A Year of Listening Dangerously (Part 1) by Daniel Letourneau
A Year of Listening Dangerously
Lessons Learned from Listening to a Thousand Albums in 2017
Part I: Introduction
Sometime in the waning months of 2016, around time when days are short and nights are lit by houses draped in multicolored LEDs, I decided I would have an actual new year's resolution in 2017. I'm not usually one to set any sort of goals for myself, but I knew this one was attainable. My particular capitalist-wage-slave occupation is one where I am able to listen to music while I work, and I do, mostly to drown out the sounds of various bodily noises and inane conversations taking place within earshot of me at any given time, but also because I like listening to music. I liked it enough to devote quite a bit of time and money to studying it in some capacity prior to my capitalist-wage-slave occupation. I figure the least I can do—you know, while my labor is being exploited— is listen to as much music as possible while I can. It was time to roll up my sleeves, put on my headphones, and do some research.
My resolution? I was going to listen to 1,000 albums in 2017.
It feels a little silly to say out loud. I wasn’t quitting smoking or pledging to go to the gym (you can pry my cigarette from my cold, feeble hands). Doing the math, listening to 1,000 albums over 365 days averages out to only 2.739726 albums per day, which then looks less impressive. But 1,000 is a nice enough large number that it seems significant when spoken with enough gusto.
“I'm going to listen to ONE THOUSAND albums in 2017!”
Why, you ask? Well, for attention, obviously, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this, but also for less egomaniacal reasons. As I said, I was already listening to a lot of music at my capitalist-wage-slave occupation. The problem was that it was hard to remember what I had and hadn't listened to yet. I needed some kind of organizational oversight to my listening to keep track of each new album. In my first attempt to organize my listening, I would search for various lists of albums (The 100 Weirdest Albums on Spotify, The Best Albums of the 1970s, etc.), copy the list into a document, and then mark off the ones I'd listen to, maybe writing a short note or two alongside. It was a decent way to track progress through these lists, but still didn’t really represent the compendium I was hoping for.
So I began keeping a journal, and each workday I would mark the date and write down the artist and album name of each new record I listened to. I created my first entry on November 28, 2016: Ariel Kalma - An Evolutionary Music (a well-curated compilation of the work of New Age great Ariel Kalma from the fine folks at Rvng Intl.). I was 101 albums into my log by the time January 3, 2017 rolled around and I was ready to begin progress on the 1,000 new albums for 2017. I would need to average roughly 84 albums each month, and, since I was sticking to mostly workdays, about 4 albums per day. I got this.
The first album I listened to was Scenes 2012-2015 by Studio OST, an ambient techno record that I do not remember anything about. A good start! Still, I was off and running, and it felt pretty good to watch the list grow over the next few months. By the middle of June it dawned on me that, having filled up 26 pages of a Word doc, the list was getting a little cumbersome to navigate. I finally decided to hell with it, if I'm going to be anal about keeping track of what I’m listening to, let's go all the way and make some fucking spreadsheets.
I wanted to start the conversation I hope to have here by sharing the final list of 1,000 albums for everyone to see, along with a few observations.
Most Listened to Genres:
New Age (87)
When I switched over to the spreadsheet, I decided I would add some sort of indication of Genre to each entry, because why make a spreadsheet if you can’t make some bitchin’ bar graphs with your data. The problem was I already had half a year’s worth of entries for which I had not marked down a genre. While I won’t start rehashing my analysis of Alain Badiou’s Logics of Worlds (hmu if you want to read that), the idea of genre is something I love thinking and talking about, so I was happy to dive into this latest time-waster. I went through each of the 464 entries I already had, visiting Wikipedia or Discogs pages for reference, trying to make the delicate judgement calls of what to classify something as.
Classifying music always devolves into a question of granularity. If you want to, you can get lost spelunking into the deep, dark hole of genre. Spotify, for example, which accounted for a majority of my listening throughout the year, uses a database of over 1,500 genre tags for its service. I recommend spending some time trawling through them all over at Every Noise At Once. It seems like entirely too many, and there sure is a lot of superfluous bullshit (I’m sorry, you can’t just make “stomp and holler” a genre, especially not one that is somehow statistically more popular than long-agreed-upon genres like Funk, Metal, Disco, Punk, or Folk), but once you start breaking things down, it’s easy to see how it can spiral. There’s Rock music, and then there’s Classic Rock, Punk Rock, Progressive Rock, Folk Rock, Alternative Rock, and on and on.
I didn’t feel it was useful to get so microscopic here; doing so is how you get something like Fourth-World as your most-listened to genre (again, eyes on you, Spotify). Ultimately, I went with a riff on the Discogs system of “Genre” and secondary “Style” if need be, and I tried to keep the total number of different genres low, ending the year with only 28 (compared to 166 according to Spotify), which led to nebulous catch-all categories like Electronic, Jazz, or Experimental racking up entries. I played fast and loose with the distinctions between some categories as well. Electronic became a go-to for a lot of music that prominently featured synths or digital processing. If there was more of an adherence to or foregrounding of rhythm—particularly 4/4 dance rhythms—a similar album would be filed under Electronica; if the mood was a certain way, it would go under Ambient, unless it was compositionally more like Drone; if it was on the weirder or more challenging end of the spectrum, it might go to Experimental. Hyper-specific distinctions, if any, were left to the Style column.
It is by no means a perfect system, and could easily be further refined. In fact, while writing this I’ve gone through the list several times making changes, and I’ll probably go back tomorrow and change more stuff that’ll render all this analysis obsolete. Oh well.
Most Listened to Artists (by number of albums listened):
Hiroshi Yoshimura (10)
The Caretaker (9)
Alice Coltrane (8)
King Tubby (8)
Upper Astral (8)
Sun Ra (7)
Franco Battiato (6)
Bohren & Der Club of Gore (5)
Chihei Hatakeyama (5)
Eliane Radigue (5)
This year, I noticed a lot more people sharing their Spotify Year In Review statistics on social media. It’s a fun way to understand a little more about yourself and show all your friends how cool you are. I have no objection to that—after all, I’m in the midst of writing essays about the same thing—but I did not share mine, because I knew Spotify was feeding me bullshit. Fake news, I cried! … OK, so, it’s not really bullshit. I can’t really question Spotify telling me I listened to 41,521 minutes of music. I didn’t keep track of that, but at least when I compared what they told me my top artists were with my own hard data, the results were completely different. Along with the number of albums by each artist I had marked as listen to in my list, my Spotify top 5 was:
Kendrick Lamar (1)
Only 1 album looks way off for being my top artist, but DAMN. was my favorite album of the year, and I listened to it a ton. I may have also snuck a listen to good kid, m.A.A.d city at some point which wasn’t marked in my 1,000 album list.
2. Wun Two (4)*
Using an asterisk because I marked these as 3 LP’s, plus 2 short EP’s combined into one entry. I listened to a lot of instrumental hip-hop this year, albums of which tend to have a lot of tracks. No exception, these albums totaled 77 tracks, and I think that had a lot to do with the results.
3. Lee Bannon (3)
I was the most surprised by this one, but same as Wun Two, Bannon’s The Big Toy Boy 1 and 2 are albums of instrumental hip-hop beats, which along with his more experimental Pattern of Excel totaled 80 tracks. Guess I must have re-listened to some Wun Two tracks.
4. The Revolutionaires (2)
Only two albums, but I know I listened to Drum Sound: More Gems from the Channel One Dub Room 1974-1980 a lot, particularly a few specific cuts which remained in heavy rotation throughout the year.
5. Damu the Fudgemunk (3)
As a beat-maker, he’s in a similar boat to Wun Two and Lee Bannon, but his Vignettes was also one of my favorite albums of the year and got a lot of play.
Of course, the real difference I wouldn’t have expected my list of top artists to be the same as Spotify’s list for me was that a lot of those were artists whose work I was listening to on platforms other than Spotify, mainly YouTube or Bandcamp. In fact, Yoshimura, The Caretaker, and Upper Astral all had no work on Spotify at all (with the exception of the late-2017 reissue of Yoshimura’s Music for Nine Postcards, which I had already listened to on YouTube).
Total Number of Artists: ~742
A rough estimate given some organizational quirks, like differently named entries for what is the same person (“Steve Halpern” and “Steven Halpern”). This also does not include the artists who appeared on the 31 entries for Various Artists compilations. Still, that makes around three-quarters of the 1,000 albums unique artist entries. Not bad for diversification. For what it’s worth, Spotify told me I listened to 2,032 different artists in 2017, which is wild.
Number of 2017 New Releases Listened to: 185
Number of 2017 Reissues Listened to: 60
There’s a notable shift in the number of new and newly reissued albums I listened to as the year progressed. Through the first six months of the year I had only listened to 33 new releases and 14 reissues. I probably started seeing a lot of “the best new releases of the year—so far!” articles around June and realized, oh shit, I have no idea what’s going on in the real world of music. Things picked up in the second half of the year, gaining considerable steam in October and November when I listened to 100 new releases and 27 reissues as I crammed for Year in Review discussions. You can hear my discussion with Domesticated Primate head honcho Nick LeBlanc over on Soundcloud or Mixcloud.
Months I Listened to the Most Albums:
I definitely remember March being an especially good listening month. This was when I first started diving deep into Italian minimalism and vaporwave, along with continued exploration of dub, jazz, and new age. This month in particular proved that the easiest way to rack up entries was to know what you wanted to listen to next. Bumbling around Spotify or YouTube looking for the next thing only eats into your listening time! Just go ahead and listen to all four volumes of Randall McClellan’s “The Healing Music of Rana,” or march your way through Black Sweat Records’ whole catalog and you too can be putting up 8 albums a day on your way to 1,000.
Days I Listened to the Most Albums:
Tuesday, February 7 (9 albums)
Thursday, March 2 (8)
Tuesday, March 7 (8)
Tuesday, October 24 (8)
Friday, November 10 (8)
Tuesdays, amirite guys?! *jigs offstage*
I encourage you to poke around the full list for a first-hand look at my insanity. While my personal listening journal will continue, I’m not dedicated to reaching a new thousand albums in 2018. Instead, I’m thinking more about looking back. Throughout this new year, I’ll be writing essays and making playlists to dive into some of my favorite discoveries from last year and answer burning questions like “Why does this yahoo listen to so much New Age music?”, attempt to guide you through the for the best Sun Ra albums, or lament the fact that Zoogz Rift doesn’t have any other songs as good as “Would You F-I-B to the FBI?”. I hope you’ll find something new to listen to as a result.
Tune in next time for Part II of A Year of Listening Dangerously: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dub.