The Joy of Shuffling (Music) and the End of Sameness

Imaginary Interviewer: So, is there any kind of music you don’t like?
Me: Yes.  I don’t like the same music.
Imaginary Interviewer: The same as what?
Me: The same as the music that was just on.

There was a time in my life when I listened to albums (and, later, CDs) from beginning to end. Many albums in the 1960s and 1970s were composed, not of a few singles and a bunch of filler, which had been the standard formula since the LP arrived in the mid-1950s, but of a through-composed artwork, in which songs were arranged in a particular order for an artistic reason. The artist meant the listener to hear Side A, Track 3 right after Side A, Track 2 and right before Side A, Track 4 – to hear the songs out of the context of the album was to miss part of the experience.  But that phase did not last.  Whether it was the times that were a-changin’, or whether it was me, as I reached my mid-20s in the 1980s, I found that listening to an entire recording of a single artist was something I did less and less.

It may have started with the technology.  I didn’t bring a turntable to college – just a tape player. This meant I had to record albums onto tapes to bring with me.  I found that I had room at the ends of the tapes after taping an album, so I would throw on a few songs from another album. When I only wanted to hear a few songs from certain albums, I would combine them onto one tape.  Then during college, I began putting together tapes for events – background music for the breaks during a concert, or a dance tape for a party.  I recalled the mixes of music that my favorite bands would play over the PA system before a concert.  But more than anything, I remembered the joy of radio.

Some of my best childhood memories are of sitting in my parents’ station wagon in the 60s and 70s, driving to some relative’s house, and listening to the music on the radio.  When I was growing up, my parents listened to WNEW-AM, a New York station that played adult popular music – I remember hearing lots of Frank Sinatra (referred to reverently as “The Chairman of the Board”), Dionne Warwick singing Bacharach tunes, country crossover hits like Ode to Billie Joe and I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, and even Spike Jones’ Gunga Din parody.  What I loved about listening to DJs like Jonathan Schwartz and William B. Williams was that I never knew what was coming next.  Sure, I suppose occasionally they would try that DJ trick – “Coming up, [Insert Name of Hit Song Here]”, then cut to commercial – but most of the time, one song would follow another, and I was surprised.  Once I had my own radio, I switched over to the FM rock stations, first WPLJ and then the more eclectic and intellectual WNEW-FM, where I also got to hear Jonathan Schwartz, along with Vin Scelsa, Allison Steele and others.  There was something magical about finding a radio station that shared my tastes in music, where the DJs picked out the songs in a way that made absolute sense but was completely unexpected. Except for those rare occasions when WNEW-FM DJs would play an entire album, or album side, the measuring unit was not the album but the song.

As I grew older and my musical interests and collection began to grow, I could no longer find a radio station that reflected my musical tastes.  But my love for the radio format (without the ads, of course) meant I rarely had the patience to listen to multiple songs by the same artist.  For one thing, I didn’t have the time.  For another, I found that there were certain artists and types of music that I appreciated more as one element in a patchwork quilt than a monoculture.  As much as I love old blues artists like Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, or Memphis Minnie, after a song or two, I am ready to move on to other sounds.  The same goes for many of the artists in the catch-all genre known as world music.  As I began to teach myself about classical, jazz, blues, country, hip hop, world and other unfamiliar genres, I found that I often appreciated the songs more when they were placed in unfamiliar surroundings.  Listening to 18 Charlie Parker tracks in succession may be a mind-blowing experience, but if the individual tracks stand out at all, it is as part of the whole.  Listening to a Charlie Parker track after a Modest Mouse track, a James Brown track or a Philip Glass track, on the other hand, places the bebop in high relief – the contrast adds to the experience.  The surprise of the unexpected sound, the act of recognizing it for what it is, and then listening closely, are all part of the experience I treasure.

My devotion to mix and match began in the era of CDs and tapes – I would select songs from various CDs – pulling favorite tracks from all my Elvis Costello CDs to make a personal greatest hits, or mixing various artists to create an alternative country mix, or a mix of sad, slow songs. Then, to up the ante, I began experimenting with aleatory techniques, inspired by John Cage – I would select every 7th CD from my shelves and record the 7th track, for example. Or I would select a song title beginning with the letter A, then B, etc.  I was fascinated and often amused by the juxtapositions such methods created.  Unintended thematic continuities would crop up from time to time.  At other times, it became a random tour through my music collection.  The problem, of course, was that, after a few listens, even a randomly-organized CD eventually became predictable – I knew that after the Astor Piazzolla tango came the Andrew Bird, then the Fats Waller, etc.

When the digital revolution arrived, I transferred my methods to the computer.  After uploading over 2000 CDs into my iTunes library, I began to make mixed CDs on various themes, including a fair number of random mixes.  Smart Playlist allowed me to create mixes that eliminated certain genres, so I created many mix CDS under the headings of “No Classical”, “No Classical, No Jazz” and “No Classical, No Jazz, No Blues.”  iTunes introduced the “Shuffle” function, which randomized my music collection without any tricky aleatory techniques (although I sometimes question the algorithm when two songs of the same artist or genre play after one another).

The introduction of the iPod made the shuffle function portable.  Now I could listen to my entire music collection on a random search – I never knew what song was coming next, but I knew it would be something I would appreciate because it was part of the music collection I had created.  This lasted for a few years until my music collection inevitably expanded beyond the iPod’s capacity – of the 25,000+ songs currently in my iTunes library, fewer than 16,000 fit on my 80 gigabyte iPod, requiring me to trim most of the classical and jazz from the mobile collection.  If I want a truly random shuffle of my collection, I have to listen to it at my desktop at home.  Still, the 15,964 songs on my iPod provide me with an enormous number of surprises.  On those rare occasions when I take the car to work, I hook up my iPod and the traffic jams vanish as I listen to my perfect radio station – it has no commercials, it has my music collection, and I never know what’s coming next.

To give you a glimpse at the soundtracks for my commutes, here are the results of my last few iPod shuffles:
O’ Sailor – Fiona Apple
Turtles – Flying Lotus
Do What You Have to Do – Sarah McLachlan
Fio Maravilha – Jorge Ben & Toquinho
Last Call – Kanye West
Elks Parade – Bobby Sherwood
Upswing – Dave Holland Big Band
Come As You Are (live) – Nirvana
Diamond Dogs – David Bowie
Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg) – Sonic Youth
The Streets of Laredo – Johnny Cash
Submission – Sex Pistols
I’ve Been Working – Van Morrison
Forever Yours – Carl Perkins
Say Hello to Angels – Interpol
Race for the Prize – The Flaming Lips
Slippin’ Around with You – Dan Penn
Paperback Writer – The Beatles
The Circle Game – Joni Mitchell
We Live Again – Beck
I Think I’m Down – The Harbinger Complex
Change Is Now – The Byrds
A Million Days – Prince
Young Love – Sonny James
Vaya Nina – Machito & His Afro-Cubans
What’s the Buzz/Strange Thing Mystifying – Jesus Christ Superstar Soundtrack
Man Called Uncle – Elvis Costello
Yellow Sun – The Raconteurs
All I See – Linda Thompson
Cottonbelt – Lone Justice
Eddie’s Ragga – Spoon
Slipped – The National
Thin Man – Suzanne Vega
Little Sisters of Beijing – These Are Powers
Lots of Drops of Brandy – The Chieftains
Lifted by Love – k.d. lang
Julia Brightly – Caribou
Soma – The Strokes
Rhythm of the Pouring Rain – Vince Gill
Turn on Your Love Light – Bobby “Blue” Bland
I’m Not Talking – The Yardbirds
When Will We Be Married? – The Waterboys
You Still Believe in Me – The Beach Boys
Grow Slowly – Sibling Rivalry
(I Know) I’m Losing You – Rod Stewart
Blue Bayou – Roy Orbison
In Love with You – Erykah Badu
Complications – Steve Forbert
Agent Orange – Tori Amos
Rip This Joint – The Rolling Stones
String Quartet No. 5: Fifth Movement – Emerson String Quartet (Béla Bartók)
The Hardest Part – Coldplay
Foire Internationale – Orchestra Baobab
Bows + Arrows – The Walkmen
Tenderness – Deb Talan
Wasted – Letters to Cleo
The Voyage – The Moody Blues
Alabama – Neil Young
Don’t Get Excited – Graham Parker & the Rumour
If You Call – Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
The World is Waiting for the Sunrise – Coleman Hawkins

 

 

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