History’s Greatest Hits

Paul Robinson is a frequent contributor to GLONO’s message boards and reviews.

The future of music?There used to be this cool comic book back in the 80’s called Aztec Ace, which featured a time-traveling hero getting into all kinds of adventures a la Dr. Who (except he was much cooler). Among other things, he had a massive Wurlitzer jukebox filled with history’s greatest hits. From Gregorian chants to Dion & the Belmonts, it was all in there, the greatest music of all time. I always loved that idea, having a massive collection of music in one package. Of course, back in 1985 no one could have foreseen MP3’s (or iPods). Now everyone can have history’s greatest jukebox everywhere you go, and that’s changed everything.

MP3’s have obviously changed the way we listen to music. But the truly great, overlooked thing about MP3’s and MP3 software is the shuffle function. We’ve all gotten used to it with CDs, but with Apple’s iTunes (or whatever software you poor Windows saps use to listen to MP3’s [Yawn… – ed.]) the random shuffle can be a whole new experience. This is due mainly to the fact that you can create enormous playlists that have hundreds of songs in them. I call my playlists the Ultramix series—I throw the best of everything from Chuck Berry to Stereolab in to one big playlist and set it to random play, and I get the world’s greatest radio station playing 10 hours worth of music, all commercial-free. I burn a copy to my cd-based MP3 player, set that to shuffle, and I’m ready for long trips and the doctor’s office.

An added bonus are the small epiphanies coming from the unlikely juxtaposition of songs, like “Billion Dollar Babies” leading into Tom Waits’ “16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six,” followed by Camper Van Beethoven’s cover of “Pictures Of Matchstick Men.” And they all seem to fit somehow, even though you’d have never thought to put them together on a mix tape. Or the White Stripe’s “Screwdriver,” Combustible Edison’s “Carnival Of Souls,” and “Gates Of Steel” by Devo. You hear them one right after the other and think, “Of course, it all suddenly makes sense!” And sometimes it’s just the opposite-the songs can queue up in an eerily appropriate way. Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing Wilco, The Replacements, and Big Star, in that order. And the Trashmen doing “Surfing Bird,” followed immediately by the Ramones doing “Rockaway Beach.”

One of my favorite sequences recently was a combination of appropriate and unlikely: Talking Head’s “Cities,” REM’s “Don’t Go Back To Rockville,” and “How Near, How Far” by And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, followed up by The Challengers with “Telestar.” I also throw in a handful of random sound clips of movies, cartoons and TV dialogue to spice things up. (Sometimes it’s unintentionally hilarious; you have to hear the hillbilly from Deliverance saying “Now why don’t you just drop those pants?” followed by Social Distortion’s cover of “Ring Of Fire.”) Try listening to music this way for a few weeks and you’ll ditch radio for good.

But there’s more to MP3’s than just random-play novelty. The lesson of the MP3 revolution is simple: technology is starting to give us regular schmoes real power—the power to do it ourselves. I don’t need or want Clear Channel radio—my Ultramix list is exactly what I want when I want some good, enjoyable background music. And it isn’t predictable—when I fire up iTunes I don’t know if I’m going to hear Bob Dylan or the Chemical Brothers. And that scares the crap out of the music industry. Record companies don’t want any change, and as a result special-interest goon squads like the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) are trying to hold back the clock with threats and intimidation. Of course they’ll lose, because the technology is too powerful, and we’re a lot bigger than they are. They should follow the most fundamental rule of marketing instead and just give us what we want, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. By the time the record companies figure out a way to quash MP3’s (if they ever do), we’ll have evolved beyond them again.

In the meantime, I have my MP3’s. I also have a 300-disc CD changer, but it’s just not the same. I use that when I’m in the mood to listen to a whole cd, or just want the best sound possible. But half the fun of iTunes is browsing through my 18-gig MP3 library like a greedy miser, picking out songs for a new random playlist. Which reminds me, it’s time for a new Ultramix list. Let’s see… Thievery Corporation? Everly Brothers? AC/DC? Sure, why not? And maybe a little Weezer…

12 thoughts on “History’s Greatest Hits”

  1. I’ve had my iPod since Christmas and it really has changed the way I listen to music. Most of the time, I just listen to it on shuffle, which is fun and leads to the kind of serendipitous transitions that are mentioned in the article. Sometimes I’ll be on my way to work and I’ll think, “Oh, so the iPod’s in a funk mood this morning…” Kind of cool.

    One great seque I heard the other day was when it went from Hugh Brown Shu’s spoken-word “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania” right into the White Stripes’ “I’m Finding It Harder to Be a Gentleman” which made me laugh out loud. “Fuck YOU!!! I’m finding it harder to be a gentleman everyday…”

    Bad things about listening almost exlusively to my iPod:

    1. It’s a pain in the ass to have to convert new cds into mp3s before I get to listen to them.

    2. When you listen to stuff on shuffle, you lose the alchemy of the order of the songs on the album or mix. I recently made a mix for someone who just listens to his iPod now and he later told me song by song which tracks he would never listen to again. The great thing about mix tapes is that you are sometimes forced to realize the brilliance of a song that you would have blown off on first listen, since the order of the songs in the context of the mix can transform it to something else. When you lose that, you’re losing something special.

  2. “The great thing about mix tapes is that you are sometimes forced to realize the brilliance of a song that you would have blown off on first listen, since the order of the songs in the context of the mix can transform it to something else. When you lose that, you’re losing something special.”

    That’s a good point. I know that mix tapes from college are chock full of shit I would never give a second listen to, but mashed in between Tom Waits and NWA, they work and are now part of my musical vocabulary–see “Bertha Butt Boogie” by the Jimmy Castor Bunch. The order of a mix tape is paramount.

    That said, this is a bit of a different monster. The idea of a batch of songs you like (ten hours worth) and then shuffled without thought is the ultimate Maggot Brain.

  3. I thought the most fundamental rule of marketing was to convince people that they absolutely need something that they don’t really even want, usually through the association of that something with a “lifestyle” based on sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

  4. Excellent – our man Shecky has moved to the front page…

    I must admit, the spontaneous juxtaposition of unlikely songs kind of turns me off most of the time. Like Phil, I find that the context of a song is just as if not more important than the song itself. That’s why I listen to most of my music on my CD changer (only 200 discs – d’ohhh.)

    What I love about iTunes (and would about the iPod if I had one) is the “smart” playlists – the ones that automatically add and delete songs based on criteria you specify, like how you’ve rated the song, the genre, or even how many times you’ve listened to it. With those, I’ve got my ‘superhits’ – songs that I’ve given 5 stars and listen to the most – as well as my ‘hidden gems’ list, which has the highest rated songs that I rarely listen to. It’s also good for weeding out the unnecessary material – I have a list of songs that I’ve given low ratings to, so I can review them and see if they’re wasting valuable hard disk space.

    The hard part can be the ratings themselves… Obviously, if you rip a disc to MP3s, that means you like the songs, right? So I generally rate songs on a curve: any single album only gets a couple 5-star songs and I grade down from there, to two stars for songs that I like but don’t hold up to the rest of the album. Single-star tracks are usually weeded out of the collection.

    And finally, we have the issue of quality… I can’t listen to my favorite music on MP3s most of the time because the sonic quality just isn’t there. Songs like “Everywhere with Helicopter” and “Fool’s Gold” lose half of their charm when the high and low ends are compressed all to hell.

    I love MP3s – just not for listening to music. ;)

  5. I’ve always prefered mix tapes to mp3s, even though I got rid of my tape deck in my car (and home) stereo. Having had a disc based car mp3 player, I can say that it’s all about volume and organization. As much as I like the Pixies, for example, it’s no fun listening to their entire catalog several times over(live, alternate versions, duplicate copies) on a single road trip.

  6. All this talk of context! I still listen to full albums (in both MP3 and CD form), but it’s like Pat said – how many times can I listen to my Guided By Voices catalog while I push pixels for 8 hours a day?

    I like a little variety, I like being surprised – that’s what I used to turn to the radio for (back when I lived where there was a decent station). MP3’s and MP3 players are the new radio.

  7. You cares about your dear, sweet little apples and the ability to play songs “out of order”. To think that playing songs from different genres in no particular order adds depth or some new dimension to them is ridiculous. This banter about this holy Ipod Shuffler reminds me of the clowns in middle school who bragged about their new mechanical pens that had 4 different colors to choose from. One paragraph in blue, one in yellow, one in pink and, for the finale, the last in red. What a new dimension their writing must have taken on, too bad I wasn’t part of that revolution. Spare us the war stories about how James Brown flowed into Blue Cheer into INXS into Bary Manilow and added something profound, we don’t care.



  8. Those pens were sweet! 4 colors in one pen? Man, that’s Christmas in July! I used to click one ink color without looking and then immediately start writing, always hoping that it wouldn’t be green, but I still wrote with it if it was! That’s living on the edge baby! Shuffle! Shuffle! Shuff…

  9. Ummm, radio will continue to be popular. On the one hand, radio has never been a jukebox that simply plays tunes “out of order.” It has two primary strengths: the first are on-air talent who are compelling; the second is the ability to break new acts. Radio stations generally get their best ratings during morning drive. Most stations have a morning show that talks more than plays music: ie, Howard Stern on K-Rock in New York, Mancow on Q-101 in Chicago, Rick Dees on Kiss in L.A. and so on. So radio is not simply about being a jukebox.

    You can mix up the music you already own and know, but an I-Pod is not going to suggest new tunes for you to check out. Radio continually breaks new acts. Along with MTV, radio is still the best way to introduce the public at large to new music.

    Is radio too limited in terms of the genre of each station? Yes. You have stations that are rock, classic rock, oldies, alternative rock, ac, hot ac, aaa, urban ac, urban, rhythmic oldies, chr, rhythmic chr, chr/urban, country, gold country, young country and so on and so forth. I think that is why you see certain acts break into different genres.

    If you want to hear the same songs, then sure – load ’em up onto your I-Pod and go about your business. But radio can be a viable way to hear new music, especially if you have a good college radio station in your neck of the woods. WLUW here in Chicago is very good about playing music from indie rock bands.

    The next time the I-Pod army “breaks” a band will undoubtedly be the first time. How many bands did the Walkman break?

  10. Trae, the combination of information about new bands on the internet plus the ability to download mp3s into your iPod equals breaking a new band. The chance that I will read about a new band on Pitchfork or the NME (or even GLONO!), download a song or two, and actually like it, is much greater for me than ever hearing anything new I like on any commercial radio station.

    WLUW, on the other hand, does indeed rule, and when they play rock and roll (which is all too rare), it’s great. WLUW has turned me on to several new bands, including Ben Kweller, whom I love.

  11. Also, in the article I specifically mentioned Clear Channel radio. Yes, college radio is a huge exception to the rule, but how much of the local airwaves (besides major cities or college towns) have a good college or independent station? If I could pick one up, I’d listen to it.

    Anyway you slice it, commercial radio is a wasteland. I’ll have to stick with my MP3’s.

  12. I’ll grant that downloads are great. But there are lots of great bands that do get airplay and, as a result, get a much larger audience. Whether we are talking about Nirvana, the White Stripes or Pavement when it comes to rock, or Eminem, Jay-Z or Run-DMC when it comes to hip hop.

    The one thing you did not mention that seems really promising is satellite radio. I really do not know too much about them but am tempted to buy a receiver as they can be used at home and on the road.

    I still maintain that the I-Pod is an expensive walkman that can play songs in shuffly mode. Neat? Yes, but as you say it’s sorta like putting your CD player on shuffle.

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