A Whole or a Sum of Parts?

What constitutes a “favorite”?  It’s not uncommon for someone to ask what your favorite television show or music artist is if you tell them you watch television or listen to music.  And between the ability to rate shows on Netflix, movies on IMDB, and basically everything on Amazon, or liking things on social media, even those of us who don’t catalog everything they watch/listen (like me) to are provided with lots of opportunities to show what they like most.  But if you watch many shows and listen to many artists, what method do you use to determine which is a favorite?

I have made a habit of rating every musical album I listen to.  In order to come up with the rating, I listen to the whole album and decide how it works when listened to from beginning to end.  Of course, this method only really makes sense on CDs that lack the ability to skip tracks.  Otherwise, CD players allow you to skip and sometimes change the play order, you can make all sorts of playlist combinations with digital files and streaming services, and even when listening to a vinyl record if you only like one side you can choose to just not turn the record over when it’s done.  However, this does provide a standard to compare albums for rankings.

The main issue is that I don’t actually listen to albums from beginning to end often, with some exceptions of great albums whose wholes are better than the sum of their parts.  I’m more likely to either make an abridged version, skipping tracks, or more commonly use one of my attempts to combine parts of two or more releases into a better one.  Or I’ll put the playlist with all of the songs I really like on shuffle.

So, since I don’t often listen to albums as a whole, why should I rate them that way?  Why am I punishing a 50 minute album that I like 35 minutes of and hate the rest versus an album that only uses 30 minutes of a CD’s 80 minute capacity and sells for the same price?  Mostly because this is the most effective standard I’ve come up with, and if I came up with a new one I’d have to re-rate over 800 albums using the new system (this isn’t happening).  It’s why I differentiate between a “favorite” album (one that contains a lot of things I listen to in some form) and a “great” album (which can be easily listened to from beginning to end).

It’s similar when you’re talking about musical artists in regards to volume and quality of output.  Do The Rolling Stones (or U2 or Stevie Wonder or Weezer or one of many other examples) have weaker discographies than because they kept putting out lackluster albums long after their peak?  You can argue that it makes their discography weaker on average, but does it diminish what they did before?  Some people might argue that producing annoying songs that get media exposure sours them on other things they liked that the band made.  And because of the subjectivity of music and the importance of the context of listening to it, they wouldn’t be wrong.  I wouldn’t personally agree with them, but it’s a reasonable reaction.  But for artists, since discographies aren’t really as comparable as albums, I prefer to think of them in relation to how much material they put out that I like, no matter how much stuff they did I didn’t like or when they happened to release it.

And then there are television shows.  Like music artists, they can go on for too many seasons, but how does this effect whether I want to call them a favorite?  Well, Seasons 3-8 (and probably 2-9) of The Simpsons are by far my favorite comedy of all-time.  The problem is that I’ve seen less than a handful of episodes of the show from the past decade, and there are now twice as many weaker seasons of the show than “Golden Age” seasons.  How can I justifiably call something my favorite comedy if I haven’t even seen half of it?  Dramas can also go on for far too long; I still want Netflix to give me the option to rate Dexter seasons 1-4 and Dexter seasons 5-8 separately.

Serialization is both a blessing and a curse.  It allows stories that would normally need to be told within an hour to be spread out and told in depth, and it encourages you to get through weaker episodes because there is a sense that it’ll be important in the end.  But it also means that it’s harder to go back and watch an episode by itself like you can with most comedies and older dramas, and continuing story lines both between and within seasons mean that you may be hooked into seeing what happens even when you have long stopped enjoying the series.  I’ve gotten better at dropping shows from the days when I watched all four seasons of Heroes even though only the first of was good, but even then I’ve stuck through two season of The Strain for some reason.

With “shared universes” becoming the new rage in comic book movies, there is even a feeling that you need to see everything in the series (sometimes three movies a year) in order to be caught up.  It’s slightly more expensive, but at least less time consuming then trying to keep up with the Arrowverse on The CW.  It’s now up to three live action shows (Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow) with full-length seasons that occasionally cross over with one another, resulting in slight confusion if you’re only caught up with one of them.  That’s small compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which in addition to its movies has two shows on ABC with another in development and two shows on Netflix with another three planned.  None of this has really expanded beyond comic book shows yet, but you could do nothing but watch keep up with those two universes and still have a nearly full schedule.

But having to consume lots of things you don’t particularly like to make the things you do like doesn’t seem like a good use of time.  Neither does watching a show you haven’t enjoyed for years just because it was once one of your favorites, or repeatedly listening to an album you really don’t like because you like the artist, or listening to songs you don’t enjoy because you want to listen to the album all the way through.  But if you never do those things, you may not find out that a show gets better again after a few weak seasons, or an album grows on you and you begin to like it.  But time is precious, and sometimes we just want to consume something we already know we enjoy.  That’s what favorites are for, and really the best way to determine them may be to ask whether or not you want to be consuming it, or parts of it, repeatedly over the years.  But that definition doesn’t require a 1000+ word blog post to describe, so who cares.

Don’t Try This at Home

With my listening to new songs from my usual sources resulting in listening to dozens of songs that ranged from “mediocre” to “decent”, I got incredibly bored.  So I did something I would only do while bored and unemployed: listen to number one hits of various Billboard charts.  Maybe the average quality was lower than what I was previously doing, but at least it was more entertaining.  I even found more songs I would want to listen to again than I was doing with the other method.  I didn’t listen to every top hit (I don’t have unlimited time after all), but most of the ones that spent multiple weeks at the top of the Hot 100 as well as the Radio Play/Alternative or Modern Rock Songs/Album Adult Alternative charts.

Oddly, the worst part of it was learning that I liked certain songs more than I remember.  I listen to it fully expecting it to the terrible and then after finishing I think it was only poor/mediocre/decent instead.  Somehow this makes me doubt my old reactions to things more than learning that I now dislike songs I now like.  Now, listening context is also something to consider.  For example, I’m less critical listening to the radio in the car than I am in front of my computer screen with headphones on.  Or maybe I heard a song that worked really well in a movie or television show but doesn’t work well outside of that context.

Here are two charts, the first of which is the total number of singles I’ve rated “good” or higher by release year:

 

total singles

And here is the amount of those that were Top 40 hits in the United States

us top 40 singles

The first chart shows that the number of singles I like is fairly even throughout the past fifty years except for dry spells during the mid 70s, late 90s, and the large recent downturn.  The amount of those songs that became hits was pretty high throughout the 60s and early 70s, then died and unlike the total number of singles never really recovered.  Apparently people generally stop listening to new mainstream music at age 33, but according to this I started doing that thirteen years before I was born.

For comparison, this is the amount of those singles that hit Top 40 on the UK Singles Chart:

uk top 40 singles

Well that’s… different.  I suppose I have to point out again that, despite the spelling of my username, I am not British.  The stranger thing about this is that there were many hits by American artists (The Strokes, for example) that charted highly in the UK and not in the US.  I guess I shouldn’t say that my taste for post-1973 music aren’t mainstream, it’s that they aren’t the American mainstream.  That only sounds slightly less pretentious.

Anyway, these are all rather arbitrary.  My ratings are subjective and subject to being changed as my opinions do, which is quite often (I changed a dozen or so ratings today alone).  And weekly charts don’t always tell a good picture about what is popular.  A single could hit number one in a period of little overall sales and therefore competition, or it could be released in a month where ten incredibly popular songs kept it from the top ten.  The Year-End charts are a good supplement to show how popular a single is throughout the entire year, but even that has a bias towards singles released early in the year because their most popular period isn’t spread among two different years.

Other random thoughts:

  • Just from the number ones, I think the AAA chart has been more interesting than the Alternative/Modern Rock chart for about five years now.  This could be because few of the songs on the alternative chart are either alternative (nothing says “alternative” like a song made for a car commercial) or rock at this point, or it could be because I am old.
  • With all due respect to Ringo Starr and Mission of Burma, songs about Pictures are generally much better than songs about Photographs.
  • Five of the top eight hits of 1978 featured at least one of the Gibb brothers.  That seems… excessive.
  • I had a theory that I would be kinder to radio hits of my childhood in the 90s.  It was only sort of true.
  • The biggest hit of the 1960s (“The Twist”) was only number one for a total of three weeks in 1960 and 1962
  • I still have a preference for popular music to feature electric guitars.  You’d think I’d be more open to different instrumentation by now, but apparently not.

 

Have I Reached Peak Music?

Well I guess I should confess that I am starting to get old
All the latest music fads all passed me by and left me cold

-Frank Turner, “Photosynthesis”

A study came out a few months ago that suggested Spotify users slowly stop listening to more mainstream music before they are 25 years old, at which point the process dramatically speeds up before stabilizing at 33. It doesn’t suggest that you stop listening to new music completely at 25 or 33, just that your tastes solidify and you look for either more of the same or go in more esoteric directions. Unfortunately, I’m finding it more accurate for me than I would have hoped five years ago.

I have a list of 86 songs (narrowed down to 75 because I like my song lists in multiples of 25) from the past decade that, basically, I like enough to rank in a list. 37 are from 2010, 18 from 2011, 13 from 2012, 9 from 2013, 4 from 2014, and 5 (so far) from 2015. That means there are more songs from 2010 then 2012-2015 combined. Variety is incredibly lacking; 2/3 of the top 30 are from the same 5 artists.  The top song of on the list only ranks at #81 in my overall list, compared to #28 for the #1 song of the previous decade and #4 for the #1 of the 90s. In terms of albums, I haven’t heard one I’d put in an album list released since 2013. And no album in my personal overall top 100 was released past 2011.

I’ve mostly been listening to songs (sometimes in new and exciting orders) that I know I like recently, just to make sure that I like listening to music. The verdict was that yes, I do still derive enjoyment from organized sounds that I enjoyed before, so that was comforting. I have quite a large music collection, so I could listen for a long time before I exhaust it, although eventually it’ll get smaller as I stop enjoying different music as much as time goes on.

I do miss the thrill of finding a new exceptional song or album. When I signed up for RYM it introduced me to a wealth of albums that I still consider favorites in a very short period of time. But eventually I reached more and more limited returns in my searches. And now the taste of the RYM user base has gone in a different direction from mine, although not in the same way as the rest of the internet. Since my taste is mostly hilariously middlebrow socially awkward 28 year old white male American stuff, part of it is tastemakers trying to diversify what is considered “cool” in music circles that are traditionally dominated by socially awkward 20 something men.  Obviously this lead to websites I previously relied on mostly promoting music that has a lower hit to miss ratio for me.  At least it both opens up resources people with different tastes from mine and gets me to try albums I would otherwise had never thought listening to, but I hope that most of the change is a result of the websites hiring new writers and not the same white guys suddenly deciding they liked Contemporary R&B the whole time.  The real problem is that even when they recommend something new I should like, whether in genres that I enjoy or artists that sound like ones I already like or even new releases from artists whose previous work I enjoy, it doesn’t have any effect on me when I listen to a sample track or two.

You could say the solution would be for me to seek out more music on my own. But significantly more than ninety percent of music is, if not crap, unremarkable and unmemorable. And spending hours listening to mediocrity to find five minutes of pretty good isn’t a particularly valuable use of time (I have done it). Especially when there’s so much music I know I like. So I’ll just listen to what I’ve been… oh dear God. I’m old.