Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Making of a Best-Songs-of-the-Decade List: An Interview (Part 2 of 4)

Part 2 of the interview

Q) How do you listen to the songs? Do you already own most of them? Youtube? Purchase? Nefarious means?

A) I purchase all my music. I feel strongly about that. I’m not rich, but I have a good enough job that I can afford to infuse some money into the recorded-music economy. I say the “recorded-music economy” specifically because I don’t get out to a lot of shows, and I think it’s recorded music more than live music that’s endangered by free downloads. I don’t like Youtube. I’m a music listener, not a music watcher, and I’ve also never invested in nice speakers for my computer. Listening to music on the computer just makes me grouchy, and not a good counterculture-punk-rock sort of grouchy.

I own everything that’s on any of my lists. For one thing, iTunes playlists are central to how I do my organizing and ranking, but, for another thing, how can I say it’s one of the best songs ever if I can’t even be bothered to buy it myself? As a vinyl-lover, I was kind of a late adopter with CDs.  I think it was the realization that a bunch of hard-to-find prog rock was available on CD that got me to buy a CD player in 1990. I continued buying used vinyl at that point, but very little new vinyl. Working on this project definitely made me happy with my choices to buy CDs instead of vinyl. I do like listening to music on a turntable, but I like having all my music with me on my iPod even better. Now, I think I probably spend about as much on mp3 downloads (mostly eMusic) as I do at record stores (mostly Amoeba).

Q) What is the ranking process? Is it mathematical in nature? Or just based on feel?

A) I start with the big unsorted list of candidate songs in an iTunes playlist, and then one by one I drag and drop them towards the top of the list to roughly where I think they belong.  As I’m doing this, I try not to dwell too much on precisely where they belong. There are songs that are obvious top 40 contenders and there are others that are obviously borderline for making the list at all. The overall list has to start to take shape before I can get too far into the head-to-head rankings.

Generally, during this drag and drop process, there will be songs that I pass over and over as I’m dragging other songs past them, and I realize they were ranked too high. There are other songs that act sort of like firewalls that other good songs get stuck behind, and I realize those songs were ranked too low. I try to correct for those sort of misrankings as I go. Since I’m doing this in iTunes, I frequently listen to the songs as I’m dragging and dropping. Songs with great intros can shoot up the chart fast, and songs with great intros and annoying singers (think Rush or Journey) can move up and down by as much as 100 places as I’m listening to them.

Q) What qualities are you looking for in a song? i.e. What makes one song "better" or "worse" than another?

A) I decided a while ago that there really isn’t any such thing as good music and bad music.  I didn’t think that when I was a snobby college radio station music director, but I think it now. No songs are really any better or worse than others, with the possible exception of Kenny G. There are only songs I want to hear again really, really soon and songs I don’t want to hear again anytime soon. That’s definitely not the only criteria, but there’s really heavy weighting given to how psyched do I think I’m going to be to hear that song come up on random play on the iPod.

A problem with the how-soon-do-I-want-to-hear-it criteria is that there are great songs that I’ve already heard a thousand times. I don’t even think there’s any hyperbole when I say “a thousand times.” I really try to listen to those songs with fresh ears and think about what I’d think of them if I hadn’t heard them so many times. I don’t know if that’s even possible, but it’s what I pretend to myself I’m doing. There’s also the issue of what other people think. If my wife really likes a song, mostly I like that song more myself because when it comes on, I know both of us are going to be happy. It can’t be that only she likes it. I have to like it first and foremost myself, but, if she likes it too, that’s a bonus. It subconsciously sways me to being happier to hear that song playing, and I’m not going to deny myself that happiness. It’s the same with my kids. My 6-year-old loves Pinball Wizard and learned all the lyrics and you better believe it’s going to be high on my 60s list.

I definitely care a lot more about the music than the lyrics. There are way, way, way too many rock critics that can’t write a review without trying to tell you about every silly thing the singer is emoting through his or her mediocre lyrics, and they have to quote whatever couplet they found that best exemplifies this point even if it’s the worst song on the record. Good lyrics definitely improve a song and lousy lyrics can diminish an otherwise great song, but pop songs are mostly about the hooks and the riffs, the grooves and the choruses, getting the blend right between the familiar and the unexpected.

Some songs definitely get bonus points for being groundbreaking and other songs lose points for being derivative. Songs that are on great albums probably get a bit of a boost and occasionally lead to some of my more idiosyncratic choices. For instance, there’s a Sloan song in my top 5 of the 90s that didn’t even make it onto Sloan’s greatest hits record, but Sloan was one of my favorite 90s bands and Navy Blues was probably my favorite record of the 90s, so the particular song that I liked best on that record may have gotten an unreasonable boost.

In terms of the head-to-head rankings, when I got to the point of finalizing the list, I found a number of issues a bit challenging. On the 80s list, especially, I was a little surprised at how many hardcore songs made it to the top of the list. The thing is, when you put a great hardcore song up head-to-head with a great new wave song, it’s kind of hard to not envision the hardcore song kickin’ the new wave song’s ass. A great new wave song can’t get beaten by a so-so hardcore song, but, if they’re both great, the one that’s faster and louder and grittier just has an unfair advantage. I can’t totally justify it, but I definitely experienced it.

The head-to-head comparisons between serious jazz and everything else are tough too. What in the world does it mean to say that Martha and the Muffins’ Echo Beach is ever so slightly better than myfavorite track by the David Murray Octet? In cases like that, I just have to fall back on my how-soon-do-I-want-hear-it-again rule, which trumps all the absurd notions of greatness that sometimes prevent us from liking what we honestly like the most. I had to make exceptions for the 70s list. Classics like “Stairway to Heaven,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” and “Imagine” aren’t properly ranked according to how soon I want to hear them, so some intangible notion of those songs’ perceived greatness definitely pushed them up the list. Having said that, “Imagine” is definitely one of those songs that’s way too high on most critics’ lists because of the lyrics. Yes – the lyrics make an impressive statement, but the song as a whole is simply not Lennon’s best. Lennon knew how to rock and that song doesn’t rock. I think I’m already regretting including it in my top 100. It was #3 on Rolling Stone’s best of all time list, incidentally.

Putting top 40 songs up side-to-side with obscure recordings was also tough. Listening to them side-by-side, the polished musicianship of some of the top 40 hits can make some of my obscure personal favorites sound a bit shambling. This is one of the ways in which making a highly personal idiosyncratic list competes with a desire to have the list withstand at least a bit of external scrutiny. Bargepole is one example. I thought they’d be higher on my 80s list, because I absolutely love their record “Sodbuster.” Bargepole was one of many bands I discovered through some big record buys at a store in Toronto called the Record Peddler that had a ton of super-cheap vinyl from UK indie labels during the mid 90s. Ultimately, though, when I had to play it side-by-side against a lot of other songs that are better known, I found it just didn’t stand up quite as well as I expected. A lot of obscure bands are, I have to admit, obscure for a reason.

Both novelty songs and songs that were novel were hard for me as well. Robert Wyatt’s Soup Song is one of my very favorite songs from the 70s. It really embodies the name of my last radio show, “Pleasant Mutations” (WRUW-FM Cleveland ’92-’94), and I’ve always loved the fact that the vocals are expressed from the point of view of a bacon sandwich. When it came to deciding what did and didn’t make the cut for the top 40 though, I think the bacon sandwich perspective became more of a hindrance than an advantage.  Another hard one was Jerry Reed’s Semi-GreatPredictor. The song has very little in common with anything else Jerry Reed did and the lyric “He views the world with vision and with tact. He ponders human fate and then profoundly states that infinity will take up all the slack.” Check me out, quoting couplets like the rock critics for whom I supposedly hold so much disdain. Because I have so much respect for Jerry Reed’s musicianship, demonstrated on dozens of other songs, I didn’t feel like I could make “Semi-Great Predictor” the highest ranking Jerry Reed song on the list and it ended up much lower than I expected. I’m listening to it right now. I’m really not comfortable with the choice I made on that one, but there’s plenty to cause discomfort in terms of the choices on the list.

Some other surprises included Wings. The Wings albums are so disappointing compared to the Beatles records, it’s easy to forget that pretty much every one of them had at least one really great song. Because of the obvious comparison to the Beatles, I really don’t think Wings gets enough respect. On the 80s list, I was a little surprised that “Back in Black” didn’t end up higher.  I think the “Back in Black” I hear in my head when it isn’t playing is better than the actual song. It’s also one of those cusp-of-the-decade songs that might well have charted higher for me if it were evaluated next to the songs of the 70s than it did compared to the songs of the 80s. Songs that were somehow archetypical of the decade generally got some bonus points, either consciously or subconsciously. Andy Gibb’s “Shadow Dancing” ended up a whole lot higher than I would have anticipated. I didn’t even like that song that much in the 70s, but it’s a remarkably well done song that marks the final days of an era. It was one of the last Gibb brother songs before “Tragedy” and “Too Much Heaven.” I thought one of those songs would make the list, but the singing is just too annoying to stand even if “Tragedy” has a great hook.

Parts 3 and 4 of the interview will follow in future posts

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