More about this thing I’m making…

September 3, 2017 at 6:13 pm (Music What Happened Mixes)


Yesterday I wrote about the fun project I’m doing, which is creating mixes to match each year’s songs in the book Music: What Happened, by Scott Miller. Today I thought I’d intro this by explaining why I decided to share this. It’s really something I made for my own listening pleasure but I began to realize that if it was bringing me so much enjoyment, maybe someone else might dig it, too.

First though, I should recap what’s going on here. Scott Miller — who was a seminal figure in the indie and underground pop music scene through the 1980s on into the 2000s — published a book in 2011 called Music: What Happened. In the book, Miller goes year by year from 1957 through 2010 and lists and discusses the greatness of 20 or so different songs.

He also sets some parameters for this exercise, by mentioning that the total length of the songs he discusses in a given year has to fit on a single CD (so, about 80 minutes of music). He also notes that the order he lists the songs for each year corresponds to a running order in a mix; to put it another way, these songs are fully sequenced, and with not a small amount of thought put into it. The order of songs isn’t necessarily counting down, either, but always ends with the handful of his picks for the very best songs of that particular year, culminating with the best of the best at the end of the mix for that year.

So why would anyone make a mix of someone else’s choices? I mean, I like to think I know a little bit about music and music history, you know? Well, here’s the deal. I have my own set of music biases and prejudices. I know what I like, and if I were to list my own favorite tracks from a given year, I suspect that things would get very dull, and very pretentious, and very walled off in a big ol’ hurry.

And that’s the neat trick that Scott Miller pulls off with Music: What Happened. Too often when critics discuss popular music, they do so in ways that are exclusionary in nature. We all know the stereotype of the surly record store clerk, sneering at people who purchase late-period Stevie Wonder. Miller is the polar opposite of Barry the Record Store Clerk, though.

One of the things that makes his lists so damned great is the utter lack of pretense in Miller’s selections. What, you thought he was going to give a miss to “Hey Jude” just because it’s overplayed? Guess again. You thought he was gonna skip out on The Eagles, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin because they’re not underground enough? Yeah, not so much. In fact, I’d wager to say that Scott Miller loved Zeppelin and Floyd more than anyone who might possibly be reading this post.

And that’s the big takeaway here. Are there some really obscure songs? Sure. Are there some very hipster-ish choices? Hard not to have them. But there’s a whole lot of mainstream crowd-pleasing going on here, and it totally works too. And, that’s not to say that the really super-popular mega-hits don’t actually shine very brightly here. They do. It also means that a lot of ground gets covered. There’s rock music, of course. But there’s also jazz, r & b, folk, blues, soul, heavy metal, hip-hop, and even show tunes all well-represented. And that’s the second reason I’m making a mix of someone else’s picks. I like to think I know my music, but I’ve seriously got nothing on the knowledge and critical depth of Scott Miller.

In fact, I’m sort of torn as to what hearing these mixes is doing more for me. Sure, I’m discovering some great music I didn’t know or never bothered to sample — Joni Mitchell: who knew? (he said sarcastically) — But I’m also re-hearing songs I’ve heard thousands of times with new ears, and appreciating them far more than I ever expected to, thanks to the context of these mixes and their running order.

For instance, I would imagine everyone reading this has likely heard “Go Your Own Way” by Fleetwood Mac about as many times as a human needs to hear that song, ever. But in this mix Miller tucks it in right between “Reuters” by Wire and “Bored Teenagers” by The Adverts. And if you’re thinking “Those are three songs that are oil and water to one another and should never go together,” here they fit perfectly side by side, with Miller slyly making the point “Not so fast there, snobby music elitist.”

That happens again and again throughout. Until two weeks ago, if you’d have asked me what enormously popular song I hate that everyone else loves, I’d have said “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor. I’ve never gotten that song, and I’ve always snobbishly dismissed it as post-hippie easy listening tripe. Miller tucks this song in between “Fat Old Sun” by Pink Floyd and “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath (again, a combination of songs that shouldn’t work, but in actuality is an absolute dream segue) and now in this context I can’t help but notice the production of “Fire and Rain”, the way Taylor builds each verse by adding to it (holy crap, is that a cello that just came in, way deep in the mix?) and how sonically and structurally perfect it really is.

That’s the real joy that I’ve found in these mixes. They’re not exclusionary by any means. It’s the work of a smart, but self-deprecating writer and artist who may have had one of the best ears for melody of anyone in music. Scott Miller also had extensive formal training in music and structure and his choices reflect his knowledge of how certain patterns, chords, rhythms, and production touches can create magic that exceeds the sum of those parts. Best of all, the overall feeling I get listening to these is akin to someone throwing open the doors and knocking over the barriers of a very exclusive museum and taking you by the hand and saying “Forget the cool kids; let me show you why this is all so awesome.”

OK. Enough of me yapping. I’m going to start uploading the mixes as mp3’s, along with track lists and just some brief notes. I’m going to do these in two ways. I’ve got a mix for each particular year. Those mp3’s run about 65-75 minutes in length, on average. And they’re fine…

…but I’m also going to upload longer mp3’s that cover three year spans of time. Another thing I fell in love with in listening to these back-to-back on a long afternoon of work was really understanding how popular music has changed over time, by evolution and revolution both. One of my favorites to explain this is how Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” (recorded in early 1967) sits at the end of the 1967 mix. Four songs later, and we’re into the next year and “Good Times, Bad Times” by Led Zeppelin (recorded in November, ’68) comes in. It’s striking. The former song feels like such a relic, rooted in a place in time that feels stuck in a place as a defining moment for an era. But then just a few songs later, here comes Jimmy Page and Robert Plant blasting everything into oblivion with a forward-looking preview of what the 1970s are going to be, and it’s a bracing, electric moment. So seriously, if you can make the time, or don’t mind pausing here and there, I really recommend the three-year mixes for really delivering the magic.

Later tonight (hopefully), we’ll kick off with 1957-59. This is a period with big gaps in my own personal music knowledge and I love this particular set of songs very much. I hope you will too!


(What’s this Music What Happened stuff? It’s based around a great book that serves as a guided tour through 50 years of popular music.  I’m posting the year-by-year music mixes of the songs in that book here.)

What Happened 1957-1959

What Happened 1960-1962

What Happened 1963-1965

What Happened 1966-1968

What Happened 1969-1971

What Happened 1972-1974


  1. What happened, 1957-1959 | Popnarcotic said,

    […] What’s all this then? It’s what happened, musically, during these particular years. No r… […]

  2. What Happened, 1960-1962 | Popnarcotic said,

    […] What’s all this then? It’s what happened, musically, during these particular years. No r… Hit that link for more info. […]

  3. What Happened, 1963-1965 | Popnarcotic said,

    […] What’s all this then? It’s what happened, musically, during these particular years. No r… Hit that link for more info. […]

  4. What Happened, 1966-1968 | Popnarcotic said,

    […] What’s all this then? It’s what happened, musically, during these particular years. No r… Hit that link for more info. […]

  5. What Happened, 1969-1971 | Popnarcotic said,

    […] What’s all this then? It’s what happened, musically, during these particular years. No r… Hit that link for more info. […]

  6. What Happened, 1972-1974 | Popnarcotic said,

    […] What’s all this then? It’s what happened, musically, during these particular years. No r… Hit that link for more info. […]

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