It is that time of year, when a bunch of bad writers compile yearly top ten lists of whatever bad music they listened to in the past twelve months. I am always puzzled by these lists. Who cares what some guy I never heard of thought was good this year? What good is a list from some writer I don’t know, who doesn’t know me, or what I like? I don’t know if I can trust his or her taste at all. Why would I waste time with what somebody from Pitchfork recommends? What am I, an idiot?
Ideally, a good writer can make you hear music in a new way, help you pick up on things you might have missed on your own. How many contemporary music writers can actually do that? Music critics have become kind of superfluous. With the magic of the intertoobz, you can hear a band yourself and make up your own mind. You need to have somebody hip you to things haven’t heard, but the question is: who can you trust? Certainly not most music bloggers and contemporary critics. If you want to sound like an asshole, you can talk about the need for “content curators” in the digital age. I prefer to phrase the question: “How do I find good shit?”
I stopped reading record reviews a long time ago. Yet, I buy records all the time, I’ve got more music piled up than I have time to listen to, and it’s all good. How did I accomplish this amazing feat? Like that Chinese proverb says, teach a man to fish, etc. I’m going to teach you how to fish for music yourself, so you can ignore idiots who will tell you that Vampire Weekend had the best album of 2013.
This will not be a surprise to most of my friends who read this blog anyway, but hopefully, somewhere a writer for Pitchfork who likes Vampire Weekend will read this and feel bad about themselves. So, as a public service: here is how you, too, can have more music piled up than you will ever have time to listen to, and it will even be stuff you’ll probably like. And you’ll never have to read Pitchfork again.
1. Actually listen to music you already know is good
This seems like it would be self-explanatory, but in reality, how much have you really listened to the musicians you claim to like? I find that most people haven’t done that very much. They like to talk about it, sure. But in reality, not really.
Take some artist with a long catalog that you probably like, let’s use Bob Dylan for an obvious example. You like Blonde on Blonde and Bringing it all Back Home, but have you listened to some of his deep catalog stuff like World Gone Wrong or Good as I Been to You? They may be lesser Dylan works, but they’re good, and definitely better than most crap like Vampire Weekend on a Best of 2013 list. So, if you already like an artist, why not exhaust their catalog before you move on? That’ll make a big pile, right there.
2. Pay attention
Most musicians bend over backwards to get their fans to listen to the music THEY are fans of, and most of the time fans ignore them and don’t give a shit. Even when a band is hugely popular, their endorsement does little to help. The Stones asked Furry Lewis to open for them, but there was no huge surge in Furry Lewis album sales afterwards. When Guns and Roses was the biggest band in the world, they tried to tell people that they loved Rose Tattoo, yet few of their fans bothered to check them out. The list is endless. When a musician you like talks about music they like: pay attention. If they cover a song, listen to the original version of that song, and other songs by that artist. Most good musicians will say that they are merely standing on the shoulders of giants, and that if you like their music you’ll love x, y, and z, who greatly influenced them.
Take my bullshit, as an example. In my own music career I have covered, among others:
And I’ll be the first to tell you that you should totally be listening to their records instead of mine!
Another thing that amazes me is when people don’t pay attention to record labels. For example, now people are finally recognizing that the Oblivians are good, but they still haven’t explored the records by the other bands on Crypt. Take the Beguiled, the most unsung Crypt band. Even less-sung than the Revelators! Why are the Oblivians enjoying renewed interested, but yet none of that trickles down to the Beguiled?
If we’re talking about smaller indie labels and not huge corporate conglomerates, there was usually some kind of aesthetic at work with that label’s releases. If they put out one record you like, you might like the other records they put out, too. So again, pay attention. Often you will find that certain labels (Modern, Excello, Fortune, Crypt, Norton, In The Red, Ace, Bear Family, Light in the Attic, Tompkins Square, or Voodoo Rhythm) are stamps of quality.
3. Read books
For me, the average contemporary music writer is guilty until proven innocent. I don’t trust ‘em. When I even used to bother to read record reviews, I took them with a huge grain of salt. “Who the hell is this writer, and why should I give any credence to their opinions?” I would ask. Now, I hardly read them at all. However, I still read a lot about music, and there are some writers that I trust, but I read them in the form of honest-to-god BOOKS.
The way I figure it, any moron can poop out a 200-word record review and get it up on some website. It takes a bit more dedication to write a book-length treatment. If an author bothers to do that, they probably also bothered to do some fact checking, and it is also more likely that they will know what the hell they are talking about. Yes, a moron can still crank out a book, and there are plenty of bad music books out there, but nobody said you have to finish all of them. Just stick to the good ones.
If you really want to learn about music, read good books about it, and check out the music the author talks about. If the book in question is a biography of a musician, you will probably get ample opportunity to hear about the music that influenced the book’s subject (see #2, above). Pretty soon you’ll have a long list of new music to investigate.
For the lazy, here are some music books that I have actually read, and would recommend. Until you have finished all of the books on this list, you have no business even glancing at Pitchfork.com:
And those are just the ones I remember reading recently, and/or that I can see on my bookshelf as I sit on my couch right now. Pissed that I left off Please Kill Me? Write your own damn blog.
4. Have friends
If you are interested in music, I can’t overemphasize how important it is to have friends who are also into music to commiserate with, compare notes with, shoot the shit with. If you’ve got good friends, they will turn you on to good music. You may find this hard to believe, but I will actually shut the hell up sometimes, and listen when people who know more than I do tell me to check something out!
I’ve found out about so much music, from so many different people. Things that I might never have stumbled upon had I been left to my own devices. Sometimes, your friends will have the same taste as you, and you’ll bond over mutual musical interests. Sometimes, you might not like the same stuff at all, but they’ll know your tastes well enough to say “I didn’t dig this, but you might.” The guy who turned me on to Link Wray was actually a former Deadhead who was friends with the guys in the Dave Matthews Band (!). But he grew up in the Maryland/D.C. area, so he knew about Link Wray, and he knew what I was into, so he thought I’d like him. He was right.
Speaking of hippies, this is going to sound all hippy-dippy and sappy but it is also true: making new friends will lead to new music, which in turn can lead to new friends, and it can just keep expanding exponentially and soon you’ve got a bunch of friends and a bunch of good music, too, and life is pretty sweet. Hugh Southard told me to check out Link Wray. I bought my first Link Wray record at Whitney Shroyer’s record store (on Norton, so I started checking out all the Norton catalog. Later, I would get to meet Billy and Miriam from Norton. Cool!). Whitney also had Oblivians records, so I checked out those. The Oblivians were on Crypt, so I checked out that label. When I started my own band, Phil Overeem came to the first Revelators show, with the Oblivians. We got to be friends and he turned me on to the Beasts of Bourbon. The Revelators sent a demo to Crypt and Crypt put out our record, so I got to tour with the Oblivians. In the van with the Oblivians I heard The Monks, The Pack, and Jon Wayne for the first time. In Europe I met Tim Warren, who turned me on to countless records. Because I was on Crypt, I met Mike Mariconda, who also showed me tons of stuff. Mike encouraged me to move to Austin, and when I did, I got a job at a record store and met tons of people, like co-worker Christina Carter, who introduced me to Lee Hazlewood, and Omar Dykes, who hipped me to tons of stuff as a customer. Mike also introduced me to Dominic Welhouse, who also introduced me to countless records, and to guys like Gabe Vaughan, who owns Breakaway, and Mike Buck, who owns Antone’s, who have sold me even MORE music. My life is a long string of good people and good records, and that’s pretty fucking cool.
Now, I know what you were thinking when you read the section on books: “But Schooley, all of those books are about musicians who died a million years ago. If I listened to you, I’d miss whatever hip, trendy, new band all the kids are talking about!” True. You’re welcome.
First of all, if there’s some music you haven’t heard, and it is good, who cares how old it is? Go listen to lots of old records and shut the hell up. Second, the vast majority of music being made at any given time is terrible. You are probably better off not hearing it. How many albums on the Pitchfork Top 50 of 2013 will even be remembered a year from now? Damn few. Don’t waste your time. If you’ve got the entire history of recorded music to delve into, with tons of stuff your own favorite musicians, and authors you respect, have recommended to you, why would you care?
There is a very remote possibility that sometimes there might be a good band (do you like how much I am qualifying this statement?) that is actually active in the present day. If so, yeah, you don’t want to miss them. This is where having friends comes in. If you have a large group of friends who are also into music, they will turn you on to all kinds of things, and you will hear about a contemporary band worth checking out. If you go out to shows with these friends, even if the band is bad, you still get to hang out with your friends. You can then drink beer and make fun of the bands, which is also entertaining! Maybe you see something good, or maybe you get to hang out with your friends, have a few beers, and make fun of shit. Either way, you win.
Pretty simple, really. Actually listen to music. Pay attention to both the musicians you like, and the labels that release the music you like. Read books, and check out what good authors suggest. Have friends, and listen to them when they hip you to something. Soon you’ll have more music than you’ll have time to absorb. And you’ll never pay attention to another “Best of” list again. Happy New Year! Make it one filled with good records and good people.