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Playing catch-up

Thursday 12th December 2013

In my 20s, I swore I’d never be one of those people who stopped listening to new music when I reached my 30s.

And I’m not one of those people – I’m in the privileged position of having a job where music lands on my desk, publicity people push pop at me, and I trawl for new sounds on the internet and get paid to do it.

However, after having a child and being out of the industry for a year, I can understand how it happens.

When my little one was very young, I could still concentrate on music – newborns don’t do much except sleep and feed. Radio New Zealand’s music programmes and NPR’s All Songs Considered were my lifelines to new releases.

I used streaming music services for the first time – which I hadn’t had to before – though I tended to listen to quieter, more intimate releases to keep the house serene, and I generally clicked on familiar names.

I read my favourite music blogs less frequently, and stopped checking my work email. I played a lot of banjo, and indulged my love of Appalachian murder ballads. I spent time re-learning the lyrics to songs my mother used to sing to me so I could sing them to my own kid.

As my daughter grew more mobile and more demanding, my listening habits became more fragmented.

Where I’d usually listen to whole albums on a long drive, I’d have to sing funny songs to placate a child who loathed being ignored in the back of a car. Baby discovered the knobs on the stereo, and delighted in turning them to extremely loud or barely there.

My CDs, once filed neatly in alphabetical order, were thrown out of shelves and chewed on. It became nearly impossible to listen to a whole album as I was constantly kept on my toes, away from the stereo.

I’ve heard a lot of great music, but the conditions under which I’d usually fall in love with an album just haven’t been there. I’m still an album kinda girl. The whole thing needs to capture me, and it’s usually on headphones – either at my desk, uninterrupted, or on my iPhone during long walks.

I like albums that reward repeated listens; that have layers left to discover on each listen.

If I have a physical copy I’ll read all the liner notes, mull on the lyrics if they’re printed, stare at the artwork, fondle the packaging. Old-fashioned, I know.

It seems incredible that iTunes still doesn’t provide lyrics and credits with digital downloads or that internet radio isn’t the carefully curated experience I need.

If streaming music services can escort me to the music I’m sure to love, I’m all for it, but the functionality isn’t there yet.

I know it’s improving every week, and I know there are mathematicians behind the scenes creating algorithms to pigeonhole my tastes, but I still prefer music suggestions from actual people. I don’t trust Spotify.

And so here I am, back at work, a few weeks from the New Year, playing catch-up on 2013’s releases to make sure I haven’t missed my favourite albums. I have, of course. And I’m loving this cram session. 

Currently on rotate:

San Fermin: The baritone and cadence of The National’s Matt Berninger, or Bill Callahan; the orchestration of Sufjan Stevens, the layered female voices of Dirty Projectors, and just enough weirdness to make it interesting.

It’s a concept album, an indie rock opera. It’s so entirely predictable that I’d fall for this record – why didn’t anyone put me on to this sooner? Yes, it’s derivative. But it’s derivative of all the elements in music that I love.  

Sheep Dog and Wolf: From the first breaks and horns I’m reminded of Cinematic Orchestra and Jaga Jazzist, Grizzly Bear’s vocal dexterity and the precocious musicality of Grayson Gilmour’s first albums. I’m looking forward to hearing what he does next.

Marijuana Deathsquads – Ewok Sadness: This song is like what Die! Die! Die! would sound like if they flew to the moon and started making drum and bass.

Valerie June: Has a voice that alternately reminds me of Joanna Newson and Billie Holiday. Styles on the album range from gospel to ’60s girl groups to straight-out country. I heard Nick Bollinger review it earlier in the year along with some other Dan Auerbach-produced artists, loved it and then forgot it. Maybe I need to start a listening list.