It’ll All Work Out’:

Aside from that, one track that got played rather a lot was Metric’s super-catchy ‘Help I’m Alive’:

With so many independently released albums this year, Spotify isn’t the best place to find them. However, I’ve collected what is there into a single playlist for easy exploration: 2012, My Year In Music.

Album covers

2011, My Year In Music

Back at the junction of 2010 and 2011, for whatever reason, I neglected to record a retrospective of the previous year’s music-listening activity – or indeed, any sort of look back at the preceding twelve months. These gaps in recorded history niggle at me; like a lot of anally-retentive computer nerds I am an inveterate list-maker, and I like nothing more than drawing up information-rich lists of data to discover how my habits changed over the entirely arbitrary period of the past year.

All of the data here comes from last.fm, which has dutifully collected my scrobbled tracks from both work and home, iTunes and Spotify, since 2005. Most links are to Spotify.

 Top 10 Artists listened to in 2011

  1. Afghan Whigs
  2. Arcade Fire
  3. The Black Crowes
  4. The Gaslight Anthem
  5. Radiohead
  6. Daft Punk
  7. PJ Harvey
  8. The Beatles
  9. Foo Fighters
  10. Elbow/Pearl Jam/Bon Iver

This was the year that I discovered The Afghan Whigs. I already had a copy of their album Gentlemen, courtesy of Jeremy Keith during the big Pownce shutdown of a few years back, but this year I obtained first digital and then physical copies of the rest of their back catalogue, and they are now one of my favourite bands. Lead man Greg Dulli’s current work with The Twilight Singers and (with ex-Screaming Trees and QOTSA Mark Lanegan) The Gutter Twins also ticks a lot of my boxes.

The rest of the top ten comprises a few new album releases this year (Arcade Fire, Daft Punk, PJ Harvey, Foo Fighters) together with some perennial favourites.

Top 10 Albums listened to in 2011

  1. 1965 (The Afghan Whigs)
  2. The Suburbs (Arcade Fire)
  3. TRON: Legacy (Daft Punk)
  4. For Emma, Forever Ago (Bon Iver)
  5. Sigh No More (Mumford & Sons)
  6. Amorica (The Black Crowes)
  7. Wasting Light (Foo Fighters)
  8. The Seldom Seen Kid (Elbow)
  9. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (Neutral Milk Hotel)
  10. Play (Moby)

1965 had almost twice as many plays as the next album on the list, and would have been even more if my stereo scrobbled CDs as well. I also really liked Arcade Fire’s third album and Foo Fighters’ latest, and re-acquired a couple of old favourites lost in house moves or Spring cleans over the years. In particular, The Black Crowes Amorica has had a lot of love; for me, it’s one of those albums that reminds you of a particular time in your life.

Foo Fighters and Daft Punk were the only albums actually released in 2011, and the TRON: Legacy soundtrack was actually my first ever MP3 purchase from Amazon, a process that should be simple but is immeasurably over-complicated by their insistence on using their own download software.

The rest of the top ten – Bon Iver, Mumford & Sons, Elbow – reflects the realities of living with someone who doesn’t share 90% of your taste in music; inoffensive modern folk dominates our mealtime or evening listening.

 Track of the year

It should be no surprise that the track I listened to the most over the last twelve months (twenty-three times according to last.fm) is from the #1 album and band. The Whigs’ final album was recorded in New Orleans and has a real loose, sultry feel to it – “Uptown Again” is the standout track for me:

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All of the albums above are available to listen for free on Spotify – I’ve collected them into a single playlist for easy exploration: 2011, My Year In Music.

Discovering new music: TheSixtyOne and Mixest review

60 gigabytes, 28 days, 10,000 songs. My iTunes library is daunting, and yet all too often there is nothing that I want to listen to. Where can you turn to discover new music?

Mixest

Mixest is a cleanly designed, beautifully simple, single page music player offering a selection of tracks culled from indie music blogs and curated by Connie Huang. The interface is pared back to the absolute basics: Play/Pause, Skip, Favourite, and the hipster-baiting “More Obscure” are presented as simple text links (all in the lovely and free font Museo Slab 500) and the additional in-site navigation is revealed within the same window to avoid interrupting the music. An obligatory Twitter link allows you to share tracks with your followers, and aside from a track timer and progress bar that’s your lot.

Screenshot of Mixest interface

Create an account and login to track what you’re listening to, although as far as I can tell that will only let you return to previously Favourite’d tracks; there is no suggestion of any algorithm at play here. Not that one is necessarily needed – the selection is interesting and mostly obscure (although some occasional mainstream acts do crop up; I heard Supergrass last week) and judicious use of the “More Obscure” link can ensure you never get bored.

The whole site has a friendly, playful tone of voice (one example from the Q&A: “Are there hotkeys? Yes, see if you can figure them out”) and the overall feel is of a discerning fanzine – perfect if you share the editor’s taste, but if the New American Indie isn’t to your taste you might find it all a bit too repetitive.

TheSixtyOne

“On TheSixtyOne,” the homepage blurb declares, “new artists make music and listeners decide what’s good.”

You certainly cannot argue with the second part of that statement. The developers of the site have been drinking deeply from the social network Kool-Aid, laced with a generous shot of gamification. Account activity, avatars, Friends to follow, Loved tracks, comments, shares, popular tunes and more, all rub shoulders with the latest in game theory: quests, levelling up, and daily rewards foster regular participation, aided by a limited number of ‘hearts’ that you can award each day. Completing quests or reaching higher levels unlocks more hearts, as well as encouraging use of some of the more hidden pieces of site functionality.

Screenshot of TheSixtyOne

The idiosyncractic design of TheSixtyOne has as many critics as fans, and in fact their 2010 redesign drove many of their most active users away. (You can still see the rather tired-looking interface at old.thesixtyone.com.) It’s bold and beautiful, with most of the navigation hidden away in pulldown menus or slide-out blocks. Full-bleed, high resolution photos fill the screen, overlaid with artist information that is variously factual (lyrics, tour dates, and release information) or whimsical, depending presumably on the uploader’s mood. The site’s user messaging is quirky – “speculating,” “dreaming” and “contemplating” are just some of the status messages displayed while waiting for the site to do its thing – and there are some lovely touches like an “adventure meter” on a scale from college professor to Indiana Jones in the “Open Mic” section.

How you consume the enormous catalogue available on TheSixtyOne is up to you. Apart from the default playlist that begins on the homepage, a “popular” menu reveals options including various “moods” ranging from mellow to rocky; and a “for you” selection drawn from your friends’ playlists. Alternatively, explore the “open mic” area for more avant-garde entries, search the site by song or artist, or find recently popular “revives.” Some tracks can even be downloaded directly from the site, at the discretion of the artist, and many are available for free. Of course, hearts and comments don’t pay the bills. The site allows you to purchase credits in blocks of 1,000 for $12.50, which can then be distributed among your chosen artists in the form of a “tip” or used to purchase non-free track or entire album downloads.

The only glaring omission on TheSixtyOne is a user guide. Even an FAQ would be something. The sheer number of ways to interact with the site is intimidating even to an internet veteran like me, and you have to wonder how many potential listeners will be scared away before they discover everything the site has to offer. There is also rather a strange mix of true indie and legitimate international stars like MGMT and Florence + The Machine; one wonders how involved some of the established artists can actually be in what is, after all, just another PR channel.

The John Peel Lectures

As I finished writing this piece, I caught an advert for a timely and related event. The first ever John Peel Lecture will be broadcast on BBC 6 Music this Monday at 7pm. The inaugural event features windmilling guitar-smasher and sometime paedophile-researcher, Pete Townshend, discussing the future of music discovery in the age of the internet. The BBC blurb poses the question:

“…how can the ‘unpolished’ music that John Peel championed find an audience?”

For all that the “real” music cognoscenti love to bemoan the existence of bland pop-factories like X-Factor and Pop Idol, the underground fan-driven music movement has never gone away. Websites like Mixest and TheSixtyOne have replaced bedroom-produced badly photocopied fanzies, and the internet has provided independent artists with a vastly greater potential audience than they ever had in the past. And recent history continues to prove that fans are still a force to be reckoned with; just look at Radiohead’s ground-breaking “pay what you want” release of In Rainbows, ‘selling’ 1.2 million copies by the day of release according to Gigwise; or the record-breaking donations made via the PledgeMusic site towards Wildhearts’ mainman Ginger’s next album.

It seems that in the modern era, exposure – finding an audience – is actually easier than it has ever been. The challenge of “making it,” however, still remains.

Further reading

Here are a few more music discovery sites:

And some fan-funding music projects: