The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 2: Making Playlists

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

The “Spotify Chronicles” were/are cobbled together out of random music-based thoughts I shared with the Institute of Idle Time (see previous entry for more on those tasteless wretches) via instant messaging as I “worked” from home, or typed piecemeal into a constantly-open Google Doc late at night as I was drinking old-fashioneds and plugged into my earbuds…keep in mind, these are unvarnished opinions, and chunks of the following are literally copied-and-pasted out of IM discussions, with a few editorial tweaks to keep it semi-coherent…

So I’m doing a lot of listening and making a lot of playlists. I suppose I should start by giving you my definition of a playlist.

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A decades-themed “mixtape” on Spotify

To my mind, a playlist is dedicated to a single band or artist, and is a microcosm of that artist’s entire discography. Greatest hits, obviously, but also personal-favorite Deep Cuts, maybe a few live tracks, and some other odds & sods, like something that popped up on a movie soundtrack but nowhere else. This definition dates from a pre-streaming era when you had to boil your physical-media music collection down to make it portable — either onto blank cassettes, or blank CDs after a certain point in music-copying history.

One of the advantages of making playlists from streaming platforms is that there’s no time limit, which expands your options. On the other hand, I do remember enjoying the challenge of a time limit. An 80-minute CD-R or 90-minute cassette imposed boundaries to work within. It was all about maximizing space. I remember being appalled when WH used up fifteen minutes of a Hendrix compilation with the blues workout “Voodoo Child.” (“And I’d do it again,” he asserted when asked about it recently.) And if you ran out of space for a really good artist with a lengthy career? You did Volume 2, Volume 3…

Now let’s draw a distinction between “playlists” and “mixes” (which I will almost always refer to here as “mixtapes”). 

Playlists are a reference work, a song-based encyclopedia entry. Mixtapes are more like literature. They can be thematic, or mood-based. They take you on a journey. You can do a single artist mixtape, but they tend to be multi-artist. Mixtapes are finite, they are a finished work. Playlists can be endlessly tinkered with, revised, and updated, especially when you’re as neurotic about them as I am.

I use mixtape in the broadest possible sense, of course. The term obviously originated in the days of the cassette tape, but for over twenty years now, all of my “mixtapes” have been burned CDs or made online. (And muddying the waters a bit, streaming services generically call any list or mix you make a “playlist.”)

If you’re going analog, a 60-minute cassette, thirty minutes a side, are best for mixes. Mixtapes are often intended to be given to someone else, so you need to keep it short and tight. Don’t want to bore the person you’re trying to impress. You get a slightly better sound quality from a shorter tape, too, and they’re not as likely to break or get tangled. The 90-minute cassette was my standard workhorse for making artist playlists. 120-minute cassettes were available, too, but they were just too fragile and tended to warble a little. Some people swore by Maxell, I was a TDK man. Solid quality at a slightly lower price.

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Sure, you can swap mixtapes with your music-nerd buddies, but I’ve found that mixtapes are almost exclusively made for the object of your affection. This is certainly not an original observation.

My wife lamented awhile back that I made her four mixtapes over the first year we were dating, and then no more. My sister-in-law chimed in said the identical scenario went down between her and my wife’s brother. Mixtape-making for your significant other usually ceases right when cohabitation begins. Mixtapes are supposed to inspire them to think about you when you’re not around. Once you’re snoring next to them on a nightly basis, and they can hear your frankly alarming bathroom noises on the other side of the door, mixtapes seem a tad superfluous. (And new cars don’t even have CD players!)

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R.I.P.

The last time I did something similar to this Spotify project was before streaming became a thing. I spent a summer about ten years ago making iPod playlists. I had ripped my thousand or so CDs into mp3s, and supplemented my collection by flying the BitTorrent Jolly Roger. (I am a reformed man, and now duly pay for my streaming services.)

But iTunes (sorry, “Apple Music”) has been gleefully pissing in the Cheerios of old-school music fans for a number of years now. Every iTunes update actually making the interface objectively worse? Good move, Apple. Blithely “discontinuing” their 160-gig, physical-click wheel iPods? Screw you, Apple. Way to make me hate you forever. So I dumped those shallow Cupertino grassfuckers and started giving my money to the humble Swedes of Spotify Premium. 

So the Spotify Playlists of the 2020 Quarantine were preceded by the 2010 iPod Playlists of the BitTorrent Boom…there was another cycle of making “playlists” ten years before that — right when CD burners became an affordable option — when I was happily listening through my CD collection on a battery-sucking Discman with sponge-covered headphones, and filling Case Logic carrying cases with artist-themed CD-Rs made on my PC. 

(Hear that, Apple? On my PC! And who really preferred super-douchey toolbag Justin Long to nice, earnest John Hodgman in those commercials?) 

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Not coincidentally, I switched to Spotify the day after Tom Petty died, and I immediately poured my grief into a Petty playlist. I added other playlists over the next couple of years when the mood struck me or I was bored at work. I put together some obvious favorites (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Dylan), and some good-but-not-exactly-favorites because that’s what interested me that day (Queen, Steve Earle, a Faces/Small Faces mashup that I’m pretty damn proud of). 

Now I’ve decided to put my socially-distant, non-work time (which is copious) to use filling in the gaps in my Favorite Artists playlists. No Springsteen? There is now! Green Day, which everyone seems to think I like way more than I actually do? They’re on the to-do list. Johnny Cash and Prince are going to be daunting, but I haven’t worn pants since St. Patrick’s Day, so I might as well plunge in. Next week, maybe. Or in two or three weeks. Time has lost a lot of meaning.

What’s my method? I’m so glad you asked. 

First of all, I have tiers. My top tier stuff is almost done as I write this  —  legendary artists that have relatively strong discographies all the way through. 

Second tier artists have lots of brilliant stuff, but definitely peaked during a limited run (Bowie, U2, R.E.M. — where the peak actually came is always a good debate topic. Usually there’s general agreement on a masterpiece album, but how far the streak goes either before or after it can spark quarrels). Third tier is a patchwork of worthy material that I’m kind of putting off because it’s more effort — stuff of a more recent vintage that I haven’t dug into for awhile and needs a lot of careful re-listening and curating (eg. Wilco, the Strokes), and some older “classic” artists with patchier, more inconsistent discographies than tier two (eg. Elvis Costello, quite the minefield after the first three albums)

Tiers are a starting point, a rough guide as to what gets the lion’s share of my attention, but they do not always dictate in which order I do the playlists. (I did the Black Crowes before I did Jimi Hendrix.)

Some ’50s stuff and (most) Motown, Atlantic, or Stax-Volt acts I would definitely consider favorites don’t really need a playlist because they were singles acts and a good anthology or best-of covers the necessary ground.

Another bit of Idle Time slang may be used here from time to time — Production Whore,™ which I unabashedly am. “You’re such a production whore” WH told me at some random point, not knowing he was coining a phrase for the ages. I’m not sure when he said this, since the two of us were talking music long before we met MMDG and Idle Time became a thing, but oh my God, how true. Listen to the warm burble that is Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Listen to the results of Lindsey Buckingham changing his guitar strings after every fourth take on “Never Going Back Again” to ensure the purity of sound. Listen to Quincy Jones making sure every quarter-note was impeccably placed and every instrument was nestled next to another in a relationship that truly defines “mix” on Off The Wall and Thriller. Hell, even bands I hate can stoke my admiration for some perfect production (a grudging tip of the hat to — ugh — Pink Floyd). Audio is like Scotch — if it’s not high-end, it’s not worth putting in yourself.

My first realization of this came in 1988. My best middle-school friend, Nick, got a Pioneer CD player and a pair of speakers the size of Stonehenge monoliths for his birthday. He owned two CDs at the time — Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms and INXS’ Kick. He proudly showed off his new sound system for me by cueing up track two of Brothers In Arms. He turned the dial on his receiver all the way to “4.” Any more would be dangerous in his small bedroom. The walls began to shake as the humming, spacey synths and falsetto “I want my…I want my…” vocals swirled around my head. Then those first tentative drum patterns boomed out like howitzer cannons. Then Mark Knoplfer’s pulsating opening riff blasted a hole in my soul, and I was gone. Lost forever. A permanent slave to top-shelf sound. 

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It even looks like it sounds good

My Pioneer CD player came that Christmas. (I made it clear that if it wasn’t Pioneer, Santa might as well not bother.) My speakers were a little smaller, but I magnanimously accepted that until I bought my own massive speakers with my own money a few years down the road (gently used, for less than I pay for a bottle of Scotch these days.)

Once I’ve mentally assigned a tier, the first thing I do with a playlist is put in all my absolute favorites by that artist, the no-brainer songs. Depending on the artist, that’s about 15-25 tracks, and that’s where a lot of regular, sane people would call their playlist complete. But I like long playlists that reflect an artist’s whole story. A grand summary, if you will. And finding the perfect picture to accompany the playlist sometimes takes me more time that it really should.

Next, I go through all of their studio albums track-by-track and see if there’s any lesser-known classics or something buried halfway through side two I may have never considered. (Admittedly, not all tracks are listened to start-to-finish.) I try to include something from every album in an artist’s catalog. Remember, these are artists I really like, so even their worst album has at least one moment worth preserving as far as I’m concerned.

Then I consider rarities, B-sides, outtakes, “bonus tracks” and the like to see if there’s any mineable ore there, or if a live or “alternate take” surpasses the original to my ears, in which case I’ll sub it in for the official album version. This doesn’t happen often.

During all this, I’m doing research. Scouring the web for production details, reading old reviews, getting a general feel for how an album or song rests in the public consciousness. Yes, my own opinion is the final arbiter of what actually goes on a list, but along the way I discover a lot of things that make me look at material in a new way or from a different perspective, and it does have a little bit of influence on how my playlists are assembled. I’ve been hitting my public library’s e-book lending system pretty hard, reading a lot of stuff by music writers like Chuck Klosterman, Greil Marcus, and Rob Sheffield.

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For some artists’ playlists I’ll only use a specific era or line-up. Only the “classic” Fleetwood Mac (1975-87) is considered playlist-worthy. A Robbie Robertson-less Band? Thank you anyway, but no. Guns N’ Roses starring…Buckethead and/or Bumblefoot? Get the fuck outta here. No Slash, no Guns. (Hell — no Izzy, no Guns as far as I’m concerned, but I think I allowed a couple of Gilby Clarke tracks to sneak in there.)

Do I include band members’ side/solo stuff? Not always, but I’m open to it. I threw a few key Stevie Nicks tracks onto my Fleetwood Mac list. I predict the upcoming White Stripes mix will share real estate with more than a few Raconteurs numbers and the cream of Jack White’s solo stuff. Dan Auerbach’s solo stuff is pretty solid, and I can envision a few highlights fitting well on a possible Black Keys list. Solo Beatles I have earmarked as a list unto itself. I may just copy Ethan Hawke’s brilliant solo Beatles playlist known as the “Black Album” — adding or swapping in personal faves that Ethan bypassed. I can’t be the only one who genuinely likes McCartney’s “Spies Like Us” theme, can I?

Oh, and all my playlists have a song amount divisible by 5. As I said, I’m neurotic.

The “short” playlists (Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses) run 30 tracks. The “long” playlists (Dylan, Springsteen) run to a hundred, and I do make myself stop there. To earn “100” status is rarefied air, and most lists are much shorter. The amount of tracks is relative to their total output. Led Zeppelin has 45. Oasis has 50. Does that mean I think Oasis is superior to Led Zep? Perish the thought. But Led Zeppelin has only a handful of albums, most with less than ten songs. And I’ve nostalgically dumped most of Oasis’ first two albums in their entirety onto their playlist, plus literally dozens of those wonderful B-sides that I grew childishly attached to back in the ’90s. (“Talk Tonight”? “Acquiesce”? “Rockin’ Chair”? Yes, please.)

The amount of time I spend working with an artist can vary greatly, and doesn’t reflect how much I like and respect said artist. I hadn’t listened to a lot of Springsteen in years, and spent a full, glorious week wallowing in all things Boss. On the other hand, Creedence Clearwater Revival took only about ninety minutes of chooglin’ to knock together a good list. (The Clash took about three days, which is closer to the average.)

And the irony is, of course, once I’ve gone through all this, the last thing I want to do is listen to that artist or their goddamn playlist for the foreseeable future.

It’s an unavoidable fact that my playlists are very male and pretty white. And it does bother me. But when I go to established “classic rock” websites, I see the same thing. Go to any one of those “Classic Album Reviews” websites and it’s a total sausage-fest, complete with hilariously outdated graphics that look reminiscent of Geocities circa 1996 (all that’s missing is an “Under Construction” banner, maybe with a MIDI music player and visitor counter.) That’s just what classic rock is: a lot of outdated white dudes…and Janis Joplin.

Even though I’m a classic rock aficionado in most instances, generationally there’s some Baby Boomer shit I suppose you just had to be there for when it was actually happening to have any affection towards. Example A: Janis Joplin’s shouty, overbaked “blues mama” schtick has not aged well. Her stuff is damn near unlistenable, not helped by her choice of backing musicians — sloppy, lurching, over-playing head shop denizens that personified the “San Francisco sound,” and the reason it became a punchline. Which leads me to Example B: The Grateful Dead. What a tiresome chore of a band if you’re not glassy-eyed stoned, and just look at the filthy, tedious jam-band acolytes they’ve spawned in their patchouli-drenched wake. You can’t wash yourself with crystals and good vibes, Moonbeam. I hate being downwind of these people. Be very ashamed, Grateful Dead. Example C: Blood, Sweat & Tears. Keep your snail trail of easy-listening jazz from dribbling its mucus across my rock & roll like a broke-dick dog. Please.

Prog-rock? I can only imagine myself voluntarily agreeing to listen to prog-rock in two situations, both of them hospital-related. 1) If I have severe head trauma, they’re trying to put me in a medically-induced coma, and I’m not responding to the pentobarbital (King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer), or 2) if I’ve been poisoned and the emetic they’ve administered fails to induce immediate vomiting (Jethro Tull, Yes). Presumably, the poisoning would have been at the hands of a vindictive Pink Floyd fan, angry about all the terrible things I’ve said about them over the years.

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*retching noise*

Some people did truly earn multi-generational reverence. Jimi Hendrix — my respect only deepened as I made my way through his catalog. Which took a while and a half. If Hendrix so much as farted in the studio, it was recorded, meticulously logged, filed away for possible future use, and then posthumously remixed by Eddie Kramer and released under the watchful eye of the Experience Hendrix project with tasteful packaging and extensive liner notes. But it was worth it. There’s this sloppy jam called “Slow Version” which sounds like an under-rehearsed garage band — but an under-rehearsed garage band with Jimi Hendrix bashing out chords.

My generation (X, if you must know — the quiet, bitter, ignored bastards wedged between the loudly-yapping Boomers and the loudly-yapping Millennials) is responsible for some stuff that was once era-defining but now seems pretty dated as well. We had one moment to shine, as the Millennials were still playing with their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Boomers were going gray and somehow convincing themselves that the new James Taylor CD was “phenomenal.” That fleeting moment was…grunge.

But is “grunge” truly comparable to other genres/movements? We can point to dozens of meaningful and durable albums that define “New Wave,” or “Heavy Metal,” but I was just reading Chuck Klosterman state that grunge, after the media hype died down, is pretty much defined by “Nevermind, Ten, and about five Soundargaden songs.”

But Nevermind changed the game at the time. It was wholesale musical/cultural upheaval wrought in a matter of weeks at the tail end of ’91 and the beginning of ’92. When the music world changed because of the Beatles, it can be pinpointed to a moment in time — 8:00 on Sunday, February 9, 1964, when they made their American TV debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. We can’t pin down the explosion that was Nirvana quite that precisely, but we can single out a day. On Saturday, January 11, 1992, three things happened: Nirvana was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” peaked as a single at #6. And Nevermind symbolically took the #1 album spot from Michael Jackson. (And earlier that week, they taped a seven song mini-concert for MTV that went into rotation almost as heavily as their videos over the next year.)

Nirvana - Live @ MTV Studios, New York, USA, 10-01-1992

Despite it being on a major label, copies of Nevermind were pretty hard to come by in my hometown of Yuba City in those weeks. The few copies the three local record stores ordered before Nirvana broke big flew off the shelves and were not re-stocked quickly enough. But one day in late December, my friends Jeff W. and Jeff O. showed up at my place and made their way upstairs to my room. Jeff W. was grinning mischievously and hiding something behind his back. (And now I laugh because having “only” three record stores at that time made Yuba City a podunk backwater.)

I caught a glimpse of the famous naked-baby album cover, but feigned surprise when he put it in my CD player, and the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – which had been setting the KWOD 106.5 airwaves on fire for the last couple of weeks – blasted out of my speakers. W. had scored the disc on an out-of-town trip. I had a trusty blank TDK-90 (I kept a fresh brick of them at all times by this point) rolling on it before another word could be said.

I never drank the Gen X Kool-Aid on Radiohead. I like The Bends and OK Computer just fine, but everything after? Hard pass on the spacey bleeps and bloops and echoey piano plunking. (One day when I was carpooling with WH, we put the newly-released Amnesiac in the CD player, and I legitimately thought his car was having mechanical or electrical issues.) 

My favorite quote regarding Radiohead is second-hand, a British journalist quoted by Rob Sheffield: “[Post-2000] Radiohead has done little more than sound like Aphex Twin circa 1993, and act like they deserve a medal for it.”  

But you know what? I’ve decided for the purposes of these Chronicles, I am going to revisit the Radiohead catalog, start to finish, with an open mind and fresh ears. Look for “Does The Emperor Have Clothes After All?: Revisiting Radiohead” as Spotify Chronicles Vol. 6 or 7…or 10. I still don’t know (as of this writing) how long the quarantine will last. 

Blood, Sweat & Tears criticisms aside, I really do keep trying to like jazz. And I keep failing.

I’m not one of those people who say “I like all music…except country and rap.” In my bachelor days, I was on a dating website — do you know how many people put that phrase under “Favorite Music” in their profiles? Multitudes. I like them both, to a certain extent (all right, I am one of those people who can’t stomach mainstream-radio country). My very casual enjoyment of rap has not trained my ears well enough to distinguish what is a masterwork and what is run-of-the-mill, so the continuing deification of Kanye West puzzles me to no end, based on what I’ve heard (especially lately). 

Yet the Idle Time Junior Division has unquestioningly glorified and elevated Kanye to the Pantheon of the Greats alongside the Beatles and Prince as if it’s not even debatable. On the basis of what my ears tell me is one good record and two okay ones

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Actually I guess that’s conceivable. No one has coasted for longer on the least amount of decent material than the Violent Femmes — not even enough to pad out an acceptable best-of, but all my college friends loved ‘em. If only they had put those four good songs from the first album (you know which ones I’m talking about) on one EP by themselves, and then did nothing else forever, they’d be true legends.

Anyway, I’m surprised Yeezy can still spare the time away from circle-jerks with Donald Trump and Joel Osteen to make his busted-ass Jesus records. (In the name of intellectual honesty, let the record show that Bob Dylan made some busted-ass Jesus records too.)

So, moving through the playlists roughly alphabetically…

No A’s…yet. AC/DC? I’ll probably get around to it. God love ‘em, but they’re third tier. At best.

The Band…the conventional opinion holds. First two albums — classics. Next two — a step down, but solid. Then a holding-pattern collection of oldie covers. A little bit of a resurgence with Northern Lights – Southern Cross (some lovely keyboard textures on that one), then a weak finish with a pretty wretched leftovers collection. I didn’t use any tracks from The Last Waltz soundtrack because that’s such a movie experience to my mind. (I did use some live stuff from the Rock of Ages double live album, which has since been expanded to become Live at the Academy of Music 1971.)

The Beach Boys are easy enough to sort through up to the Smile era. The early stuff is either really good or really — really — godawful. Post-Smile Beach Boys is where it gets trickier. A lot of my music-nerd friends swear that the run of albums between 1967 to 1971 were some kind of unheralded pinnacle, but actually sitting through it all makes me suspicious of that claim. There’s a lot of pretty little fragments — hard to use in a playlist, they would feel like clutter. Much more suited to mixtape, perhaps? (Maybe this is kind of brilliant. I love “Wake the World” — which fades out at 1:31 — and I guess I’m not sure what I’d get out of another minute or two of it.) A lot of really dumb, dippy lyrics. As I listened to some part of Smiley Smile (I think it was “Wind Chimes”) within earshot of my wife, she asked, “Were they doing every drug on the planet?” 

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What I’m trying to say is that when you’re crafting a playlist that’s meant to sum up an artist’s entire oeuvre in x number of tracks, you feel conflicted about wasting a slot of real estate on seventy seconds of forced whimsy.

But Jesus, Wild Honey is really freakin’ good…

And of course the conundrum that faces every Beach Boys playlist-maker. “Kokomo” or no “Kokomo”? (“No-komo”?) Frankly, I’ve never found it quite the abomination that the cool people do. I like Carl’s high, wistful supporting vocal, the stupid lyrics aren’t any stupider than any number of Beach Boys songs that meet the approval of the music-nerd mafia, and it was their last #1 single, which gives it some cultural/historical heft. The only thing really dragging it down is the cheesy sax solo and the oily, unwelcome presence of a mulleted John Stamos chimping around in the video. (He doesn’t play on the actual track.)

And it’s stuck in your head right now, isn’t it? You’re welcome. Enjoy the next 36-48 hours. Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya…

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Filed under Life & Other Distractions, Music -- 1960s, Music -- 1970s-80s, Pop Culture

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