So apparently the music that has the biggest impact on us is the stuff we listen to when we’re teenagers. Nothing cuts deeper and nothing sounds as good for the rest of our lives. They’ve done studies.
I find this incredibly depressing, especially since it’s been true in my case. All my favourite musicians are artists I was exposed to before the age of seventeen.
There’s The Beatles and Paul Simon, who have always been in my life, Barenaked Ladies, who I discovered in grade nine, and Ben Folds, who I found in grade ten.
Not only have my tastes stagnated, but each of these artists have stagnated as well. The Beatles disbanded almost fifty years ago, Barenaked Ladies and Ben Folds have both stopped trying, and Paul Simon statistically speaking has an average of four years left to live. Considering the scarcity of his musical output, he’s probably recorded his last album.
I don’t want it to be like this. I don’t want to be the guy who keeps talking about how good music used to be, and I don’t want my sixteen-year-old self to determine what I enjoy.
So lately I’ve been trying like hell to beat my own brain.
I compiled a list of absolutely every musician and band I could think of, then sifted through various lists of best-evers, greatests, and all-times, and added a whole bunch of people I’d never heard of. I was especially careful to make the list racially diverse, and to add at least as many women as men; I didn’t want to go through all this goddamn effort to listen to a bunch of white guys sing about how hard their lives are.
I listened to one representative song from each of the artists, assigned all the songs a letter grade, then added more musicians. Then, after going through the whole list again, I added more. Currently the list consists of 360 people, and I haven’t worked through all the newest additions yet.
In order to save myself the grief of having to listen to someone I don’t like, I remove a musician from the list if one of their songs scores less than a B-. This hasn’t happened all that often; the lowest-scoring songs so far are Werewolf by Cat Power, Rabbit Foot Blues by Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Rockferry by Duffy, all of which earned a D+.
On the other hand, eight songs have earned an A+. All but one of those songs are performed by artists I was familiar with before the age of twenty; the lone exception is Rodriguez. Unfortunately, it’s the only Rodriguez song that’s really made an impression on me.
I’ve listened to over six hundred songs as a result of this list, and yesterday I decided that was good enough to figure out if there were any new favourite artists among them.
There are a handful of musicians- coincidentally all solo musicians- who consistently got an A-grade from me. I spent the morning listening to them, and narrowed that short list down to three individuals.
I believe that these three musicians might very well end up being three new favourites to place among my tired, old, and semi-retired stalwarts.
Janelle Monae is not a revelation for me. I was introduced to her by a friend five years ago, but she wasn’t even making music when I was in high school, so she totally counts as new.
I appreciate her energy, imagination, versatility, and the fact that she is definitely either a robot or an alien.
Again, I’ve known about Ingrid Michaelson for a little while. I don’t know when I heard her for the first time, but it was definitely after high school. When I was twenty-five I gifted myself a bunch of CDs from the library that I ripped onto my computer, and both Michaelson and Monae were represented. That’s when I realized how much I liked both of them.
I appreciate the consistency of quality in her material, and how emotionally honest she seems.
I’d never heard of Dory Previn until I made the list. I don’t even know where I heard of her; possibly on some list of greatest female singers. There’s something about her that collapses me like a tent. Her songs are devastatingly honest, eerie, often playful, and always poetic.
My next project is expanding my taste in books; I have a similar problem in that area. I just discovered Helen Oyeyemi, and that’s a damn good start.