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Offline: listening to music

paul offline

New York Magazine just recently listed its top 10 albums for the year. I only had heard one of them; in fact, I’d only heard of one of them.

The album is called good kid m.A.A.d city, a Short Film by Kendrick Lamar. It’s by some fella named Kendrick Lamar. I bought it on a recommend from my good friend and editor Thomas Houston, the unofficial tastemaker / GIF-tracker around the Verge office. I asked innocently what he was jamming out to at the moment, he told me, and so I went to Best Buy and paid Real Deal Paper American Dollars for the album on Compact Disc. When Thomas recommends something, I listen. When he Tumbles a GIF, I lol. At least I did back when I could Tumble online. This guy has taste for days.

I paid Real Deal Paper American Dollars for the album on Compact Disc

But, after hours spent picking open the packaging and days spent ripping the CD to AACs in iTunes, when I finally got to listen through, it seemed Thomas’s perfect streak was over. See, I’m not really a rap aficionado, I’m more about Rap Lite — Kanye and Drake and all that sort of thing. In my book, Kendrick Lamar is, like, a kind of serious rapper sort of rapper, despite his conceptual trappings.

What I was really hoping for was another Frank Ocean. I’d listened to this great Hip Hop / R&B radio station in San Jose, which played a lot of new songs I’d never heard. The radio is this amazing connective tissue that flows through the air without ethernet cables. It’s a real lifesaver for offliners like me.

I was hoping there was more where Frank Ocean came from and maybe Kendrick was going to take falsetto and The xx to some next level neo-R&B place. I was very wrong. But there’s something about spending $15 for a CD, however, that doesn’t let you give up on an album easily. Compared to online music, which is easy to find and then throw away if it doesn’t grab you after a first listen, paying $15 for a CD puts me in the mind to try and album more than once. (Except for maybe that Alicia Keys album I bought on impulse at Starbucks. I need to donate that to Salvation Army).

And so it was that I kept Kendrick Lamar bumping for days. After a few more listens, at first passive listens while I played Borderlands 2, then more active listens as I began to pick up some of the lyrics, I began to really enjoy m.A.A.d city. Maybe not my album of the year, but certainly a top ten.

Good-kid-maad-city

My actual number one album for this year, based on listening time and appreciation levels, is Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, the epic followup to Rumours. I know, it didn’t come out this year, or even this century, but this was the first year I’ve owned a copy, so I’m going to pretend it counts.

I became the proud owner of Rumours and Tusk on vinyl

A little background: shortly before I left the internet, my roommate acquired a nice midrange turntable, and we started collecting records in earnest and turning out the lights and lighting candles and nerding out on vinyl, man. Early into our quest, a DJ friend of mine donated us a couple crates of records that she doesn’t use anymore. And so I became the proud owner of Rumours and Tusk on vinyl, along with a limited edition copy of John Mayer’s Continuum, and more Eurythmics and Supertramp records than I care to admit.

Now, I’d listened to Tusk several times in the past. I eventually determined that it was good, possibly even great, but nowhere near Rumours-quality. But since my options were Eurythmics, Supertramp, and John Mayer, I gave Tusk a few more listens once I had it on vinyl. And I fell in love, and the affair is ongoing.

I hop between the album’s four sides at random, each record double-sleeved in bizarre pre-Photoshop montages. Typically I listen to a side twice, then flip, then twice, then swap. I can’t decide which side is my favorite, they all get equal love. I can’t even pick between Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, which is presumably the first step to any sort of true Fleetwood fandom.

It almost feels like you’re hearing that song for the first time ever

What’s most interesting to me is that as I continue to rack up the repeat Tusk listens, my favorite song keeps swapping around. This is a phenomenon that Nilay Patel pointed out on a recent podcast, when reminiscing about his pre-Spotify days. When it happens, it almost feels like you’re hearing that song for the first time ever. It’s magical, and turns an album into an endless treasure trove. Instead of listening to a new song every day through Hype Machine or Rdio, I’m discovering an old song has become my favorite, that subtle textures have revealed themselves or surfaced to match my mood.

In fact, this is happening all over my music library. My small collection of iTunes-bought albums from the ante-offline days has been subjected to many repeat listens, and I’ve found my top pick in Grimes’s Visions, Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me, Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE, Tanlines’s Mixed Emotions, Taylor Swift’s Red, and even Paul Simon’s Graceland swapped for one or two new favorites. Even some of my old worn Beatles records, which I used to listen to on my parent’s record player back home, have started sounding fresh to me without the white noise of daily internet distractions to cloud my ears.

Now, I wouldn’t call this strictly a luxury of the time I have to dedicate to music. It’s mostly a symptom of a limited collection — something I haven’t experienced since I was 14 and started to use Napster. It’s claustrophobic, in a way. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. It makes buying new music scary — especially because I don’t even have 90 second previews to go on. I bought Red after seeing a Taylor Swift Target commercial that featured the title track. That turned out to be a good call. But Alicia Key’s Girl on Fire, which sounded great on that American Express commercial, led me horribly astray — that hook turns out to be the only redeemable moment on the album. I didn’t like the Kanye West sampler I bought on name recognition, or the new Mumford and Sons I bought after their rousing performance on SNL.

And then there’s the fleeting quality of most albums — outside of Grimes, Tanlines, and Frank Ocean, none of the iTunes albums I own have listen counts into the double digits (at least, on my current machine). It seems to me that most music really is disposable, and the subscription model just makes sense. There’s a reason that Top 40 radio stations are still a thing, as well. Most music can be worn out without much trying.

Is there any hidden complexity, or is it all on the surface?

As someone who makes music, this disposability makes me take stock of my own songs. I wonder what they’ll sound thirty or forty listens from now. Is there any hidden complexity, or is it all on the surface? Does my collection of written songs sound like an album, or a stack of singles, or are they just infant ideas? Listening to a masterpiece like Tusk can be equal parts inspiring and intimidating for my own creativity, even with a corny song like "Not That Funny" to remind me of Lindsey Buckingham’s musical mortality.

I’d hate this to devolve into a "they don’t make music like they used to!" gripe fest. I love new music, which is why I love subscription services, which is why the current sensation of music scurvy is so new and difficult for me. I’m curious how much love my roommate’s turntable will get once I’m back on the internet, and if I’ll maintain some ability to hyper-focus on albums and eat down to the core. I wonder if my next year be a year of m.A.A.d city and Tusk-style triumphs, or just endless window shopping for hot, impermanent Alicia Keys hooks.

The Verge
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