Category: music

On listening to albums

For many years I’ve been working on watching all the films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book. Not the one linked, with Lady Gaga on the front, but a 2003 version which quickly lost its sleeve, and over long years of consultation its cover, and now sits as a well-loved, half-bound pile of papers on my shelf. My pace in this endeavour has varied considerably, but I’ve seen 717 of the films, and you can see my progress here. At my current rate I won’t finish for decades, but hopefully I’ll be able to accelerate sometime soon. You know, during that vast expanse of free time always just visible on the horizon, across the eternal vale of the near future.

Sitting next to it in a similar state of disrepair is 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, another ambitious undertaking and quite a good list. Although I’ve loved this book too, and found many of my favourite albums in it, I’ve never worked out how to ensure progress through its pages.

The problem seems to be that seeing a film is more binary than listening to an album. Either you’ve seen it or you haven’t. Of course, it’s not quite so simple as that; attention and mood must affect absorption, and the age at one sees a film can profoundly change perception. In an extreme case, I remember watching, when I was 21, La dolce vita, with my 12-year-old sister. After the film finished there was a long pause: I was entering an existential morass, whereas my sister finally said, “That’s it?!”

Nonetheless it is fair to say that a single listen to an album does little justice to its merits, when compared to seeing a film. Why this is is an interesting question, which I’ll consider below.

But first, I’ve come up with a solution for how to track progress with albums. It’s an idea that’s been on my mind for some time, but I’ve only recently put it into practice. It involves spaced repetition. I figured this would be a pain, but it’s actually quite easy.

I’ve just created a “Albums” deck in the Anki flashcards app. The front side of each card has “Artist – Album (Year)” and the back side has nothing at all, at the moment. For a few albums I’ve added track listings on the back side, but I’ve found that the lower overhead of just entering the basic metadata on the front seems to work.

So then I open Anki, it shows me some flashcard with an album, and I’ll listen to that album, and score the card just as if it were a memorisation, based on how well I remember the album. (Really, I score it with something more like how ready I predict I will be to listen to the album in X time, which does seem to vary.) Anki then stays in charge of the order in which I listen to the albums. Eventually I’ll probably feel I’ve “mastered” the album, whatever that means, and I’ll tick the album off from the 1001 list.

Why is music harder to absorb than film?

In terms of length, density, and complexity, a film, ought, by rights, to be harder to absorb than an album. Consider:

  • A classic album can be as short as 30 minutes, with the longest double-albums stretching to about 90. Films are rarely shorter than 90 minutes, and can be substantially longer. To give just examples from the 1001 book, Lawrence of Arabia, Once Upon a Time in America, Gone with the Wind, and La belle noiseuse are each nearly four hours—but the book also sees fit to include Riget, a TV show that comes in at 4 hours 40, and Shoah, a documentary of 9 hours. 
  • More obviously, films require that you look at them. Though it’s possible that this makes it easier to absorb a film, since your full attention is engaged. Still, I think even sitting still with exclusive attention to an album would not result in the same level of familiarity as watching a film for the first time.
  • Digital data requirements confirm this: An album, even in its uncompressed form, is rarely more than a few hundred megabytes. MP3 compression yields <100 megabytes per CD. The blu-ray of Andrei Rublev (technically also compressed) is 41 gigabytes.
  • Given the above constraints, a film could easily contain a whole album in its soundtrack.

So what is it about music that makes it take more time and repetition? I have a few speculations.

  • Rhythm itself. Film is not inherently repetitive. And I virtually never want to watch a film again immediately after seeing it. (The same goes for novels, incidentally.) But a day after hearing a great album for the first time, I can hear it rattling around in my mind in such a way that demands another listen.
  • Poetry. Perhaps film could be likened more broadly to prose, and music to poetry. I’ve noticed that it takes me several reads to really get poetry, which is rarely the case with prose. Music, of course, tends to contain language much closer to poetry than to prose as well. Modern songwriting is, at least in my life, the only form in which I still encounter metre and rhyme, unless I’m deliberately reading old poetry. For whatever reason, metric poetry is no longer practised in mainstream English culture, except in music.
  • Memorisation. Related to the above, I don’t feel I’ve “learned” an album until I can remember most of its lyrics. That is not the case with films. I’ve never been one to memorise dialogue.

I may revisit this list soon, since I’m only a week into this Anki scheme. But so far it’s already expanded my musical horizons, with highlights being Dwight Yoakum‘s Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room (1988), Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding (1967), and, perhaps unexpectedly, Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? (2019), all of which are excellent.

I’m probably also going to set up Anki for memorising poems, which I’ve not done enough of since I was a teen.

Three Concerts in a Week

And they couldn’t have been more different. Last Thursday I had the privilege of seeing mclusky* at The Garage in Islington. I’ve been a big fan of theirs since uni, and because they broke up in early 2005 (before I’d ever considered coming to the UK), I figured I’d never get to see them. I bought tickets the minute I got the Songkick alert. The band has only performed once since then with a revised line-up, so there was a great atmosphere at the sold-out venue.
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The 50 Best Album Opening Lines

I haven’t written much about music because I haven’t been listening to much but the same old stuff I’ve listened to for years. Case in point, today I was listening to Nirvana’s In Utero (1993; can you believe it’s been twenty years?!). The satisfying dissonance of the opening chord of “Serve the Servants” kicked in, and I thought a thought I always think when I put it on: what a brilliant opening line. “Teenage angst has paid off well. Now I’m bored and old.” It serves as a sort of idiomatic update, a response almost, to the equally powerful opening line to an album almost thirty years before it: the UK edition of The Rolling Stones’ Aftermath (1966), which opens with “Mother’s Little Helper” and its unforgettable opener: “What a drag it is getting old.”1 Continue reading

  1. The US release of Aftermath has a different but equally familiar and assertive opening: “I see a red door and I want it painted black.” []