Monday, January 26, 2009

Why do you like what you like?

Hey there folks. I’m back from my music rut with some thoughts/questions for you about how we experience our favorite music. What I'm getting at here are the different factors that influence why music fans enjoy a particular song or artist or value certain records in their collections.

I put it into a Venn Diagram. (I love Venn Diagrams. We need more of them around here.) After doing a little research in the STWOF laboratory, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three distinct reasons why I may especially enjoy hearing particular song, album or artist: (1) Freshness, (2) Excellence, and (3) Nostalgia. I wonder if you share the same approach to your collection? Here’s what I mean by the three categories.

Freshness: Even the best music can get “old” after awhile. Most music lovers are always looking for a new sound to consume. Music falling into the “Freshness” category is exactly that: Any new sound your are currently hearing and processing. By “new” I don’t mean new release; I just mean a new sound to you. A particular song/record/album cannot stay in this category indefinitely, but while they are fresh, their status is elevated. Some current examples of “fresh” sounds to my ears are Lizzy Mercier Descloux and King Sunny Ade. Of course, it doesn't take long to move music out of this category, but I'm always looking to keep it at least partially full of new sounds.

Excellence: This category is for the timeless classics that really stand apart from the crowd. Songs or albums that sound great because they are great, no matter the era or style or your personal history. These are the records that you would feel most comfortable recommending to friends with similar tastes. Of course, every music fan will have different criteria for excellence and these criteria will likely change over time as your tastes evolve. Some examples (for me): The Band by The Band, More A Legend Than A Band by The Flatlanders, and Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis. (A whole separate series of posts could address the specific factors that put music into this category for me, but that will have to wait.)

Nostalgia: The third category is the musical equivalent of comfort food. Songs/records/artists that you love because of your personal history with the artist or because of the associations connected to the music. Because these memories are unique to me, I don't expect my friends with similar taste to like these records in the same way that I do. Examples for me: 1970's Gordon Lightfoot (childhood memories), Guadalcanal Diary (a college favorite). When attempting to make an objective evalutation of music, I try to take the nostalgia value out of the equation. But when I'm looking for something to play, my nostalgic records often hit just the right spot.

Overlap: There is some overlap between the Nostalgia and Excellence categories (the green on our diagram) and also between the Freshness and Excellence categories (the orange area).

Records at the intersection of Nostalgia/Excellence are the ones that recall fond memories but also happen to be truly excellent in their own right. A example of this sort of record in my collection is London Calling by The Clash. I discovered that record early in my music fandom and it really opened my eyes to what rock music could be. When I first got it, I played it almost exclusively for 2-3 months, literally wearing out the grooves on the LP. That was years ago, but it still sounds like a masterpiece to my old ears, and playing London Calling always brings me back to my late teen years.

Records at the intersection of Freshness/Excellence are the best records in the world. These are the instant classics. Treasure them while the freshness lasts. This is what London Calling was for me at first. I had never heard it before, but I knew right away I would always love it and my teenage tastes took a big step forward. A personal musical epiphany.

The most recent example for me is probably Midwest Farm Disaster by Bob Martin. (Thanks Jason & Brendan!) A few other past examples come to mind. One is Viva Terlingua by Jerry Jeff Walker. I don’t know how many years ago I bought that CD, but I still remember the excitement of hearing it for the first time. I thoght the music was “made for me” and wondered how I could have gone so long without having it in my collection. A few other examples from my past are the song Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks and the Horses album by Patti Smith. When I first heard Patti moan that “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” I was instantly hooked. What records were instant classics for you?

Not all of my very favorite records have go through this phase. Some take awhile to grow on me and are no longer fresh by the time I realize their excellence. The best example of this is The Band’s self-titled LP. I could now make an argument that it is the best album in the history of rock and roll, but it took me awhile to get there. I wasn't ready at the time so it languished in the back of my record collection for a long time before getting to its rightful place on top.

What does your musical Venn diagram look like?

For your listening enjoyment:

Bob Martin - Deer Island Prison (buy album)

Lizzy Mercier Descloux - Fire (buy album)

Patti Smith - Gloria (buy album)

[By the way, thanks for all the great suggestions in response to my last post.]


Paul said...

I just re-read this post and it seems kind of stupid. Oh well, it was what was on my mind.

Anonymous said...

Isn't that a Glenn Campbell song?

Anyway, in recent years I mostly choose music based on how well it helps me keep my pain under control...I'm discovering all these fancy names for the crap I've dealing with: Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, Myofascial Pain Syndrome, Posttraumatic Hyperirritability Syndrome (that last one is makes me scream whenever somebody knocks on my door), and what to do about it, all by myself, because doctors are idiots. So I tend to favor music that's either super mellow or super familiar. Because I don't deal with SURPRISE well. Hey, you asked.

Bill said...

Really interesting analysis. For me it was always just the "sound". did it hit me, move me, make me open my eyes a bit?
But I really like your Venn diagrams. I would probably label them as the "sound", the "passion" and the "riffs or quality". My records were The Band, Allman Brothers, later Bruce and then later still an obscure song done at a Dylan concert called Born in Time. A friend had given me a tape and now I'm a certified Bob head.
Anyway, this is going to be expanded at my blog (link at web site below)
You showed up on Google's news alert dealy so that's cool.
I have a music news site at Lakin Report. Let me know if you come across anything you think I should know about.

Matt.H said...

I think you've captured the ever revolving chambers of a music lover's heart and mind very well here. Us music lovers always have to have something new to chew upon, and you're right in that something new could just as easily be an artist we'd somehow overlooked, like Lizzy Mercier Descloux as it could the first album purchased in 2009, which for me was Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavillion. London Calling is a great example of an album that blows you away from the word go but never seems to deteriorate or date in it's original impact. However I would put this record in the nostalgia category, but that's simply because I rarely play the album now, mainly due to the fact that I so often hear many of it's songs in films, radio, jukebox etc... that I rarely feel the need to. Plus. of course, I played the album to death to such an extent that it's inextricably tied to a place and time that I don't feel the need to revisit too often. Although the Band is just as great an album for some reason I would categorise that album in the excellence category. I too put the Band's first two albums on the back burner for a while, only to hear a Johnny Cash version of 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' one night that persuaded me there was something gracefully timeless about their songwriting that needed a second look. It took time but slowly I got to appreciate the music of the Band and now count their first two albums and Before The Flood amongst my favourite LPs.
The Flatlanders belongs in the same category no doubt but the solo
work of Butch Hancock is something fresh to me now because I've had it
tucked away at the back of my collection for a while and now I'm only now finally giving it a fair hearing. 'The Ghost Of Give And Take Avenue' being a favourite of mine at the moment. 'Crossing Muddy Waters' by John Hiatt is another album I'd given up on but recently played again, only this time everything clicked into place and I now count it as possibly his greatest album.
When I'm in the middle of a rut, often I'll turn to something new, like a new genre perhaps, or something challengingly stubborn that preferably explodes somewhere along the line. The Gun Club, Thin White Rope and Sonic Youth are artists I often turn to because they seem to realise my frustration whilst I'm trying to get under the skin of their music.
Blusier albums like 'Bubblegum' by Mark Lanegan and 'Fire Of Love' by the Gun Club appeal to me more at these moments, along with the more pseychedelic side of folk rock, like Quicksilver Messenger Service's 'Happy Trails' etc....I don't know why certain music appeals at certain moments in time or always why some music appeals to certain moods or why some albums just suddenly click but I think time, place and mood plays a significant role with me. For instance on a cold winter's day
I would play something that I probably wouldn't on a hot summer's day. Sunday mornings also
have a certain feel that dictates what music I play(for me, George Jones). And when it all falls into place sometimes you can hear a great record in a context you'd never noticed before. That's the magic of music, and why we love it, I suppose.

LD said...

If we're talking recorded material, the most important element of music for me is rhythm, followed by texture and dynamics (both of which can contribute to the sense of rhythm). Those three factors should produce something that ain't the same ol' imitation Krusty brand pop song. There should be just enough melody to keep me coming back, but not too much! I don't need to feel like I'm listening to a beer commercial or sitcom theme song. I'm a big boy, I can handle dissonance and rawness. I like my songs to play a little hard to get, ya dig? Finally, somewhere in the end stages, lyrics. The sound of a singer's voice is far more important than the words coming out of it.

The other factor is the music I see live. Whatever wows me at the dive bars and clubs where I usually see music will turn my head around. So, opening bands and touring bands often open up my ears in unexpected ways, which keeps things interesting.

Anonymous said...

... and another thing. As long as our host has already broached the issue of stupid, I guess it's OK for me to note that Talladega Nights has pretty much ruined the word "excellence" for me.

Paul said...

Remember, however, that there is a fine line between stupid and clever.

LD said...

What's wrong with being sexy????

davesap said...

Know the feeling of hearing an instant classic. Songs in this category for me in the last couple years include: A-Punk, Drive On Driver, I Don't Want to Go to the Party, Adir Adirim, Hoya Hoye, The Stoop and Another Perfect Catastrophe. Although it may be too early to know, I think these will stand the test of time with me.

david said...

That Lizzy Mercier album goes for $75 on Crazy, I would love to hear more than this one song which is great.

Matt.H said...

I downloaded both her albums off i-tunes Dave. I'm pretty sure they're available on other download sites like E-Music too.
All her albums and EPs are up there.

simon2307 said...

Excellent post.

"What records were instant classics for you?"

These had me hooked after one play

Decoration Day - Drive-by Truckers
The Specials - The Specials
Guitar Town - Steve Earle
Heartbreaker - Ryan Adams
Copperhead Road - Steve Earle
Wrecking Ball - Emmylou Harris
All Mod Cons - The Jam
Stranger Almanac - Whiskeytown
Nashville - Josh Rouse
After the Goldrush - Neil Young

Vaughn said...

This is why I turn to music, to avoid thinking like brain hurts.

Anonymous said...

...and anothernother thing. I should think a post featuring a Venn Diagram should feature a Blasters track, on account of the singer. No further explanation. Sorry.

frankenslade said...

I love this concept, Paul. I'll have to think about it, but thinking about The Band's s/t album, London Calling, Elvis Costello's Get Happy!!, and many other albums that meet the Excellence criteria, I'm thinking that my "sweet spot" might be the intersection of Excellence and Nostalgia. Albums that pass through the Excellence phase for me are not always albums loaded with Freshness, but they often get attached to a specific time and place in my life, giving them that Nostalgia quality while maintaining the Excellence. Other albums go from Freshness to Nostalgic, bypassing the Excellence ring. My Venn diagram would have to account for that, connecting those two circles directly as well as connecting each through Excellence. An album that would be at the intersection of Freshness and Nostalgia, for me, would be Papas Fritas' second album (sorry, I just blanked on the title). Good stuff!