Updating the mp3 players

I’m ridiculously picky when it comes to updating my mp3 players. I currently have three, which I’ve acqured over the years: a Creative Zen Mozaic, an older SanDisk Sansa Clip, and a newer SanDisk Sport Plus. Do I use all three? Yes, of course I do! Normally I tend to have them filled up with specific themes or sounds; the Zen is usually reserved for new and recent releases plus the Beatles discography (because come on…do you know me?) while the Sansa Clip has older favorites.

Now that I work in an office again (grumble grumble), I’ve been putting all three to good use throughout the day. I don’t have direct access to my music library unless I use up a significant amount of phone data via our Plex server, so I make do with the old-school travel-sized players.

Lately I’ve been playing around with a new possible writing project (no promises yet) in which I sort of decided its soundtrack would be the music of the early 90s up to the early 00s. Why? Good question, but I won’t go into detail just yet. Suffice it to say, I’m going to start listening to these albums for first time without equating them to the Bridgetown Trilogy. I’m not doing it on purpose, it just happened that way. But in the process, I’m getting to revisit these songs with fresh ears and no prior influence.

But more importantly, I get to revisit these songs without the emotional attachment I’ve long had with most of them. I’ve written so many blog posts about those lean post-college years, and about the music I listened to during that time, but this time out I’m finally giving them a spin without getting caught up in all the personal drama. I’m listening to them in the context of what was going on in the world during the time of their release. [I suppose in a way you could say I’m purposely not making it all about me this time. Heh.]

Also, it’s kind of fun to revisit some of these songs and albums that I know pretty well but haven’t visited in ages. In particular, I’ve been making it a point to revisit some of the mainstream pop albums I enjoyed — the downside to being so into alt-rock is a habitual avoidance of all things pop — and getting something new out of them. It’s to the point that I’ve been tempted to do another visit to Amoeba Records’ dollar bin to find more of those albums that passed me by.

And who knows — maybe I’ll rediscover a few tracks that flew under my radar!

Mobile Music Alternatives

I’m still a bit annoyed that I can’t seem to get my mp3 players (or my phone for that matter) to play any music through the car. Apparently our car stereo is so low tech that it doesn’t even have a line-in audio selection on the interface. It does have a few USB ports, but no UI that will let me access whatever I connect to it. [It of course has Bluetooth and iThingie interfaces, neither of which I need.] All I want is to listen to something aside from the same stations playing the same dang things over and over! Why is that so hard? Eesh.

Anyway, this reminds me of those days long ago when I used to bring my boombox along when I went on a roadtrip with my friends, or when I had that unwieldy and not-always-working connector to my cd walkman (which would eat up AA battery power at the rate of maybe two cd plays and skip at the slightest jolt). I don’t think it’s currently possible to upgrade our car stereo, so there’s not a lot I can do except figure out an alternative or see if I can find a lifehack online somewhere. Right now I’m contemplating keeping a small Bluetooth-ready speaker in the car, which I’d originally bought for my PC, and plug in my mp3 player that way. At least I can charge that thing rather than go through all those batteries.

I find this quite amusing, actually, as it almost feels like I’ve gone full circle: if I really want to listen to my own music, I’m going to have to carry it on me and have something to play it on, or in this case, through.

Listening to Alt-pop stations

Another downside to having to commute again is that I’m stuck listening to local terrestrial radio stations in the car. Now, before you get all het up about that statement, let me explain: I’m all for local terrestrial stations! They’re good for the community, they keep me updated on when the highway I’m currently driving on might be all sorts of borked a few miles up the road; they do in fact keep me entertained on an otherwise uneventful and sort of boring drive* in their own way. In fact, I just recently found a Bollywood-themed station out of San Jose!

[* – The one non-boring bit of the commute I will never tire of is coming across the western span of the Bay Bridge and back into San Francisco just as the sun is setting. It’s a glorious view and I still have moments where I’m amazed I live in such a ridiculously photogenic city.]

No, the issue I have is the commerciality of most of these stations. Sure, I totally understand that these stations need advertising and numbers and set rotations to keep them going nowadays, as freeform radio is pretty much relegated to college and non-profit stations. But what has always made me tire of these stations is that the playlist can be so…predicatable. When you listen to the radio as much as I do, the playlist patterns start getting more and more obvious. I’ve worked at both college and commercial stations so I know what rotations are and why they’re a thing… I guess I just tire of them a lot quicker than other people do.

There’s only so many times I can hear classic mainstays like Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop” or Green Day’s “Longview” in a week (at least four to six) or new songs like Tones & I’s “Dance Monkey” (same, if not more, and the song kind of similar to Crazy Frog’s “Axel F” in that I find it quite annoying and yet somehow ridiculously popular). There’s certain songs that are like playing bingo: the day isn’t complete without hearing That Particular Classic Track.

I mean, I hate to sound like an old and aging hipster yelling at clouds here, but sometimes these “alternative” stations feel more like… “alternapop” stations, playing it safe with the same bands that feel more pop than alternative. They aren’t nearly as adventurous as they make themselves out to be. This is especially notable when I’m listening to a non-profit station like KEXP, which is far more adventurous in its playlist…and inclusive. It occurred to me recently that our local alternative station rarely plays bands of color (at least that I know of), and rarely any women aside from “Dance Monkey”, Billie Eilish, Shaed’s “Trampoline” and Meg Myers’ cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill”. Maybe a Lana Del Rey track now and again, but it’s almost all men. That tells me it’s almost all about the numbers, and the numbers state that the listeners are mostly the “males 18 – 44” group. Everyone else gets the short shrift, even if that station is one of the very few in the area that plays the style and genre they like the most.

I’ll make do, but it’s really uninspiring after a while and I find myself spending most of my commute hitting the surf button for something different. I’m this close to giving up on these stations and ordering a headphone-to-USB cable so I can listen to my mp3 players in the car.

Thankfully, most of the terrestrial stations I do listen to, ones that appeal to my tastes and don’t bore me, also stream online where I can listen to them on my phone. Kind of tricky to do when your traveling, though.

Indie Rocks

Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, courtesy KEXP.org

For the last seven or eight months, I’ve been listening almost exclusively to KEXP online while working from home. It’s an affiliate of the University of Washington and non-profit, and they play some damn fine indie rock that’s made my ears perk up repeatedly. A good portion of my downloads during this time have been informed or influenced by the station.

Okay, that may sound like a shameless plug, but let’s be honest, I’ll happily plug any station that broadcasts purely out of a love for music rather than for the ratings. If your station is dedicated to a creative playlist, bands both local and international, and is not afraid to shake it up now and again, you’ve got my ears and my loyalty.

Sometimes it’s hard to find these stations, especially when they seem to be a vanishing breed. Even though the Giant Conglomerates seem to be losing money hand over fist due to a severe bout of All The Stations Are Playing The Same Damn Songs, it’s often hard to find these stations on your car stereo or elsewhere. You often have to go online and further afield like I did. I might live in San Francisco, but when a good number of the local commercial stations are all owned by Cumulus or some other big name, I have to dig a bit.

And sometimes the college stations don’t exactly work for me, either. Some like Berkeley’s KALX or Stanford’s KZSU are good but far too leftfield for my tastes. Others like Santa Clara’s KSCU run mostly on minimal programming and maximum library autoplay. Some have become shells of their former selves, broadcasting an NPR feed with very few live shows.

This is why I’m still a big fan of streaming radio stations online. Not streaming full-stop; I do have a Spotify account but I rarely use it, and for the most part I only stream albums on New Release Fridays. I crave the live deejay atmosphere. [And most definitely not the “morning crew” kind, which I find far too irritating. Howard Stern may have made it popular, but that format is way beyond its sell-by date now.]

I’ll usually find these stations in one of two ways: either by word of mouth/band announcement (KEXP is known for hosting quite a few live-in-studio performances) or by local listening. I’ve favorited stations that I happened upon while on vacation. I love to find new stations and check them out via their website.

I find KEXP to be a perfect blend of all the good parts of the above. Maybe a little leftfield, but never weird for weirdness’ sake. Silly deejay banter, but never meathead locker room humor. Each host has their own style and tastes. I might hear a song on heavy rotation, but I won’t hear it eight times a day. They’ll often surprise me with deep cuts from new albums. They’ve introduced me to a hell of a lot of indie bands I never would have heard of otherwise.

And I’m always curious to find even more stations. Who knows what I’ll be listening to six months from now?

Getting into (the) Spirit and other classic rock bands

First off, my apologies for that terrible pun.

Lately I’ve been reading Kent Hartman’s Goodnight, L. A.: Untold Tales from Inside Classic Rock’s Legendary Recording Studios, and it’s quite an interesting read.  The 70s was definitely an interesting and extremely varied decade for music, that’s for sure.  But what struck me was that this is yet another music biog where I’m quite familiar with the titles of the albums mentioned from this era and the surrounding years: The Family That Plays Together, TapestryEverybody Knows This is NowhereRumoursTea for the Tillerman, and so on.

But how many of them have I actually sat down and listened to?  Sure, I know Rumours and Hotel California and Fly Like an Eagle from my preteen years listening to the radio and getting records from the library.  But I know only two Spirit songs: “I Got a Line On You” and “Nature’s Way”, and I only know the latter because This Mortal Coil covered it in 1991.  I know tons of Carole King songs (and I just recently read her autobiography, Natural Woman) but I don’t think I’ve ever listened to any of her albums, including her most famous one.

I’m thinking I should change that.  I mean, sure, do I really have enough time in the day to listen to streaming radio stations, new releases, and older favorites on top of listening to classic albums for the first time?  Well, maybe.  I have Amazon Prime so I can give a lot of these a listen essentially for free.  And this is back when full albums lasted maybe thirty minutes, forty tops.  I can fit in a few a day, I think.  I’m always up for expanding my musical knowledge.

It’ll be a long-term project, but I’m thinking it’ll be fun to finally give these a listen and figure out what all the buzz was about.

Vacation Tunage

We’re heading out to London in a week and a half, and my mind is on two things:

1) I need to prep my In My Blue World and Bridgetown Trilogy freebie cards for when we head to Worldcon immediately upon return, and

2) What should I put on my mp3 players?

Yes, while most other sane people in this world prepare for a vacation with more mundane concerns such as what to pack, what they’d like to see and do once at their destination, and so on, my addled brain almost always goes to ‘I need to bring stuff to listen to.’  [Mind you, I do think of what to pack, just that I usually take care of that in the space of an hour a day or so before we go — I always remember the things I must bring like my passport and any show tickets, and anything I end up forgetting probably wasn’t needed to begin with.]

For these long flights, I usually fill up both mp3 players.  The Zen player is for recent releases and compilations, so that’s easy to update.  The SanDisk one, on the other hand, can be tricky.  That one is my writing mp3 player.  I’ve also gotten into a habit of putting (almost) complete discographies on that one, as I can get through three or four albums in the process.  I already have The Beatles on there (both the mono and stereo box sets from 2009, plus a few compilations), and ELO as well (primarily due to work on In My Blue World), but I still have lots of space left.

So…what band’s discography should I put on there?  Should I go old school and put on Cocteau Twins or The Smiths?  Should I do something new and put on Pinkshinyultrablast or GoGoPenguin?  I’ll have to think about this some.

Any suggestions, of course, are quite welcome!

All That Jazz

The first jazz song I remember hearing, even before Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” from A Charlie Brown Christmas, was Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”. My mom owned the Time Out album and I remember being fascinated yet a little weirded out by the cover, as well as Joe Morello’s sparse yet intense drum solo on the big hit.

I never quite followed up on my brief 1985-6 fascination with jazz, other than listening to it on my Walkman late at night, but lately I’ve been making a slow return back to it. It’s mostly been the new piano-based bands such as the amazing GoGo Penguin…

…or one of my favorites from the last couple decades, Brad Mehldau…

…but I’m yet to fully embrace it as I once did. I’m thinking this is something I should look further into. I mean, I’m relatively familiar with most of the classic musicians like Miles and Monk and Oscar and Basie and so on. I’m thinking maybe I should do a bit of homework and find a couple of good radio and internet stations and get myself back in the groove.

Who are your favorite jazz musicians, old and/or new? I’d love to try them out!

Second Chances

I think it’s safe to say that everyone has experienced that band or musician that just didn’t do it for you, despite everyone else screaming at just how absolutely phenomenal they are. Sometimes it’s because their style just doesn’t suit your tastes. Sometimes it’s that you’re only familiar with their three songs on permanent rotation at the local radio station, despite a lengthy discography.  Sometimes you’re just not in the mood.

And sometimes, ages later, it finally clicks and you finally understand what the hullabaloo was all about.

Bob Dylan is a good example of me not *getting* him the first time around. As a kid I’d only heard a barking troubadour with songs that went on far too long. It wasn’t until recently when I bought that big box set a few years back (The Complete Album Collection) and started listening through the years that I finally understood what he was doing.  Now I get why so many people find him so amazing.

LCD Soundsystem is another one. I was initially turned off by their retro-disco shtick they had going (especially with their then-hit “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House”).  Pretty sure they were also part of the wave of bands that Pitchfork found absolutely amazing but about three people had ever heard of them.  Then I listened to last year’s American Dream album and, wouldn’t you know it, they’re a damn catchy band with some fine tunes going on!

Another recent changeover is Parquet Courts. I kinda-sorta liked some of their songs but couldn’t make myself go any further than streaming the songs. Then their latest song “Wide Awake” comes out and man, that is one hell of a fun earworm.  It’s one of my favorite songs of this year.

Or Courtney Barnett, which at first I thought, ‘okay, kind of has a dopey-hippie thing going on’, but then I started listen to her lyrics, which are often off-kilter but deceptively brilliant. “Avant Gardener,” for instance, is actually quite a mundane yet harrowing story of having a debilitating asthma attack. And her record with the equally weird Kurt Vile is actually an amazing blues album.

I guess what I’m saying here is that it’s okay not to jump on the bandwagon and sing the praises (har har) of the bands and musicians with everyone else.  Sometimes it’s better to take it all in at your own pace and see where it goes.

Listening In

dave grohl drumming

One of my new year’s resolutions was to change up my listening habits a bit.  It’s not really about any annoyance with stagnant playlist rotation, although that’s a bit part of it.

No, this time out it’s about wanting to check out new things.  I’d like to listen to more podcasts and audiobooks.  I’d also like to discover new stations that play unexpected things.  It’s the wayward listener in me, I guess?  Every couple of years I like to shake up my long-held habits and try new things, and that includes what I listen to.  Quite often, these new avenues inspire me creatively, in new and unexpected ways.

And hey, it’ll give me more to write about here at the blog, right?

I’m not sure where any of this will take me, and I know it’ll probably be a few weeks before radio sheds its post-holiday ennui and brings in new sounds, so for now I’ll keep my options open.  I also have a few free audio book points waiting for me over at Audible, so perhaps it’s high time I cash them in.

I’m curious to see where this goes…!

Boots and Cats

boots and cats

One of my favorite birthday cards ever.

I do blather on about alternative rock quite a bit on this blog, don’t I?  Well, considering that it’s been a major part of my life for over thirty years now, I’d say I’ve earned the right to keep blathering.

It occurs to me, though, that I don’t give enough time to some of my other favorite styles and genres.  I’ll mention them in passing, especially when I’m doing my new release round-ups, but I don’t dedicate nearly all that much blog space.  I should probably do something about that.

I don’t often mention it, but I also listen to a lot of electronic music.  I tend to lean more towards the chill-out / ambient / moody stuff, of course, considering I’m definitely not what you call a club-hopper.  I find a lot of remixes tedious and little more than a keyboard preset left running for ten minutes (with maybe a few seconds of the original recording thrown on top somewhere in minute eight), and I find the bass drops and overmodulation of dubstep kind of ridiculous.  [In fact, overmodulation really irritates me because it just sounds like unprofessional crap.  But hey, that’s just me.]

On the other hand, I find Primal Scream’s Screamadelica an absolutely PHENOMENAL album that everyone should have in their collection. It’s a perfect blend of psychedelic hippie rock and 90s UK techno. I also particularly love the 90s trip-hop of Massive Attack, Tricky and Sneaker Pimps.

That’s not to say I don’t like the loud stuff. I jumped on the Chemical Brothers bandwagon pretty early during my HMV days. I find Aphex Twin weird as hell but amazingly creative.  I love Lords of Acid‘s sexy freakishness.

But yeah, for the most part, I’m more the laid back guy who’ll lose himself in a really cool groove.  [For the record, I’m not a listener who uses additives (so to speak) during my listening.  I tried that once and found it irritating as hell.] I love to listen to this sort of stuff, especially during my writing sessions, because more often than not it creates a positive, consistent mood that works well with my mindset when I’m working on projects.

So yeah…maybe it’s time I started talking about more electronic bands here in the future!