In the waning winter weeks of December 2014, I set a goal for myself. In 2015, I would listen to one album every day for the entire year.
I was working at a nonprofit desk job, recently graduated, living on the northwest side of Chicago. I was sometimes writing and acting and playing music, but my artistic tenacity was slowed by the rigidness of my new 9-to-5 schedule. Mostly I was just working and figuring out how to enjoy a salary.
My goal was set in the name of self-improvement. I wanted to have more: more exposure to music, more critical thoughts, more art to connect with. But I also wanted better: better opinions, a better connection with the American cultural experience, a better awareness of current and future trends.
There is a dissonance between the consumers we all are and the consumers we strive to be. We struggle against guilty pleasures, attempt to find common ground with our co-workers or family, and mediate between the familiar and the new, the unique and the useful. My tastes have long felt like one prolonged chaotic blunder, full of misguided efforts, impotent stances, and arbitrary discoveries. This muddled journey began with Nirvana in my dad's pickup truck, Johnny Cash on Sunday mornings, and Fantasia in the VCR. The first album I bought was Europop by Eiffel 65. The B-52s headlined my first concert.
My bohemian credentials didn't start developing until my mid-teens: I've since boasted stints as a high school scenester, part-time armchair hipster, and Death Grips superfan. I have been, and still can be, insufferably elitist. I don't mean to be! But for most of my life, especially when it comes to art and culture, I've had my tastes, I've had my reasons, and I've been very willing to express dissatisfaction toward anything to the contrary.
But I wanted to change, at least a little bit. By the end of 2014, my first year in the full-time workforce, I had come to realize that life was different outside the collegiate bubble. Fighting the good fight against the Top 40 and Billboard 200 was no longer its own reward.
I began 2015 with fresh hopes for new opportunities, as so many do. I would be my own ideal consumer; I would affect what I wanted to want. With my resolution in hand, I had only to devise the nuances of my approach.
Within the first week of 2015, I settled on the following rules. I would:
- Listen to at least one album every day
- Ensure 70 percent of albums listened to were released in 2015
- Keep a list of albums heard with accompanying listening notes (I kept this in a Gmail draft to maintain the facade of productivity at work)
- Not count individual tracks and albums I had already heard
- Not count submissions to my blog, in which I review amateur musicians (sometimes seriously, sometimes ... drolly)
- Avoid asking, "Do I like this?" instead asking, "Why would someone like this?"
That last point is philosophically important. I couldn't fixate on my tastes; I had to consider all our tastes. Popular music is popular for a reason, as much as urbanites might like to dismiss country or baby boomers hip-hop. If I didn't like a particular album, I needed to assume that I lacked some fundamental understanding or experience that prevented me from engaging with the material.
Like religion and politics, pop culture is more fulfilling to those who invest. Hearing the new Adele song? Nice. Having an opinion on the new Adele song? Rewarding. Predicting the success of the new Adele song? Priceless. Extensive knowledge and investment fosters the comforts of community. It provides a future we can predict and cope with. It grants us power we wouldn't wield as individuals.
I am particularly susceptible to the trappings of pop culture. I have an addictive personality and a penchant for collecting. My apartment is littered with aimless amalgamations of bottle caps, magazine clippings, and old airplane tickets. Opinions are dangerously easy to collect — they take up very little space and sometimes prove useful. Given a topic like "popular music", I will soak up more than is reasonable. I was not cautious about getting swept up in potential obsessive behavior, but perhaps I should have been.
I purchased Spotify Premium and dug in.
It was easy to feel like I was staying afloat for the first few weeks of January. I had a list of scheduled major label releases, and I checked a few review sites regularly to browse their rotating catalog of reviewed material. It was manageable and new, and taking notes on every album felt like an accomplishment. The first album I listened to that I certainly would not have otherwise was Meghan Trainor's Title. I congratulated myself on putting aside pretense and finding ways to enjoy the album. (I was especially proud that I was able to predict which two tracks on the album had not been produced by Kevin Kadash. They're the two tracks that sound like the '90s puked into the present.)
While I had long skimmed the top of the hip-hop pool, I rarely dove down deep into the world of mixtapes and hyped debuts. January and February changed this for me, as I found myself engrossed in this genre more than any other. Due largely to its early release, "Unlock the Swag" by Rae Sremmurd would go on to be my most-listened-to track of 2015 (according to Spotify's "2015 in Music"). Boosie Badazz, OG Maco, and Freddie Gibbs also garnered their share of early-year plays before being pushed out by the likes of Vince Staples, Mick Jenkins, and Young Thug. (At.Long.Last.A$AP. and To Pimp a Butterfly would, in turn, be my most listened to albums of the year, again according to Spotify.)
Alongside required pop listenings, I was still able to fit in albums that otherwise would have been on my radar. I sat on the floor of my apartment one night and listened to the entirety of the new Napalm Death album with a friend. Its brazen violence and harsh mix felt even more somatically cathartic, juxtaposed with the day's earlier Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift tracks.
Speaking of Mr. Derulo, a traipse through his discography inspired my highly selective and highly secretive "guilty pleasure" playlist. This playlist, with the addition of tracks by the Weeknd, Justin Bieber, Carley Rae Jepson, and others, would eventually become my not-so-selective and not-at-all-secretive "pop I like" playlist. If I wasn't yet converting, I was at least learning.
My honeymoon pace and absolute poptimism were short-lived. It was unrealistic to think I would ever keep up with all the relevant musical output of 2015. Billboard reports that 75,000 albums were released in 2009 in the US alone (the most recent year data is available for). Pitchfork wound up reviewing around 1,100 albums last year, and Wikipedia has entries for 1,484 2015 releases (both numbers surely tiny fractions of what actually was released). Where I had envisioned having a broad selection to pick through, I was more faced with an avalanche to dig myself out of.
Excavation became even more difficult after finding a few early-year releases that I really liked — foreboding LPs fit for winter weather reflection by the likes of Mount Eerie and Viet Cong, alongside pensive ear candy like I Love You, Honeybear and The Phosphorescent Blues.
Listening to any of these albums more than once was already beginning to weigh on me, given the near-endless amount of albums to be heard. It was irrational to feel so rushed, yet I couldn't help but view every play button as a limited resource.
As penance, I slogged through a few albums I had been putting off, Fall Out Boy's American Beauty/American Psycho and Marilyn Manson's Pale Emperor included.
Spring: forward progress
I found my tempo in late March: music podcasts on the way to and from work (everything from Switched on Pop to Low End Theory), new albums streamed at the office, and music I'd already heard revisited only while cooking. I kept a meticulous Spotify playlist of everything I loved from 2015 to prevent valuable tracks from slipping through the cracks.
When I couldn't answer, "Why would someone like this?" about a given album or artist, friends and Facebook friends alike were ready to explain. My uncle valiantly defended Alice Cooper's late-career material; a close friend clarified the mindset of emo revival fans; and 15 or so people explained how, ultimately, the appeal of Drake is that he's a goober.
The whole process provided a sense of freedom. New ideas and exposures came frequently as I opened myself up to any and all genres, and my collector's brain rewarded me with every new album added to the list. There are few phenomena more pleasurable to me than when the media that I'm watching, reading, and listening to sync up and seem to speak to one another. With so many albums to listen to and so many people around to explain what I was hearing, it was easy to actively forge these experiences for myself.
Summer rolled in, and I suddenly found myself with more opinions on contemporary music than ever before. I felt entitled to some degree of commentary, even though I had no formal outlet. I decided that A$AP Rocky was washed up without A$AP Yams at the helm, that anyone who really liked the new Godspeed hadn't listened much to their older stuff, and that Kanye clearly wasn't releasing material because Kendrick was in charge of 2015 and everyone knew it. It was obvious that pop producers could appropriate either '80s dance music or trap beats if they wanted radio play. I suspected Pitchfork had an agenda with the new Sufjan Stevens album. I knew that if Flying Lotus didn't usher in a new way to look at hip-hop artistry, then the new-new ATL scene surely would.
Such postulations would carry themselves through to the end of the year, even in times when my listening habits veered or sputtered. While Awful Records artists worked their way into my rotation for the majority of the year, my obsession reached its peak in mid-August as I pulled attention from all other releases to commit the sludgy discographies of Father and Slug Christ to memory.
October saw me jobless and moving across the country, while November saw me newly employed with a welcome-to-LA hour-and-a-half commute. Lots of time spent in cars and Airbnbs helped me to surge forward with my goal. I ended my year loudly jamming to alt-rap acts Junglepussy and Archy Marshall and noise-inspired artists from Arca to Toupee.
A lot of the big questions I'd been so preoccupied with — What music is popular? Why is popular music popular? What music will be popular? and so on — were largely pushed out of my mind as I focused on a new job and new city.
My habitual album finding and record keeping remained in place, though, almost mindlessly so. It wasn't until Best of the Year lists started littering my newsfeed that I was jolted into regaining my focus.
Judging by my Gmail notes, I beat my goal by nearly 50 records. I'd listened to 414 new albums, 75 percent of which were released in 2015. And yet, looking back at the websites I'd been religiously checking for the past year, I had still only listened to a fraction of releases.
Revisiting the Billboard number cited earlier (let's assume that the data would be similar for 2015, if it were available), my 414 total comes out to 0.005 percent of released material. Granted, Billboard labels the bottom 60,000 or so albums as insignificant releases heard by fewer than 100 listeners, so we can maybe say that I listened to 0.276 percent of albums with any potential impact. With Wikipedia as a measuring stick, it looks like I listened to 28 percent of albums worth mentioning.
As end-of-year lists by music journalists rolled in from NPR Music, Rolling Stone, Noisey, and others, I saw names that I didn't even recognize. That means that someone who had been listening to music as fervently as I, or very possibly more so, deemed an album I hadn't heard of to be an essential part of their 2015 musical experience.
Up until this point, I had been fairly certain that my year was going as planned. I was tapped in, right? I was moving from point to point, taking in the same general experience as every other music aficionado, right?
Let's stick with the Wikipedia breakdown and pretend I heard 28 percent of music worth talking about in 2015. I'm still leaving the vast majority of albums on the table — and it's not like we can pretend that my selections constitute an unbiased sample. A clearly observable trend from my perspective might be imperceptible to another listener, or worse, disproven altogether.
Here's an example: My partner, who lives with me and subsequently became an involuntary participant in my exploration, complained frequently about all of the "ethereal keening ladies" I listened to (Holly Herndon, Matana Roberts, Lapsley, THEESatisfaction, Yowler, and GABI to name a few).
She wasn't wrong — I was listening to a lot of woman-fronted acts, and I can see how they might be described as "keening." Based on my listening habits, I might conclude that keening ladies were a palpable trend in 2015. But they weren't, at least not to anyone else. There weren't any keening lady think pieces; no one came out and boldly declared 2015 as the year that women keened ethereally without restraint. I just liked these artists.
This isn't to say that there can't be some commonly shared experiences among some music fans. Of course there can be; To Pimp a Butterfly topped most critics' end-of-year list, Adele sold millions of albums, and the American population at large has a better idea of how to cook crack thanks to Fetty Wap.
But the comprehensive, interrogative experience that so many seek is as elusive as it is absurd. Just as one might look at the Earth — either from a distance so far that the whole is visible but details utterly undetectable, or close enough to see only some of the minutia that make the whole so breathtakingly beautiful — one can only look at music with either a total inattention to detail or a dramatically limited scope.
The music industry now resembles the literary world more than it does Hollywood. While moviegoers can be reasonably expected to have viewed a plurality of the same new films, fiction features enough output and subdivisions to consistently split readers. A selection of readers, all interested in newly released books, will likely all come out of a year with entirely different literary experiences. While your average listener is more likely to have heard "Hotline Bling" than not, music consumption is becoming more and more disparate.
Unadulterated individual preference will inevitably drive choices in a world where it's just as easy to stream self-released bedroom producers as it is to stream a Miley Cyrus album. It's not that the broad pop culture currents aren't in place; it's just that no one is confined to them. This doesn't make mainstream music irrelevant, but it does make it formally superfluous. While profitable and widespread, the music industry narrative is no longer mandated or ubiquitous.
I watched my Facebook feed unite last week to commune with the oeuvre of David Bowie one last time, and couldn't help but wonder if any of today's artists could ever garner that sort of pervasive support decades from now. Bowie's music was something that could more or less be agreed upon. Can we say the same for any of today's chart toppers or visionaries? There are plenty of widely successful musicians, but are they unanimously accepted by most, if not all, demographics?
The sum of Western musical output is splintered, fractured, and spreading away from itself in every which direction. This is a good thing, in terms of both cultural diversity and consumer selection, but goddamn if it isn't frustrating to grasp.
The other morning, I was listening to All Song's Considered's 16th anniversary episode. Hosts Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton walked through the podcast's history, playing one song per year that represented that year in music. One song. One song from thousands upon thousands of released records.
While this narrow, linear format was at first stressful for me to listen to, I soon relaxed into the process. By the end of the show, I was persuaded that simplicity was ultimately the solution to my year-long quandaries. This year in music was monolithic and overwhelming. But my year in music was lush, diverse, and colorful.
In failing to find objective continuity, I succeeded in providing more for my musical spirit than I ever had before. If anything, here at the end of the process, the questions I began with now seemed irrelevant. I should not have viewed contemporary music as something to be unlocked or understood. Rather, I should have embraced the fractal nature of it all.
The universal "2015 in Music" does not come from identical consumption, but from variety and each listener's willingness to exchange his or her experience and perspective. Yes, some critics may be wrapped up in debate or comparison, but the ultimate appeal of the inevitable slew of year-end lists is to explain, share, and reflect on a deeply personal experience.
Luckily, I still have years of music listening ahead of me. I am glad I did what I did in 2015. The secrets of contemporary music and its trends were not handed down from above, but I grappled with my own tastes, boundaries, and biases and came out the other end with a rich, irreplaceable package of novel ideas and evocations.
I am not documenting every album I listen to in 2016. The valuable habits I picked up, on the other hand — my meticulous Spotify playlist, my ritual reading of music news, my go-to "why would someone like this?" question — all remain. In a way, this is the ideal outcome for someone still transitioning from the self-selecting collegiate community to the open waters of general society: Pretensions and frivolous preoccupations fall to the wayside, traded in for practical routines.
Derek Spencer is an LA-based nonprofit worker and writer. Follow him on Snapchat (drkspncr), Twitter (@ceaselessfun), or at his blog, the Incontinence of Sound.
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