Tag Archives: album

Spoilt for choice?

1000s of albums, one pair of ears!

1000s of albums, but only one pair of ears!

So, I discovered Spotify … then what happened?

I stopped blogging, for a start. You may have noticed. Or not. I also pretty much stopped listening to music for two days.

I think I got a bit overwhelmed by having such an incredible amount of exciting music at my fingertips, and the knowledge that I could seek out an infinity of new bands without it costing me a penny. It’s the audio equivalent of ‘Blockbuster Blindness’, that unfortunate condition that afflicts me every time I walk into a video store in search of cinematic entertainment. Left to my own devices I could probably think of five or six movies at any one time that I’d like to see, but stick me amidst all those stacks of DVDs and blu rays and I instantly cease to function.

Choice is a wonderful thing for sure, but it can also be quite tiring.

I guess we all approach the challenge of choice in different ways.

The other day a friend told me she’d taken the plunge and activated itunes genius, and she was getting frustrated with it. When I showed her how to use it to create playlists from her current library she was confused and not the least bit impressed. “But I’ve already got that music, why should I be interested in that? I want it to tell me what else I should listen to, based on what I like.” she countered. A fair point, but that was far from my motivation for using genius, as I’ve already explained in a previous post. I always saw the genius sidebar as a necessary evil, an irritating by-product you could thankfully hide in a corner. For that reason I’d never actually seen it until she showed me.

This got me to thinking about the different methods we employ to discover and purchase new music.

For me, I think it’s all about the three Rs.

  • Reviews
  • Recommendations
  • Roadtests (from now on, thanks to Spotify)

Reviews

I find reviews can be useful, especially after years of reading between the lines and applying my own sense and judgement to cut through the hyperbole to ensure I don’t get hoodwinked into buying a duffer. Working in a marketing and PR environment I am naturally wary of taking things at face value or getting caught up in the hype. I mainly read reviews in Q magazine and The Word magazine – after a while you get used to which reviewers you trust; who seem to like the same type of music or appreciate the same musical values. Reviewing is quite a skill: if you don’t believe me, give it a try. Take an album you really like and try and evaluate it in an entertaining way in 300-500 words and not cringe when you read it.

Really well written reviews are often the catalyst for me to find out more and listen to bands I might not have heard of yet.

Recommendations

Word of mouth is undoubtedly one of the most effective ways of advertising, but it is completely dependent on trust. We’re a fickle bunch, us 21st century consumers, and if we suffer one bad experience as a result of a personal endorsement that’s probably the last time we’ll take notice of that particular source. We all have one or two (possibly many if you’re very lucky) friends or acquaintances whose musical taste we have complete confidence in and are prepared to follow, however left field their suggestions may first appear.

My top spotter is my little brother. Years ago, as sibling tradition dictates, we each ploughed our separate furrows and drew up the barricades: these are my bands, those are yours – none shall pass. However, we’re too old for that now, and not quite so competitive anymore, so it’s OK to swap recommendations.

Thanks to Jon I’ve discovered some great music including Grandaddy, Joanna Newsom and one of my favourites, Iron & Wine. The key to his recommendations was to actually play me the music, and I think that’s always far more successful than the ‘you should check out so-and-so’ comment in passing. This method also resulted in me discovering one of my favourite albums of all time, ‘Closing Time’ by Tom Waits, thanks to my friends Jen and Stacy Zosky on a long drive from Toronto to Quebec. The same trip garnered ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ by Cat Stevens and the self-titled album by Lyle Lovett and his Large Band.

Which leads me neatly to:

Roadtests

‘Try before you buy’ has got to be the best method. I was very excited when we first got a Borders store in Oxford, because of their unique CD listening stations through which you could sample a few tracks of virtually any CD in store by scanning its barcode. Sadly it didn’t last, the novelty wore off and the headphones (and most of the CDs) have disappeared completely now.

I guess the itunes store was the nearest equivalent I encountered next, with its 25 second previews, but these have always seemed rather hit and miss to me – I’m sure we all know songs with a really duff 25 seconds segment that are otherwise brilliant and vice versa.

Which brings me back to Spotify, which so far seems to be a faultless roadtesting platform. Although there will always be a slight delay between an album’s release and its availability on the library, they do seem to be fairly up to date – I had a quick listen to a few tracks from the new u2 album the other evening to see if it lived up to the hype of the Q review (it didn’t).

I’ve managed to find recent albums by My Morning Jacket and Los Campesinos! that I was interested in buying, and have been merrily listening to them for the past couple of days. So far, so good.

The only dilemma this final step in the process presents me with is should I bother getting the download, or just learn to be content with listening to these new discoveries for free on my laptop…..

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Now playing: Dark Was The Night

Now that's what I call a compliation album!

Now that's what I call a compilation album!

Current favourite album

There’s a subtle hint in the name of my blog that I’m not a fan of a certain chart hit compilation series, now in its early seventies.

In fact, I’m not a huge fan of compilations full stop, but here is an exception I’d like to highlight.

‘Dark Was The Night’ is a 4AD compilation album in support of the Red Hot Organisation, an international charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS.

I discovered the album via an advert in The Word magazine and was immediately interested because the artists listed included several of my favourite recent favourites such as Iron & Wine, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, Spoon and Conor Oberst. In addition it includes several others that had been on my radar such as The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, The National and Andrew Bird.

So, I duly downloaded and was delighted to see it contained 32 tracks, and although most of the songs tend to the folky end of indie rock that’s exactly my current genre of choice. All of the tracks are exclusive to this album, so it’s not like you’re duplicating songs you have elsewhere.

I was instantly hooked when I started to listen, and overall I’d say the standard was uniformly excellent. The contributions from artists I was familiar with didn’t let me down, and some of the new ones turned out to be very nice surprises.

For me, the absolute standout track is ‘Sleepless’ by The Decemberists, a band who I find fascinating and intend to write more about soon. It’s over eight minutes long, but is hauntingly beautiful and quite unlike anything I’ve heard recently.

Other favourite tracks include:

  • Feeling Good – My Brightest Diamond
  • Lenin – Arcade Fire
  • Big Red Machine – Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) & Aaron Dessner
  • Well-Alright – Spoon
  • Lua – Conor Oberst & Gillian Welch
  • Cello Song – The Books featuring Joses Gonzalez (great cover of Nick Drake’s classic)
  • Happiness – Rice Boy Sleeps
  • Gentle Hour – Yo La Tengo

If you like any of the artists mentioned above, or are curious to find out what they sound like, this is well worth paying just under a tenner for the download.

Other albums I’m enjoying

A few other recent notable mentions include:

What’s new for you?

How about you? What are your current favourites, and latest discoveries?

Let me know by posting a comment below, or via the Facebook group.

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Random Album Artwork Generator

Album cover art is worth a short series of its own: best ever, worst ever, how often do you buy an album just because of the cover or avoid purchase because it scares, repulses or baffles you etc etc.

However, for now here’s a neat game we can all play which apparently started as a viral meme on Facebook, but which I discovered on the Guardian Music Blog.

There are five quick steps to producing your unique album cover:

  1. Choose your band name by using the title of a randomly generated Wikipedia article
  2. Get your album title from the last four or five words from the last quote on a page of random quotations
  3. Get your album cover art from the image thrown up by this flickr tool that generates random images without copyright restrictions
  4. Put the finishing touches together using Photoshop, Paint or your favourite graphics package to transform your band logo, album title and image into one stunning and unique album cover
  5. Post the results into the comments of the flickr photo and Bob Dylan’s your uncle!

You can then have even more fun by creating your own fake band biography, blog or fictional album review. Hours of fun, and even better if you’re just starting up a band or looking to undergo a change of name …

I haven’t had a go myself yet but hope to be able to persuade my good friend Gemma who’s a web guru to help me fashion a masterpiece using Photoshop. In the meantime, here are a few efforts from Guardian Music Blog readers, and I would love to receive any of your collector’s items via the comments page. Alternatively, this blog now has a Facebook group so feel free to join that and share your album covers with a wider audience.

Have fun!

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