In the age of algorithmic discoveries, there's a case to be made for real guides. What better way could there be to expand the horizons of your aural experience?
There’s a playlist of 42 songs on iTunes titled “Frank Ocean’s Favourite Songs". Not yet 30, Ocean is a singer, writer and rapper, and has confounded anyone who has tried to classify his singular brand of R&B, hip hop and soul. He composes, samples and sings in unpredictable ways and his two albums (Channel Orange and Blonde) and a mix-tape (Nostalgia, Ultra) have delighted legions of fans. But his iTunes playlist, running into 3 hours and 8 minutes, is a must-listen, with a mix of tracks guaranteed to help you discover new music, get reacquainted with old stuff and take rabbit-hole journeys should you desire to delve deep into the back catalogue of any of the musicians featured on the list.
Here’s a quick example of some of the places that playlist took me to. Besides beginning with Jimi Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic (a sure-shot way to hook a sucker like me to any playlist), Ocean’s selection took me on a time-machine ride back to Frank Sinatra and the Brazilian pianist, Antônio Carlos Jobim, performing How Insensitive in bossa nova style from their 1967 album; it opened my ears to Steve Reich, the American minimalist composer; it introduced me to a young rapper known as D.R.A.M. (Does. Real. Ass. Music.) who is really very good; it showed me another dimension of a long-time favourite guitarist, John McLaughlin, whose free jazz collaboration with saxophonist John Surman I had completely missed out on; it reminded me why Nina Simone’s version of Mr Bojangles is probably better than anyone else’s; and it made me look for and buy David Crosby and Graham Nash’s beautiful but nearly forgotten second album, Wind On The Water, from 1975.
I heard songs by Mazzy Star, Nick Cave, Chaka Khan and Todd Rundgren; I resolved to explore the discography of jazz musicians such as Bobby Hutcherson and Lonnie Liston Smith; and to get into some of Willie Nelson’s 1970s albums, such as Stardust. All that and much more from one musician’s playlist.
Frank Ocean does a regular show on Apple Music’s Beats 1 Radio. It’s called Blonded and each episode is a trove of new music. Just as Elton John’s weekly show, Rocket Hour, and Savages’ singer Jehnny Beth’s Start Making Sense are, on the same channel. They play their favourite music; introduce new artists; and even have some of them on their shows. What better way could there be to expand the horizons of your aural experience?
You could, of course, take the algorithmic route to discovering new music. Music-streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora Internet Radio take note of what you search or like on their site and serve up artists and bands that are purportedly “similar" to those. Pandora is powered by the Music Genome Project to match what listeners choose with alternative offerings, and Spotify’s proprietary application programming interface (API) does the same thing. I tuned in to Father John Misty’s new album, Pure Comedy, on Pandora, sought out similar artists and got Fleet Foxes (no surprise there: that was Misty’s old band), Australia’s Tame Impala, Dr. Dog’s neo-psychedelia, Canada’s folk singer Bahamas (real name: Afie Jurvanen), and the Texan soul singer Leon Bridges (all good artists but not, in my book, classifiable as being similar to Father John Misty). On a lark (and because I’m a self-confessed Deadhead), I tried seeking artists similar to that legendary band. I got the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, the Jerry Garcia Band, The Allman Brothers Band, The Band, and, curiously, Led Zeppelin!
Similar exercises with Spotify also led to mostly “meh" results. Not that I didn’t occasionally discover gems. I did. While listening to Dan Auerbach, talented frontman of blues band The Black Keys, I clicked “Related Artists" to see what the algo would serve up. Several came up, including Heartless Bastards, a garage rock band from Ohio (incidentally, it’s the home state of The Black Keys as well). Heartless Bastards are a band that reach deep into traditional roots music and lead singer Erika Wennerstrom’s powerful vocals are such an instant hook that I found myself exploring Heartless Bastards’ entire discography.
Yet, the Artificial Intelligence that drives recommendations from services such as Spotify or Pandora is no match for the real thing. Additionally, there is the problem of plenty. And it’s a whole huge amount of plenty, really. Spotify, for instance, has more than 30 million songs. Confronted with a choice that large, what exactly do you search for? On a recent TEDx Talk titled “Music Archaeology: Reviving The World’s Forgotten Records", themed on record-diggers (a die-hard breed obsessed with discovering old vinyls), Alexis Charpentier (aka DJ Lexis), founder of Music Is My Sanctuary (Mims), called it “paralysis by choice". Because of the Internet, it’s never been easier to listen to more music than it is now but still people tend to stick to the same bands, the same musicians, and the same songs. Charpentier’s Mims is a website and collective that showcases “future classics and forgotten treasures" with a view to spreading new as well as old music to wider audiences.
An alternative to algorithms for new (and old) music recommendations is the hybrid option: using the Internet, not for algorithm-based offerings, but in order to access recommendations and playlists made by real people—musicians, critics, connoisseurs. Things such as Frank Ocean’s 42-song playlist. Or the musician-curated Beats radio programmes. The Internet has made it possible to browse unimaginable numbers of blogs, podcasts and radio stations catering to every genre of music. Focused searching for reliable ones could lead to music that is worth your while.
One way to explore them is to go genre-wise. If, for instance, you’re a jam-band aficionado, you can get free podcasts that serve up 3 or 4 hours of curated music by bands from their live shows. A Philadelphia-based radio jockey simply known as Jaybird curates a weekly radio show titled Endless Boundaries Jam Radio, which is available as a podcast and whose episodes can be retrieved any time from its easily accessible archive and heard. The episodes tend to be long, keeping in mind the extra-long live jams that are typical of the genre. You get familiar bands such as Phish, moe., Gov’t Mule and Widespread Panic but also relatively new ones—Eric Skye Trio, The Infamous Stringdusters, Tycho, Dangermuffin and Jiggle The Handle (yes, that’s their name and they’re good!). If blues is your thing, there are podcasts such as the Bandana Blues Show that open up new vistas, playing bands and artists both known and unknown. An episode of the Bandana Blues podcast led me to Akarsha “Aki" Kumar, a Bay Area Indian techie turned blues singer and harmonica player who plays traditional blues and also channels Bollywood songs (think reworked versions of Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi and Mukesh) into the blues, creating his own East-meets-West idiom.
Anyone who has tried to mine the burgeoning music scene will know how intimidating and frustrating it can be. Not everyone is a music nerd with hours of spare time to scour the Internet for new bands, especially because most of what we encounter tends not to be particularly good. That’s where podcasters and bloggers come in—as real guides. America’s National Public Radio (NPR) has a podcast titled All Songs Considered, whose hosts post episodes that help you listen to music you may have otherwise missed. Websites and ezines such as Pitchfork, Stereogum, PopMatters and Swan Fungus offer researched opinions on new and old music.
In the TEDx Talk, Charpentier describes the record-digging movement that has been thriving for at least 30 years—long before it became fashionable to have a chic vinyl collection once again. He tells the story of how, a few years ago, a record-digger found a forgotten vinyl by Henri-Pierre Nöel, a Haitian-born Canadian immigrant soul and R&B singer from the late 1970s. Nöel had self-released 2,000 copies of his album but got no radio play or help with distribution. Those copies either got trashed or lost—till one was found. After listening to the record and being impressed by what he heard, the digger miraculously tracked down the singer, then found a label that was interested in remastering the old recordings and released the album in 2012. It helped pull Nöel, now in his 60s, out of obscurity and revive his career. What’s more, if you search for Nöel today on Spotify, you’ll find him!