Five a day.

I'm a pretty bad correspondent as a rule, so that I've left this be for four months shouldn't be surprising, right? But yes, I've been busy--less consistently than I'd prefer, just like lots of you, I'm guessing.

Two posts and four months ago I noted that my arbitrary rule for 2010 would be that I would limit my acquisition of music to five discrete items (mixes, albums, singles, box sets, whatever) per day. That's exactly what I've been sticking to--and what do you know? It's working, far better than the one-in-one-out that I abandoned fairly early into 2009 did, or the endless catch-up that ensued when I decided to let the floodgates open last year.

By "acquisitions," I basically mean downloads. Beyond stuff I get sent for potential review--most of which is of basically no interest--I don't acquire much physical media, haven't in ages, aside from the occasional title I won't hear unless I buy it. I'll buy a CD if I like it a lot, too, as with the new Ted Leo album, but that's rare. Well, not entirely rare--not in 2010, the first quarter of which (I've talked elsewhere about this) has been terrific to my ears. Since much of my listening is bound up in podcasts and mixes for Beat Connection, my A.V. Club column, where I pick 10 good Web freebies a month (here's 2010's first four), the five-a-day method makes a special kind of sense; there's so much out there to pick from that whittling it down (especially since they tend to run in the hour range) helps manage the flood.

My methods are simple: I keep a Word doc per month in which I keep track of "acquisitions" (stuff I d/l or buy or, sometimes, request from publicists) and "browsed" (stuff I note for later) per day. Sometimes I cheat: I find as many titles as I can from each month's Resident Advisor DJ Top 50 [Feb, March] from eMusic and other sources, and that uses up an entire day's quota, for example. But most of the time I stick with five, and it's a good foreshortening exercise: it forces me to focus on what I'm really interested in, rather than things I vaguely think I might want to know about someday, long after I've forgotten I have it to begin with (i.e. about 10 minutes later). As much as anything, that's one reason 2010 sounds better to me: I'm more selective but still have some range.

What happens next is where my OCD tendencies works in my favor. New stuff goes into a dated folder, which then goes into an "Unheard" folder. Then, when I have time or interest--pretty frequently--I drag a day's worth of stuff into my iTunes "Unheard" playlist and listen to it. I did this last year with Slow Listening, except instead of an endless morass of stuff, some of which I have no recollection of (and given how lazy some of the stuff is tagged, there have been cases where I couldn't figure out what I was listening to at all), it's more finite, and therefore easier to manage. (Podcasts I subscribe to go into the playlist automatically, which on Mondays especially cuts down on the number of things I need to catch up on later.) For a while I was proceeding in strict order, but I've lately been doubling up, adding the most recent and earliest unheard folder into the playlist at the same time, so that I'm not consistently a month--or more--behind.

There really isn't a downside to doing things this way, I find. It's efficient, manageable, and exposes me to a lot without feeling like I'm drowning. Another wrinkle is in the way I've started to approach bigger items--the 12-and-a-half-hour Autechre mega-mix I mention in the April Beat Connection, for example, or this monster 12-volume history of female-fronted punk bands, both of which I've counted as a day's quota. Each is now on my iPod, and the Autechre is now my mandatory commute/headphone listening whenever I'm running errands or traveling into Manhattan or whatever else. (I'm seven minutes into part 8 of the 13-part Autechre mix as I type.) I might try and do something similar with this crazy 24-part history of electroacoustic music as well. (If the files are still available; haven't really looked at that site in a while.)

So yes, it's fairly rigorous. But it doesn't feel like a chore the way dumping 10 to 30 hours of music acquired willy-nilly into a first-listen playlist did in 2009. Again, I think 2010 is already a really good year for music, which 2009 was most assuredly not; that helps. But weeding/whittling things down beforehand, instead of just grabbing whatever, plays a part as well. I'm getting better at filtering this stuff for myself, and that helps me filter it better for others in return, especially since I listen to mixes/podcasts in a more purposeful way now. Let me say as well that two weeks after turning in the previous Beat Connection I have 16 mixes in serious contention for the May column's Top 10, with two more to go, and plenty as yet unheard. That's a dilemma I'm happy to have.

As for what's left to get into--well, plenty. The "Unheard" folder has 16 dated folders in it (earliest: March 13) and five other albums, only a couple of which feature music I already know--re-downloaded on a whim--that I haven't gotten to yet. The five-a-day rule doesn't lend itself to cleaning house with the kind of determination I had last year, but it's allowed me more breathing room than Slow Listening did. I think I've found my pace.


Welcome aboard.

I have company: Bob Ham, from Portland, OR, is going the Slow Listening route this year. Good luck, and remember: it's a lot easier than you think it'll be.


How did it go?

2009 is now over. It was an odd year--in some ways a terrible one, in others one with more hope than I should have had reason for.
As of 12:01 a.m. on January 1, 2010, I had two hours and 40 minutes of music as yet unlistened-to in the "Unheard" iTunes playlist--a couple of DJ mixes, an EP, two single tracks, and an album. There are about a dozen albums I'd requested from Forced Exposure that I didn't get to for one reason or other; maybe a few more than that. (My physical organization skills haven't appreciably improved over the past year, unfortunately.) I got four CDs for Christmas that I haven't cracked yet. And there are a couple of critics' lists I either hunted-and-gathered from or got .zip files from--most of those I've played through, but I've missed a few things too, and will get to those.

That's the stuff I acquired but didn't play in 2009--pretty good, I think. I'm going to call the experiment a success. It certainly seems reasonable, especially since I'm listening to some of that stuff right now, clearing the path, in a sense. "Reasonable" is what I was hoping this would be, and I'm glad to say it has been, in many ways.

Not all, of course. When I began SLM, I figured I'd be listening deeper and to less stuff. It didn't turn out that way at all--the opposite, in fact. I cycled through more stuff than ever, didn't re-listen as much as I'd anticipated, and whether or not that's because 2009 was a terrible year, musically speaking, is not quite the point.

For those of you who care about these things, I do think 2009 was a terrible year for music. I put up a list of 100 favorite tracks from the year on my other blog. My Top 10 albums are there too. I could add another 30 or 40 albums, and another 20-25 tracks I discovered after going through other people's lists. None of that means I think 2009 was a "good" year. It didn't feel like all that much was happening--though a few things were, notably the post-dubstep/U.K. funky/house nexus that the FACT Magazine mixes I doted on, especially over the summer, covered amply. The next edition of Beat Connection features a list of favorite mixes/podcasts from '09, and more than the albums or even tracks lists, it reflects my real sense of what was happening--maybe that should be capitalized: Happening--during the year. And that's a fertile area, definitely. But it's one cylinder.

This summer, I spent some time tracking down and listening to the singles on Al Shipley's reconsidered 2003 list. (Got 49 out of 50.) Playing through them while talking on IM with a friend, I said, "God--that was such a good year I could get away with pretending not to like the White Stripes." I was kidding: I never disliked the White Stripes; just the opposite. But I also didn't pay them as much attention as I could have, simply because there was so much else going on that I was even more interested in. That's what I mean by a good or great year: not simply "if you seek you shall find," but "I keep tripping over really good stuff without even meaning to." That's what you want to happen all the time, and in 2009 it didn't.

I don't think SLM had much to do with that. If less music stuck with me this go-round, that's the breaks; you aren't guaranteed anything when you pay attention to art. (Unless you psyche yourself into reactions you're not actually having, something I've been guilty of less this year than ever, a good aftereffect.) But as far as the method goes, I was dissatisfied with some of my own rules. I abandoned the one-in-one-out rule pretty early on, choosing instead to go on downloading binges that I paid back with marathon listens. I didn't mind the marathon listens at all--cycling through lots of new music is loads of fun, really energizing, I find, though it's not an everyday activity--but I'd intended not to acquire in binges so much. And there were definitely times when I wanted to go back to certain things but felt duty bound to charge ahead--not always, but occasionally. That's an occupational hazard anyway for a music critic--re-listening for reviews, auditioning stuff to pitch. It's just more pronounced when genuine thrills are thinner on the ground.

I'd planned to make December the exception for SLM's rules, and to some degree I did, but for the most part I kept at it for the full year, and I plan to more or less do it in 2010, too--and beyond that. The economy hasn't improved much since a year ago, and my overall thriftiness has fed into, and been informed by, the experiment. It's also had a tangible effect on my frame of mind regarding music. Usually around this time, I feel frazzled, anxious, and guilty about the amount of music I never got around to listening to--the critics' favorites I never heard, the cult items I didn't investigated, the stuff I played once and liked but never went back to. The latter still applies, but what do you know: I've actually played everything I intended to play. I feel calm and even about it! I honestly can't remember the last time I've felt that way. So yes, it worked. I'll still want to hear more than I'll possibly have time for; I wouldn't want the impulse to disappear. To me it's a sign of life. But I used to feel out of control of my own cravings, and I don't anymore.

Since I like making up arbitrary rules, here's the one I'm hoping to follow for 2010: no more than five items acquired per day. "Item" means discrete unit--album, DJ-mix, podcast, EP, single. If I grab five songs from Digital Dripped, that's five items. If I buy five box sets, that's five items, etc. That's "hoping," not "expecting." But I've done OK so far, you know?


Peanut butter and chocolate.


The mandate for this was originally eleven months--not too bad, right? The mandate was also one-in-one-out, which got trashed after a few times. And of course, it coincided with the slowest-moving time in my professional life--me and just about all of my fellow music-writing freelancers. Couldn't be too hard, right? Especially once I stopped feeling beholden to "keep up" anymore than I absolutely had to.

I knew the decade was ending; I hoped to do some fairly extensive writing about it for one outlet in particular, and talked with the editor about it at some length. After nine months of jumping through paperwork-related hoops and not getting very encouraging feedback on what I did pitch (meaning that most of the responses were about technical details I knew nothing about and couldn't relate to), I gave up that idea, and figured I wasn't going to be doing any. Not quite. I've done '00s pieces for The A.V. Club, eMusic, NPR, and one more to come. I'm planning something longish and listy for my other blog, too. (Speaking of lists, this interview with Umberto Eco says a lot of what I've been felt about them for years now.) This is all very gratifying, though it's eaten into my time more than I'd anticipated--a big project I'm working on has been on the back burner as a result, though it's definitely a good sign that the big project is the thing I'm really itching to get back to.

It's also occupied a lot of listening time I'd hoped to devote to catching up with the Unheard playlist--which as I type stands at 16 hours. That's better than I'd thought, mostly because I've been more assiduous about it the last couple days, but with October also largely a wash due to settling in, it's made me wonder what the hell I've been thinking all this time. Especially since one of the tenets of this project is to allow for deeper focus on what I do hear, and I'm not sure that's actually happened.

Writing about 2002 for eMusic, it was hard not to compare that year and this one. That was the first (and so far, only) year I've lived in New York beginning to end, January 1 to December 31; I remember that New Year's Eve distinctly because I was so horribly broke after returning from Christmas in Minneapolis (took Amtrak both ways) that I didn't go out. Nevertheless, I still recall 2002 as my favorite musical year of the decade, and being in NYC was a big part of why: it made everything seem even more vital. There were records coming out all the time that fed the urge for discussion, that helped to redraw what the moment might mean, coming from multiple directions.

In 2009 that seems less so. Obviously, that's perspective talking: I'm 34, stay in more than go out, yadda yadda yadda. Oh yeah: I'm also spoiled for choice. "Keeping up" with as much as I could was a full-time job in 2002--a thrilling one--and in '09 just keeping track of a handful of things is exhausting. I had more energy then, yes. But I'm still an enthusiastic listener, maybe to a fault. Things grab me all the time; I've already drafted Top 100 Tracks and Top 20 Albums lists (still being tweaked and not going public till at least Christmas, sorry) that recording-for-recording are full of superb music. But apart from '07, most of the decade from '05 forward has felt sluggish and water-treading. That will change with time; I'm betting the FACT crew would laugh at my sad-old-man moping, and the electronic list Andy Battaglia and I made (linked above) has gotten several comments along those lines too. I have no trouble copping to it, because I'd rather be honest about where I'm coming from than not. If my ears are lying, so be it. But they're the only ears I've got, and I'm not interested in trading them in--they've given me too much pleasure over the years, including this one.

All of which makes me wonder whether Slow Listening is worth the bother. Ultimately I think it is, and not just because I'm really stubborn, though stubbornness certainly plays a big part. But any idea I might have had that curbing my intake would stanch my appetite deserves a condescending pat on the head. My eyes have always been bigger than my ears and always will be. I'm no monk. And I trust myself enough to figure that if there's lots of stuff that sounds good enough to hold onto but only a few things that draw me toward them irresistibly, that's down to the music and not my own flightiness. Not to mention the ageless saw that lots of good records don't necessarily add up to a satisfying epoch.

But now that I've put myself back on the Unheard-playlist treadmill again I realize how much I enjoy the hunt for its own sake. It keeps me alert; even if what I'm ultimately drawn toward is reminiscent of what I already know I like--and in many cases it is--that stuff still has to fight it out with lots of other things. The key, I remind myself over and over again, is that if I don't like it I can stop listening anytime. "Be diligent" and "know your limits": the peanut butter and chocolate of plowing through acres of new music.


Hello, Brooklyn.

I'm in Brooklyn now, have been since the first of the month, enjoying being back a lot more than I'd expected to--I forgot how much of an improvement being around Angela all the time is. Well, not all the time--she's in Soho and I'm in Kensington, and while the F trip is only a half-hour, weekend subway construction doubles the commute Fri-Sun, not to mention that she'll likely move nearer to Columbia around the end of the year. But the accessibility makes a big difference, and differently than two months' cohabitation at her folks' place. There's no ticking clock overhanging anything. I'm happier overall than I have been in a while.

I haven't been listening to much music of late--I'm dreadfully behind. Moving is a lot of it. The last few days in Seattle disallowed much new-stuff playing time, and when I got here I was too preoccupied and/or restless to sit still for long. Not to mention that it wasn't till two days ago that I got online full-time at my apartment--Jason, who owns the place (or close enough), had to put my laptop specs into the web system, and he's gone a lot. Now that I'm in I've been playing catchup. There's a ton of it to do. I'll spare you the full list, which is just more data, to concentrate on what's in the Unheard playlist right this second: six mixes totaling four hours by Cinnaman, Jay Scarlett, Joy Orbison, Trillbass, DJ I.D., and Annie Mac.

All of these are at least a month old. Until a few minutes ago, they were joined by Untold's XLR8R mix, which is fabulous. The Annie Mac sounds nice, too, so far--and is, as it turns out, from way back in March. I forget how I acquired it--probably not through Nuum, which I'm pretty sure is the source of everything else here; definitely not via that Fader link, which I'd never seen until now. Too late to write about it, then--sort of the goal of all this listening through acquisitions, in some way, especially now that I've fallen behind on any number of other things.

This bothers me even though I should know better than to let it. What's left of the pop press--by which I mean music sections of papers and mags and websites as well as dedicated music pubs/sites--clutches onto "timeliness" more tightly than ever now that everyone figures it has to thanks to the Web's instantaneous qualities. This has had an insidious effect on music writing, I think, in that it's made what gets covered even more conservative than it's always been. The idea that rock that's rooted in '60s Beatles or '70s punk is somehow "timeless" is ridiculous on its face; so is the idea that something that no one was making even three years ago is untested and therefore negligible. But that's the way these things shake out--don't I know it.

Right now there are 67 items in the Unheard folder (as opposed to the Unheard playlist in iTunes), as well as a number of CDs I need to investigate sitting somewhere in my room--moving has meant I have fewer things in my immediate possession (95 percent of my stuff is in my friend Jen's basement in Seattle), but what's here isn't particularly well organized yet. (I need to get some shelving.) In the last few days, friends have asked what I think of Total 10 and the new Built to Spill, given that I'm a fan of both Kompakt and BTS. I haven't acquired either yet, and I won't for a while, because there's all that other stuff I need to get through. I haven't made matters any easier by downloading a bunch of things today--FACT mixes, a couple of albums I need to review, a few others I might or might not. Moreover, there's no professional impetus to hear either BTS or Total 10, because it's too late to write about either. As well, there are fewer places to write about them--for money, anyway, which merciless as it may sound is how I have to prioritize things. The people who asked are big fans of both discs, and I probably will be too once I get to them. But there's too much else to barrel through first.

That sounds counterintuitive to me, too. But I don't know--principle means a lot to me. I don't like living beyond my means on any level. Yet that's what I've been doing for the last two weeks: I'm owed a giant amount of money by one of my primary outlets, and they have yet to pay up. The money goes into my account, and from there I can forward whatever mail is left in Seattle--meaning in order to get paid for my other writing (all via check), I have to get paid by these guys, because moving here cleaned me out. For the first time in my life, I've been living off a credit card, the first I've ever had. (It's not even mine: it's a subsidiary card my mom put under my name last year. I took it this summer, after she'd offered it again.) It's a nightmare: I've literally had to do everything with it, meaning that instead of taking out cash from my bank account and exploring any number of places in my new neighborhood, I've had to stick to buying and eating in places that take Visa--meaning nearly every time that I've had to pay a $10 minimum in order to buy or eat something. It's more difficult, and more expensive, in every way, especially when you're living paycheck to paycheck. And it makes playing through what I've already acquired before getting to something I haven't seem even saner than usual.


Thanks, iTunes 9.

I just noticed something on iTunes' new upgrade. The podcast feature performs one function for me: I only subscribe to Resident Advisor's podcast. (The FACT Mixes I just get as I get them.) I'd always figured I'd kept up with them, though I knew in some sneaking way that I wasn't hearing them all, would start and then forget about them sometimes, occasionally not finishing them on purpose. Nevertheless, there's a visual function for podcasts now: a full circle if you haven't listened yet, which was always there, and a half-circle for the ones you started but didn't finish, which is new. Here's what I'm behind on:

Louderbach, RA.155: 11:46 played, 44:45 left
Seth Troxler, RA.156: 49:41 played, 23:44 left
Lawrence, RA.161: 15:55 played, 59:24 left
Drums of Death, RA.165: 51:27 played, 8:36 left
Peter Van Hoesen, RA.168: 1:09:01 played, 17:54 left

And the entire last two, by Still Going and now Modeselektor. Sigh.


Hearing now.

Just now I noticed something in my iTunes folders. There are two separate playlists for old songs--one for songs I discovered on blogs and online, one for songs off reissues. Together they barely exist. Part of it is that reissues aren't an easy sell for a reviewer at this point. There's a degree to which keeping up with reissues is as important as new releases, because the past is always getting rediscovered in interesting ways in pop music, and reissues are a big part of that. That's true this year, and yes, some of what I got in return for the many books and CDs I've been getting rid of (two weeks till I go to NYC) have been reissues: Feelies, Beatles. (Of course I succumbed to the Beatles reissues. They're completely my foundation. Everything stems from them for me. I still buy most of the key myths. It's never going to change, however much I make fun of Rolling Stone for the exact same thing. Who do you think instilled it? I may go nuts about it on the main blog one night. Beware.)

Nevertheless, SLM has made it more mandatory for me to hear new music instead of old. My habit is to look for new stuff online, which is where the bulk of my listening now comes from. There are fewer likely-looking/seeming reissues coming to my attention. Even the new stuff consisting of old stuff--the FACT Mixes by the Emperor Machine and Woebot spring to mind--seems more new than old, because in those cases it's DJs shaping the story rather than the artists themselves. That might be arbitrary, but I think it's key to how we perceive the works. Records sound differently when they're used differently--sometimes ordinary, sometimes better than you could hope to have imagined. However it works, this year I've paid almost no attention to that which came before--not in anywhere near systematically, and systematically is how I listen.

I hope it's clear by now that this is still an experiment. I do think, as I'd hoped, that it will be my modus operandi going out--it's not an eleven-month plan anymore, it's more or less permanent. It's like becoming a jogger or something; perhaps something more tangible and tactile will be the next area where I decisively cut down. (Well, I eat less than I used to as well, but that's been a gradual slowdown rather than a set of instructions.) But to get back to systems for a second, I think, in my arbitrary way, that '09 has been one of the worst pop years I've lived through, possibly the worst. I hear a lot of crap, we all do, but this year's feels like a nadir. Nevertheless, the past few months have shown me some things I wasn't expecting and am excited about: the dubstep-not-dubstep I've talked about before, and now jerkin' rap from L.A.

Between them, they've scattered crumbs all over the place, largely in the form of mixes in post-dubstep's case and with jerk, a windfall via Matthew Africa (and Rodney Greene): Digital Dripped. Read it and weep. I didn't need to get any further behind in my listening, but now I am.

D.D. is shamelessly a leak blog. Nothing but lists of new songs available for grabbing followed, often, by "(hot)" or "(very hot)" or "(jerkin song)" or "(hot jerkin song)" or "(very hot jerkin song)." That's all the editorial you get. And the effect it has is to make you want to hear everything. What the hell makes this a hot or very hot song? In my case, of course, the more Pavlovian effect is, "Oooh--another jerkin' song!" (Thanks again, Rodney.) Between it and FACT I'm kind of psyched to be living in the now.

Or maybe not. I'm working on a bunch of reviews for eMusic, mostly of Sony catalog, and it's been refreshing to dig into albums I like but didn't spend as much time with as I'd like to until I got the assignments. Aerosmith's Rocks and Lene Lovich's Stateless are the latest I've been puzzling over way past deadline. (Others done, more to come.) It's challenging to write about older stuff you don't know in your bones already, especially when they're not being presented in a new context.