I’m making a thing.

September 3, 2017 at 2:50 am (Uncategorized)

reel studio

My job is excellent, and some of the most fun, interesting, and exciting work I’ve ever done. But it also involves a lot of time moving data around painstakingly and creating spreadsheets and reports, all of which require focus, and can be a little mind-numbing after a while.

What I’ve found though is that a good music playlist can keep me focused. It can’t be just any slapped together group of songs though; if the music and the order of the tunes don’t engage some section of my brain on a certain level of interest, it doesn’t work. Thus, I’m always on the lookout for an interesting playlist.

About a month ago, I also just for kicks flipped open my copy of Scott Miller’s book, Music: What Happened? Push to shove, it’s my favorite book of music criticism out there. It’s pointed, sharply drawn, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. I’ll come back to the book in another post, but the premise of the book is that it’s a review of the best songs of every year from 1957 through about 2010.

To tie those two things together–playlist seeking and interest in that book–I discovered that someone had taken the time on Spotify to make a playlist of every song in the book. How amazing is that? (I’ll tell you how amazing further down this page). That playlist has gotten me through a ton of busy days of work over the past few weeks, and I’m literally only halfway through it. To cover every song that Miller writes about, it’s going to be a thousand-songs-plus playlist, probably close to 38 hours of music.

But that playlist being on Spotify creates some problems. First, it’s incomplete. In an average year, there are at least two songs that aren’t on Spotify for licensing reasons or other problems. To deal with that issue, whomever made it uses some live tracks (meh) or worse, in at least one case a really terrible cover version. There are also wrong versions of songs here and there.

The net result is that as I listen, I can’t help but be aware of these issues. It isn’t the fault of the amazing human who put that playlist together. That person or persons did some seriously amazing work, and this is all issues with Spotify and that medium. But this person’s hard work inspired me. What if this playlist of songs existed, but filled in the gaps and strove to clear in the proper versions of songs as described in the book? That would be kinda cool, right?

One of my favorite things to read about from people who create things is that in many cases, these creators make something because they wanted it, and it didn’t already exist. That explains some of my favorite documentaries, books, games, and works of art. I can’t make much of anything really. I’m too impatient to be particularly creative. But the one thing I can do fairly well is to make mixes. And I can definitely do that if someone else is providing me with the songs. So, to put it simply, I decided to make my own mixes of every single song in Music: What Happened. I wanted to do that because I wanted to hear it, and it didn’t exist in the form I wanted it.

I’ll explain the process and hop off for a bit, but there are a couple of reasons to explain why this book lends itself so perfectly to mixtape-making. The premise of the book is loosely based on mix CDs, mixes I assume that Miller may have actually made himself. In fact, that mix pretense forms the backbone of the book’s structure. In each given year, Miller restricts himself to only considering enough songs to fill a standard CD, about 80 minutes. That means that every year is about 20 songs or so, depending on track lengths.

The other thing Miller does is that he mentions that he’s clearly listing songs in a particular order because of how they flow together on a mix CD. The first song in a given year that he writes about is meant to be arresting and an attention-getter for the year. The mix then ebbs and flows through the songs that Miller loves the most from that particular year, building to the best tracks and culminating with the song that he feels is the very best of that particular trip ’round the sun.

I’ve been sort of surprised to discover how well his mixes work in practice, but I guess I shouldn’t be. He’d clearly put a lot of thought into the songs chosen, and the order they’d appear. Which is kind of stunning since — as mentioned — over the course of 50+ years/mixes, we’re talking about a thousand tracks. But damn, if there isn’t some inspired stuff here (I mean, “Reuters” by Wire shouldn’t flow so effortlessly into “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac, but damned if it doesn’t.)

As far as process goes, in making my mixes of these songs, I’ve tried as much as humanly possible to match the tracks to the ones described exactly by Miller. That means when we’re in the showtunes-heavy 1950s section, I’m using either Broadway or film cast recordings, depending on the author’s directives. Occasionally, he specifically lists that a song is the radio version, or the 45 rpm single version, and those are the ones used here.

There’s one other issue with particular song versions, though. Miller freely admits to cheating a bit on this in his book. To jam some extra tracks into some years but stay under that 80-minute limit, he freely admits to having used ProTools (a software studio package) to make edits to some songs to make them fit.

Now….Scott Miller was a professional musician and music producer who made at least four records using ProTools. I’m a dork who wouldn’t know where to begin with professional studio editing software. And, honestly even with some of Miller’s descriptive text, it’s impossible to know exactly where/how he made those edits (I mean, the guy cut the 17-minutes of “Dogs” by Pink Floyd down to 5:30 somehow). But, since digital streaming media no longer puts me under the tyranny of 80 minute CDs, I’ve decided to ignore those homebrew edits. Thus, you get the full force of John Cale’s “Gun” and the aforementioned Floyd cut. You’re welcome.

OK. That’s the “What this is,” and “Process” bits of this. Next post: why this mix of songs rules, and why something I made just for me is now something I’m sharing with y’all. And also, links to the mixes themselves, or at least as far as I’ve gotten (I’m up to 1979 as of Friday.)


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