12 Albums

It’s easy to romanticize the medium of our youth. I’m too young to miss vinyl; for me vinyl means Nana Mouskouri’s Christmas album. No one really misses cassettes; except maybe for mix tapes, which we mostly loved because of how much work we put into them. CDs are also hard to lament. They were never very portable; it seemed to take 10 years to develop a portable CD player that didn’t skip. Mostly, though, they were digital. There is really no difference between CD audio and a similarly configured audio file on any other digital medium.

When technology advances, we often realize that we miss the things that were flaws in the previous generation of devices. We miss the warm crackle of vinyl. We miss the sense of accomplishment from hours spent painstakingly crafting the perfect mix tape.

Now that we are awash in the glut of availability of digital music, I’ve come to realize that I’m missing one of those flaws. When I could only afford to buy one CD, I was stuck with it. I would listen to it until I knew every word and every chord.

Now that I have so much music at my disposal, even when I do find music I enjoy, it’s often enjoyed on “Random” or while I work, where my attention is spread far too thin. As a result, I seldom get to the level of familiarity with an album that I did ten years ago. I might get there with a single song, but seldom an entire album.

I do not assume that listening to the same album until it’s burned into your head is inherently better than a more cursory listen to a broader selection. However, familiarity is one of the fundamental elements that makes music something more than just sound. Our brains are good at spotting patterns, and we like completing patterns. Great artists use familiarity as one of their instruments to hack the brain into thinking notes, chords, and rhythms are playful, unexpected, or satisfying.

The deeper you know a piece of music, the greater the opportunity to enjoy it. Each note means something different when you know its coming.

So, I’m trying to artificially re-create a limitation that caused me to get to know a limited number of albums deeply. The limitations used to be accessibility and (mostly) cost. This year, I’m creating my own limitation. Each month, I’m choosing one album to focus on. It won’t be the only thing I listen to, but it will be the first thing I go to each time I start up some music. I’ll also listen to the entire album, in order, each time I’m looking to listen to a long stretch of music.

I’m curious to see if there is any more joy to be squeezed out of music by concentrating on a small set of albums this way.

Last year, without any such regime, I did end up enjoying a few albums this at this level: Fantasies by Metric, Far by Regina Spektor, Welcome to the Night Sky by Wintersleep, Three by Joel Plaskett, Into Your Lungs by Hey Rosetta!, Read Less Minds by Mardeen, and a few others.

Nice, Nice, Very Nice by Dan Mangan

The albums I’ll choose for each month won’t be the best albums of the year (many I might not have heard at all before I choose them, as was the case when buying albums 10 years ago). For January, I have chosen the album Nice, Nice, Very Nice by Dan Mangan.

It’s a good way to start the experiment. It’s a good album, but not something I would count among my all time favourites. If it had been one of a dozen albums I was listening to, I would never have gotten as much enjoyment out of this album as I have in the past few weeks.

I have eleven more albums to go this year. I will certainly include the upcoming release from Wintersleep. Suggestions for other albums are welcome.


10 thoughts on “12 Albums

  1. Please share your favorites when you’re done Steven! (Preferably before 2011 — time waits for no man and all that.)

  2. I’ve had very similar thoughts about my music consumption over the past couple of years. I too miss knowing individual pieces of music (well, albums) as well I used to.

    I challenge you to pick something outside your comfort norms as one of your months picks. Nothing drastic like Norwegian Death Metal, but something to mimic the old process of buying a cd/tape/etc based on review/recommendation, and immediately being disappointed by it.

    Only to force yourself to listen to it again and again (since you only have 12 or whatever musical choices), and realize, with time, that you really like the music (or maybe you’ve just brainwashed yourself).

    But giving music that doesn’t immediately hit a pleasure note is a skill we’ve lost as well. Some of my now all time favourite albums followed that very process.

  3. Despite having access to literally thousands of albums, I’ve somehow continued my early practice of selecting and essentially “wearing out” a single album before moving on to another. In doing so, I’ve somehow managed to begin with classical music, pass through the golden oldies of the 50’s, and wind up on German death metal. I’m not sure how that happened.

  4. I’ve felt the same way about music for a while now. I find it so hard to be able to sit with, connect to, and fully absorb an album the way I used to. Some suggestions for future ones:

    For a pretty sure bet… but a good chance you already have it:

    Dave Marsh – The True Love Rules
    Fantastic album. Very Atl. Cdn. (comme Sloan, Super Friendz, Plaskett, etc), familiar, and reminiscent of stuff like classic Bowie, Costello, and Lou Reed.

    For a different style:

    Alex Cuba – Agua del Pozo
    A great listen, and since I understand almost none of the Spanish, a perfect album to listen to while working. I don’t find it so distracting. The Buena Vista Social Club album would be great for you in this way, too, if you’ve never listened to the whole thing.

  5. Great idea – I’ve often felt the same way about the availability of digital music. Too much of a good thing, maybe?

    Are you planning on trying out recent releases each month, or do lost classics count too?

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  7. Steve you have missed out being to young for Vinyl, the excitment of getting a Clash LP or The Jam, pure heaven

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