The Future of my Top-Albums-of-the-Year Posts

Since 2010 I have determined my favorite albums of the year solely by the amount of plays tracked in iTunes. For my 6th annual list something needs to change as I’ve predominately listened to music via Apple’s streaming service in 2015. My play counts are not being tracked.

… and the angel said “the earlier you put me up, the earlier you don’t have to do any meaningful work”.

 

Like Christmas decorations, the best-of lists come out earlier and earlier every year. We celebrate things in December, but we don’t celebrate anything that happens in December. December is for re-caps. My yearly project of having iTunes select my top albums each year based on play counts, and then recording myself playing at least one song on every album, has caused me to be cynical of all other lists for not doing the same thing, which I understand is a ridiculous thought. My yearly project is absurd and unsustainable with 2 small children, but I’m unwilling to give it up just because iTunes can no longer dictate the list.

There’s something pretentious and lazy about most best-of music lists. To call a list “best-of” doesn’t imply opinion. The author is saying these are the best albums of the year as if to say the album choices were dug up on a stone tablet and signed by Dio himself. I doubt that the folks over at Pitchfork took the 2015 Gloryhammer release into consideration. They’re presenting an image just as much as they are ranking albums, and if an album doesn’t fit that image it’s not considered.

… and the stone read “The best album of the year is by Kendrick Lamar”.

 

My 2015 list is no longer fact based so I must now play the game that Pitchfork and Rolling Stone play and use my own judgement. How do I pick my favorite 30 albums of the year when I don’t even remember what I listened to in September? I have no magical answer but I’ve decided what do to going forward. I’ll pick 30 albums that were important to me in 2015, and the price I pay to put them on the list and go into a quirky anecdote about each is to learn and record a song on the piano. If I can’t/won’t do that, I can’t write about it. It gives me an easy out this year on albums that aren’t friendly to piano covers. I’m still deciding whether Native Construct or the Hamilton soundtrack is worth the effort. But the number is still 30, even if it takes me until June of the following year, as it did for the 2014 list.

Of all the things I may do I still find this project unique. I had visions of getting called in for the Today Show which would inevitably lead to playing keys for Bruce Springsteen. But in the end my lists are just as successful as any other list from a completely unknown source, whether it take 100 hours or 10 minutes to compile. Is my list more or less pretentious than Pitchfork’s list? It’s debatable, and a case can be made that anything posted to the Internet is pretentious to some level.

… and then angel came down and said “if Adele releases an album in 2015, Rolling Stone shall give it 5 stars”

My Year with Apple Music

On November 5, 2002 I walked into Newbury Comics between college classes in anticipation of the Symphony X album “The Odyssey” and purchased the physical CD. On June 26, 2007 I downloaded the Symphony X album “Paradise Lost” via iTunes on my desktop, plugged in my 128GB iPod, and transferred the album. On June 21, 2011 I either sat on the toilet or procrastinated in bed and downloaded the Symphony X album “Iconocast” directly to my iPhone. On July 24, 2015, Symphony X released “Underworld”, but I didn’t buy it.

In early July 2015 I signed up for my free 3-month trial of Apple Music. It essentially allowed me to stream any album I wanted, whether I had previously purchased it or not. Between July and today I’ve listened to every album I would have otherwise purchased via the iTunes store via Apple Music. It’s still unwritten whether or not my digital music collection will have an end date, or a suspicious hole.

I saw Jocie Adams and her band Arc Iris as the Green River Music Festival in July towards the beginning of my Apple Music experience. I stumbled onto her set without knowing a thing about it but was immediately blown away by her unique sound and stage show. There were only a few dozen people watching her play so when it was over I approached her, praising her for her Peter Gabriel-esq presence. I was likely the 90+ degree day, and a few too many pints, but I said the words “I will buy your album on iTunes”. I listened to it on iTunes, many times, but never bought it. I lied to Jocie.

 

All of my other media collections are now oddly dated, and dusty. My DVD collection isn’t a sampling of my favorite movies, it’s a collection of regrettable impulse buys at Best Buy in the early 2000s and low-risk gifts from family and friends during this period. It contains John Travolta’s 1996 movie “Michael”, but not the original Airplane. I’m not prepared to defend myself at all.

But 10 years ago I was obsessed with my iTunes music collection. Every play count and timestamp was a bit of history that I was archiving for my children’s children’s children to analyze and help them define who I was. But as time went on that data became more and more polluted and meaningless. I’d leave my iPod on at work overnight on repeat and all of a sudden the Pokemon theme became my most played song but hundreds of plays. When the iPhone became my prominent music player counts became even more questionable. There were many times when I’d buy something on my phone and the counts simply never translated to my iTunes music collection properly.

My use of Apple Music may not be as intended, but I’ve been thinking of it as the next step for consuming music after owning an actual music file. My own children will likely not care in the least what I listened to in 2007, let alone my great-grandchildren. My method of listening has been to just stream the music on the phone and not temporarily downloading the files, or creating a custom playlist. This leaves no trace of what I listened to, for better or for worse. Actually, for worse.

One of the good things about owning the physical or digital version of an album is that it’s hard to lose forever. It may be stuck in a corner of the house, or buried deep in a directory of thousands of files, but it’s there to retrieve for the “aha, I liked that” moment, and I’m afraid that will be lost with Apple Music streaming. I don’t see why they can’t keep a user-friendly record of what I’ve streamed. I’d love a reminder that said “hey, you listened to this 10 times in April, wanna listen again?”

Checking out the week’s new releases has always been an important part of each week. I used to slip out of work for lunch on Tuesday’s and head down to Tower Records or Newbury Comics and look at every item in the New Release bin. It wouldn’t be uncommon for me to buy 2-3 CDs, probably on an impulse buy. Over the past 10 years that trip has been replaced by scanning the New Release page on iTunes. This year it’s been replaced with the “New” tab from Apple Music, and for some unrelated reason, Tuesday has been replaced with Friday.

But now I can listen to everything, while committing to nothing. I’ve learned that while I’m a self-diagnosed metal-head, I dislike the majority of new albums on the metal page itself. I love Folk and Americana music, but anything categorized as “Alternative” in the singer-songwriter section is likely alternative to something I’d enjoy listening to. You’d think that Apple could do better with sub-categories of music rather than grouping everything in these dozen broad categories. But when I do stumble upon something I like, there’s now a very good chance I’ll forget about it in a few weeks when it leaves the New Release view and the chance of me stumbling on it again is very slim.

An exciting piece of this, at first, was the “For You” section of Apple Music. Sometimes I have no idea what I want to listen to, but it you show me a picture of the Kiss album “Dressed to Kill” I’d probably click on it with a “why not” shrug. I liked that it introduced me to albums that I hadn’t thought much of recently. I may have had them on my 180GB iPod, but they were nothing but a random line of text that was otherwise buried.

It’s not just albums, it’s Apple-generated playlists, and it’s those that have become stale. When I honeymooned in Hawaii in 2005 we rented a car with Satellite radio. One of the most exciting things was driving around listening to the station Hair Nation. They played White Lion’s “Wait” on the first day and I thought life couldn’t get any better. They never play that song on any normal radio station. But then they played it the next day, and they day after that. White Lion has a few solid albums, why not play some different songs? I certainly understand why radio stations play the same song over and over again. They are beating predetermined hit singles into our head. But within Apple Music there’s less of an excuse as everything should be customizable to each user.

Wait – Wait, I never had a chance to love you

 

The “For You” section has playlists like “Intro to Dio”, “Dio Deep Cuts”, “Dio: The 80s”, “Dio Influences”, and “Influenced by Dio”. These are great, but they repeat. I really enjoyed the “Dio Deep Cuts” playlist when it first appeared, but I was disappointed when I saw the exact same playlist scroll a few days later. Apple has millions of songs at their disposal, and hundreds of them feature Ronnie James Dio. What I want is a playlist that says “Some Random Dio Songs” and those exact songs would never appear in this playlist ever again.

There are a few other minor things that could be improved. I wish I could see album reviews in this view without switching to iTunes. I use the app “MusiCue” to repeat small sections of songs and possibly slow them down in order to learn trickier parts on the piano. This doesn’t work with songs that are being streamed, even when I download the song locally.

As I finish this post the update iOS 9.2 has become available, and changes to Apple Music is at the top of the description. I haven’t downloaded it yet, but I don’t believe it addresses any of the issues I’ve discussed. It talks about improvements to user-generated Playlists, but those have never really interested me. I’ll download the update after I post this. I wrote a lot of words already, and I’m not about to change them.

The lemon symbolizes the little that is wrong with Apple Music among the many expected good apples. Get it? It’s art. Peasant.

 

How does this affect my yearly “best-of” posts based on play count? That’s the next post.

The Teen Beach Movie Balance

The day was (probably, around) August 10th, 2013. It was the time that Lady GaGa released her single “Applause” and Katy Perry released her single “Roar”. I had the ambitious idea to download both songs that morning in order to familiarize myself with the tunes enough to record a solo piano cover of each that evening. I hadn’t heard either song before but I listened to both recordings on a loop so playing them on the piano would be a trivial exercise later. I thought I’d be the first on the market with these covers and my YouTube channel would get the recognition it deserved in my head. But alas I was wrong. I was very wrong. There were already thousands of piano covers online recorded well before the official release of the single. I didn’t bother recording either song. I ended the day having nothing to show from this except embarrassingly high iTunes play counts for these pop songs. “Applause” was an otherwise worthless song but Roar seemed fun and worthy of a pop hit. It does sadden me a bit that my 4-year old daughter associates Katy Perry with “Eye of the Tiger” instead of Survivor.

You’re gonna hear me roar (if you’re quiet)

On the opposite end of this spectrum are the songs that I record myself playing for my annual Top 30 project. Most of these songs are too niche and have almost no audience for a solo piano rendition. My cover of Steep Canyon Rangers “Tell the One I Love” has 23 views after almost 2 years. It has no competition, but it also has virtually no audience.

My notable skill at the piano is my ability to pick up a song very quickly. This works great at a bar or a party (or just entertaining myself) but doesn’t translate well to a YouTube video. It’s assumed that a YouTube video is the polished best-effort and it’s not relevant how long it took the player to prepare. But there’s a balance out there for me somewhere; a tune that isn’t saturated by covers or that is too obscure for an actual audience. One where my video is the best simply because it is the first and only one. I found that balance in Disney’s Teen Beach Movie.

The movie came out in 2013, apparently seeking to re-create the magic of High School Musical with a new cast and setting. I don’t know exactly how I stumbled upon it but I like to think it was due to my 2-year old daughter who still repeats the phrase “ready freddie” from the movie today without knowing its origins. While it was a marginal hit for Disney it wasn’t the blockbuster sensation that High School Musical was. It had a cult following in the pre-teen crowd who may enjoy a piano cover of their favorite summer song, but not have the skills to perform it themselves. The solo piano version of a medley of songs from Teen Beach Movie has 17,000 views as of this writing, and while that may not seem like enough to brag about, it’s by far the most successful thing I’ve ever posted to the Internet. Here’s the video:

Why am I mentioning this now, two years after the release of both the original movie and my cover video? Teen Beach Movie 2 was just released in June and I felt compelled to again create a solo piano rendition of a medley of songs. I’m premiering it now. First!

But what if Teen Beach Movie is the trilogy we all hope it to be? Well, I guess I’ve leveled the playing field by revealing the secret. I’m up for the challenge.

My Top 30 Albums of 2014 — A Fact-Based and Self-Promoting Approach

Wouldn’t it make sense if all Best-Of lists were done deep into the following year? It would give the author time to reflect on the year as a whole and include December as valid month for artists to create. The answer is, of course, no. No one wants to work in December, artists and authors included, and by the time January comes around people have moved on to try and do something that will make someone’s best-of-the-year lists.

This is my annual list of my top 30 albums of the year ranked by iTunes play count. I play at least a portion of one of the songs on the piano simply because I can. A surprisingly early baby delayed it more than usual, but in the most beautiful way possible of course. My target audience (me) said it was fine to hand it in late.

1) Weird Al Yankovic “Mandatory Fun”

2014 was a big year for parody and novelty albums with Steel Panther, Weird Al, Paul & Storm and Brentalfloss. I mean those terms in the most endearing way.

Weird Al’s album was really the only chance for overlap with the Rolling Stones list (it didn’t make it). It takes the top spot on my list partially because I put so much time into learning the epic 9-minute closing track “Jackson Park Express” on the piano. It’s paid off since as of this writing (6/12/2015) it has nearly 700 views. That’s around 2 per day!

Per usual, my favorite songs are originals, style covers and the obligatory polka. The parodies are fine but get tiresome quickly. It’s my conceited belief that true Weird Al fans stay for his original work, and he just does the parodies to help pay for his songwriting hobby.

2) Transatlantic “Kaleidoscope”

2014 was the year of Prog Cruises (1 cruise). Listening to albums from the bands on the cruise brought back memories of rum, 80 degree weather in February, infinite salad/soft serve, and keyboard solos. For the aforementioned reasons, these albums got a lot of play this year. Transatlantic albums never disappoint and I’m happy to wait a few years between releases to keep the quality up.

3) Within Temptation “Hydra”

This was easily-digestible pop-metal to start off the year. For some reason I’m more forgiving of pop-metal when it’s led by a female vocalist.

What made this album interesting was the guest vocalists. Tarja Turunen was an obvious choice being a fellow corseted female metal vocalist. Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum was a less predictable choice but fit well. I can only imagine that they both just ran into each other having booked the studio at the same time and figured they mine as well do a song together. Xzibit rapping on “As We Run” reminded me that I enjoy rap when it’s used to balance out a non-rap song. It’s only when a song is entirely rap that it becomes boring. If it’s used in place of a bridge or guitar solo it can add interesting dynamics to any song.

4) Big Elf “Into the Maelstrom”

I enjoyed Big Elf’s first album after constant endorsement from Mike Portnoy. It wasn’t until I saw them on the Prog Cruise that I really got into them, including the first album and this strong follow-up.

5) If/Then Soundtrack

Quality musicals in this style are hard to come by. We get about one per year at most. I can only imagine the work that goes into these before the average person gets a chance to listen.

6) Old Crow Medicine Show “Remedy”

Another strong release that grows on you the longer you listen. “Shit Creek” is such a perfect title to a bluegrass song that it’s almost embarrassing that it took this long for it to happen.

7) John Gorka “Bright Side of Down”

Gorka will always be music to clean the house to. You’d think my house would be cleaner with this getting the #7 spot.

8) The Duhks “Beyond the Blue”

To me The Duhks will always be Leonard Podolak, Jessee Havey, Tania Elizabeth, Scott Senior and Jordan McConnell. I had the pleasure to see this line-up at the Burren in Somerville in February of 2014. I don’t think I realized how special the show was and that it may be the last time I see them with this line-up. After an energetic instrumental Tania looks at Jordan with the biggest smile and says “that was fun”. She meant it. They weren’t going through the motions and playing these songs for the millionth time. They were having fun in their original band knowing that many of their members were going on to bigger things.

The album by itself is a good enough album, but falls short of their classic albums (with Jessee). With the death of liner notes I’m not even sure Tania plays on this album. Her harmony vocals are certainly missed.

9) Tuomas Holopainen “Music Inspired by the Life and Times of Scrooge”

The album title almost reads as a joke, especially since it’s coming from the guitarist of a symphonic metal band. The entire album plays like the intro track to most other symphonic metal albums, but that’s a complement here. I hear bits of Yanni and David Arkenstone and didn’t miss the vocals at all.

10) Opeth “Pale Communication”

I’ve made my point about how the beauty of Opeth had always been the merger of clean and death vocals. Opeth has moved on and so shall I, and I can’t fault them for moving forward. I don’t expect another “Still Life”.

Jason McGorty