Finding My Personal Best in My Best-Of Mixes

Surprise! 2015 is the bonus-track year!

As I’ve documented before elsewhere, I started making year-end mixes back in 2004 as a way to avoid spending a ton of money on Christmas presents and to share some of my favorite new-to-me music with my pals.

As the years went on, though, and my mode of consuming new music changed quite a bit, I started secretly thinking that I’d call it quits after 10 years. A decade’s worth of mixes seemed like a more than respectable project. Who could possibly argue with my changing priorities, with my decision to step away from making what started to feel like little dollhouses full of adorable but non-functional furniture?

But, well, see, the one thing that doesn’t really change, though, is the fact that I love music.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my relationship to music and how much I’ve completely underestimated the way that performing has always informed the way I approach art. It’s honestly been such a huge blind spot in the way I’ve been writing about pop culture all these years! The fact that I am a musician and grew up around musicians and continue to prefer to spend time with musicians (and performers and creatives of all kinds) has been such a bedrock of my identity that it’s been completely invisible to me.

tiny magnets at cole's

Because of it, I think I instinctively gave WAY MORE weight to various critics and bloggers and online pundits than I probably should have, since I’ve always operated from the (unexamined) assumption that people who express strong opinions about music MUST KNOW WHAT THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT.

Like, as a kid, I could listen to my dad talk about music for hours. And not because I was forced to or because he expected me to be an audience for his mansplaining or anything like that—it’s just that he, both as a musician and a music teacher, knew an awful lot about an awful lot of stuff and I learned tons and tons and tons about music from him, as long as I kept my ears open.

Teaching

One of my main tenets for living on this planet is wanting to learn more, to know more about how stuff works, and the most effective way, I’ve found, to make that happen is to listen to experts who know more than me, and try to keep up.

And so, with total naivete, I just went off into the world of music criticism with the same spirit. I mean, obviously I knew what it felt like to disagree with someone’s opinion, and of course I realized that it’s very possible for non-musicians to have an exquisitely well-honed and generous approach to their ability to evaluate music. But overall, I found myself seduced into the belief that I actually didn’t know anything at all about music simply because I didn’t share a lot of contemporary reference points with these vocal, vociferous critics on the internet.

I assumed that lack of familiarity with or awareness of certain artists or albums or scenes meant that I was somehow wrong or stupid, not just that there were certain artists or albums or scenes I hadn’t had a chance to explore yet by the age of, oh, 25. Or that there might possibly be artists or albums or scenes that I knew a little bit about that others didn’t.

allison with headphones

A lot of what I was taking for granted, though, is the way that, as a musician, I hear and understand and appreciate music a bit differently than the casual concertgoer or person with Spotify droning in the background, because I know what it takes to create it—technique-wise, yes, as well as from within, from that place of inspiration. And I think that makes me slightly more catholic in my ability to listen to pretty much anything. It’s harder for me to declare “this sucks” because I’m always going to instinctively privilege the fact that it got made at all over whether I personally happen to care for it. (I think this is something of what Travis Morrison was getting at when he said that “Musicians tend to have appetite where Music People have taste.”)

travis morrison at the metro

So I would read or hear a lot of declarations about something being amazing, or something being horrible, and I learned to tap into that style of evaluation, thinking that, eventually, I would learn how to project that same amount of absolute confidence and conviction in my writing. I aped it as best I could, but, it never really led me where I actually wanted to go—which was straight into the heart of the joy of the HOW of the thing. I didn’t want to know WHY it was good or bad; I wanted to know how it came to be, how it came to sound the way it did, who made it and where all that creative energy and inspiration was coming from.

Now that I’m finally starting to re-embrace the part of myself that craves that connection to creation more than feeling cool or in-the-know, it’s becoming harder and harder for me to take seriously music criticism that, while well-meaning and enthusiastic, literally doesn’t have the language to discuss what is happening sonically. Like, of course you don’t have to be a specialist to enjoy, viscerally, a certain instrument’s sound or a particular chord progression, but I’ve started to give the side-eye to so-called critics who will emptily describe a “jangly” guitar or a “jazzy” chorus. WHAT THE FUCK DOES THAT EVEN MEAN. My boyfriend (who is a scary-brilliant genius guitar player and songwriter) and I will still howl with laughter when we remember that the Pitchfork review of The Clientele’s album Bonfires on the Heath describes the guitar sound as “echo-wobbly strum,” which is a non-musician’s way of describing what could much more simply, effectively, and accurately just be called tremolo.

pet theories guitar pedal board

In trying to reverse the course I’ve been on for the past 12 years, I’m probably being a bit too harsh. I’m, honestly, still just learning to trust my own heart and ears again, without trying to impress anyone or, god forbid, be some kind of self-styled arbiter of anyone else’s tastes. Sure, there’s the contrary part of me that’s sometimes still going to want to declare that someone completely unknown and obscure is THE BEST THING EVER, or the part of me that’s going to yawn dramatically when the subject of something ever-so-slightly overhyped and overexposed comes up.

But, I’m deliberately reminding myself, repeatedly, that often when things are just kind of obviously good, I’m allowed to, very simply, take pleasure in their obvious goodness.

best of 2015 track list

Hey, if you’d like to take a tour through my archive of the past 12 years of best-of mixes, they can all be streamed through my page on 8tracks!

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