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The Problem With Playlists

July 24th, 2006 · 6 Comments

First, a shoutout to America’s Future Foundation: Apparently I filled out some questionairre that put me in a drawing for an engraved iPod nano, and won. (I went with “Life without music would be a mistake” for the inscription.) Thanks AFF!

Well, it arrived this morning, and as I was running through picking out a gig’s worth of songs to load on it, I was struck with the realization that I own entire albums, mostly ones I’ve gotten in the last few years, from which I basically only know three or four songs—in a few cases more like one or two. I’m always a little surprised at how well I still remember the lyrics to songs I used to listen to in high school or college (to the inevitable chagrin of anyone forced to spend a prolonged period in a car) and how seldom I recall the words to big chunks of albums by artists I listen to now. At least part of that is probably a function of a shift in my taste to bands with less melodic, sing-alonghad y vocalists. But at least as much, it’s the result of the way many of us now listen to music. That is, pre–digital music, most of us had most of our music on fixed media in the form of discrete albums, and it was enough of a hassle to pick out a new one and swap it into the player that we’d mostly put one on and let it play through start to finish. When you got a new album it would go into your rotation for a few weeks (or longer if was especially good), and at any given time, that “rotation” would consist of five or six albums—a mix of new and old—that made up the bulk of your listening. Habit preserved that approach (for me, anyway) through the early Napster era. Now, though, you download an album, listen to it through a few times, and then pluck the two or three songs you like best to drop on a shuffle playlist.

The problem with that is, you don’t really get to explore an album very deeply that way. Typically, the first week you’re listening to an album, there are a handful of tunes that jump out of you as early favorites. But over subsequent weeks, you’ll start to get a feel for what iTunes likes to call the “deeper cuts,” and have a new batch of favorites. By the time the album moves out of rotation (for the time being), if it’s a decent album, you’ll probably have gotten really into about half of it and at least appreciate the rest. Playlists keep your taste diverse but shallow.

Fortunately, pace Barry Schwartz, the technology that gives us such a dizzying variety of options also makes it easier to manage it. So I’ve split my sync list for the nano in half: I’ve got one playlist of “singles”—assorted songs by diffferent artists I’ll keep on shuffle—and another of five or six whole albums to act as a “rotation.” And the limited storage space of the nano cuts the temptation to spread your listening too thin. Anyway, worth giving a shot if you’ve found yourself falling into the same tendency I have.

Tags: Art & Culture



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kevin B. O'Reilly // Jul 24, 2006 at 1:21 pm

    I like albums. I like being stuck with the same artist for 40 minutes or an hour. I like playing the album a couple dozen times until I “get it” — or don’t. I like knowing what song is going to come next. I also like being able to delete an awful track in an otherwise good album. So yeah.

    Whenever I buy a new album (yes, I still buy CDs), I put it on a playlist all by its lonesome until I’ve really integrated it into my psyche, then it goes back to the pile with the rest.

  • 2 Sandy // Jul 24, 2006 at 9:59 pm

    I just put iTunes into “shuffle by Album” mode, and when I don’t want to listen to entire albums, I go to the Party Shuffle. I’m a bad Apple fanboi, so I don’t have an iPod.

    I actually find that a few songs will jump out at me even if they’re in the single-song-shuffle mode. It just takes a lot longer.

  • 3 Lane // Jul 24, 2006 at 11:35 pm

    Agreed (with all of the above). Here is the similar take of a fellow who used to curate my favorite late-night NPR show.

  • 4 Stevie // Jul 26, 2006 at 6:41 pm

    I think a more significant factor in your initial observation is age. When you’re younger you’re more able to learn and retain. That’s why a 1 year old learns English just by listening whereas a 20 year old will not.

  • 5 Alec Mouhibian // Jul 26, 2006 at 10:37 pm

    I actually discover overlooked songs from albums the opposite way: through the random shuffle of my entire collection (about 3,900 songs). Since I either listen to albums or the all-encompassing shuffle, I’m regularly surprised by gems from albums old and new. Songs that somehow blended together in the album gained distinction by emerging singularly from the shuffle.

    Listening to an album repeatedly is sure to unearth all its qualities, but expanding your shuffle to include everything is a fun alternative to “giving it a chance” the hard way.

  • 6 Lindsay Polak // Dec 1, 2006 at 2:19 pm

    Just saw this. I have the same inscription on mine — nice choice.