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Music to MY Ears

Music to MY Ears

I caused a minor uproar among coworkers recently when I expressed an unpopular opinion about a generational pop music megastar. "I don't like Beyonce's music," I declared matter-of-factly. The gasps of protest nearly sucked the air out of the conference room we were occupying. To break the awkward moment, I doubled down on my controversial statement. "I'm not really into most of Adele's stuff either." Confusion, horror, fury. I might as well have added that Creed is the preeminent rock band of our generation (which they are). 

My assertions left me in the difficult position of having to explain my music taste, and it brought back bad memories of all the failed attempts I've made at explaining the type of music that I prefer. I distinctly remember then-girlfriend Rachael's reaction when I claimed to like all types of music. Mocking laughter. "No you don't," Rachael asserted, "You're a music snob." 

Gary Clark Jr. at 9:30 Club in DC circa 2013. Photo cred: likely my iPhone 4.

Gary Clark Jr. at 9:30 Club in DC circa 2013. Photo cred: likely my iPhone 4.

She was right. I should have understood it then, as I struggled to justify my original claim, and I know it now, even as my taste continues to evolve. I can certainly name an artist or song or two across many genres that I enjoy, but there are also entire genres that I will instinctively write off before giving unknown artists a chance. 

What I've found in repeatedly failing to accurately describe my taste in music is an unwillingness to adhere to categories and genres as they're described. Comb through my Apple Music library, and you'd probably assign labels like "rock," "alternative," "acoustic," and "indie" to my interests. I won't deny that many of my favorite artists fit these genres. However, there are likely many examples of artists or groups that I dislike that could also qualify for these labels. 

Lord Huron at 9:30 Club in DC circa 2015. Photo cred: probably my iPhone 5.

Lord Huron at 9:30 Club in DC circa 2015. Photo cred: probably my iPhone 5.

Similarly, you may notice a relative absence of electronic, country, and hip hop music. That doesn't preclude me from jamming out to my favorite artists that fit these categorizations. Quite the opposite, in fact. I've had Run the Jewels, Bonobo, Oddisee, Wildcat! Wildcat! on repeat in my ear buds recently... okay, I'm having a hard time coming up with a passable country music example.

What I'm getting at is the difficulty of labeling or describing your musical preferences with any accuracy. To a new friend making idle conversation, a simple list of genres or favorite artists is probably more than sufficient. But the musicians in my library are dear to me and I'm proud of my unique music taste. So how do I describe the music that I truly enjoy?

Black Pistol Fire at U Street Music Hall in DC circa 2016. Photo cred: my iPhone 6.

Black Pistol Fire at U Street Music Hall in DC circa 2016. Photo cred: my iPhone 6.

I thought it would be fun and personally beneficial to list a bunch of qualities, elements, and trends that I enjoy, as well as some that I'm not loving. Most of these qualities are subjective and difficult to quantify. In other words, I know what I like when I hear it. 

  • Fan of instruments, especially guitar. I grew up on rock and alternative music, and began playing guitar at age 10. If it didn't have a guitar and/or a full band, I wasn't interested. The likes of Matchbox 20, the Goo Goo Dolls, and Blink 182 will always hold the upper hand against the boy bands of the early 90s for this reason. 
  • Not a fan of solo singers. All due respect to Beyonce, Adele, and the like; there's no denying their talent as vocalists. Yet I struggle to name a solo vocalist act that I would pay money to see. I don't specifically dislike these artists, it's just that I truly cannot name one that I'm into. That said, there are many singer-songwriters and solo instrumentalists that I count among some of my favorite musicians.
  • Fan of meaningful lyrics. Music becomes transcendent when you can feel the meaning behind a performer's words. It doesn't mean you'll always relate or understand their emotion or experience. But if a musician can move you in word and voice, the music becomes all the more powerful and genuine. 
  • Not a fan of empty lyrics. I'll admit that I'm probably a lyric snob too. This is what makes it difficult for me to get down with most pop music. I suppose I can understand or relate to your latest hit song about an experience in the club or chasing a crush, but it feels inconsequential. This goes double for a lot of pop country music. 
  • Fan of blues scales, finger picking, organs, and drum fills.
  • Not a fan of house beats, clap tracks, and the ham horn.
  • Fan of live music. Does it get any better than when a performer launches into the final song you've been waiting to hear and then they throw some creative wrinkle in that totally sets the track apart from the recorded version? A detour for a guitar or drum solo, the surprise verse that results in a mashup cover, the instrumental showmanship reserved only for stage performances. The nuance, flexibility, and mastery that artists get to demonstrate during shows augments the recorded experience as well. 
  • Not a fan of waiting for the beat to drop. Let me continue by stating that dance clubs are not my scene. I think the Lonely Island hits it on the head (see what I did here?).
  • Fan of complete albums. There's something so enjoyable about an album that is greater than the sum of its parts. Creative transitions, consistent lyrical and melodic themes, and those brief interludes that never make it to air exponentially multiply the artistry of a musician's work. 
  • Not a fan of dance remixes, especially when they ruin perfectly good songs. Remember those FM radio dance parties that DJs would host on Friday nights from your local radio station? They'd play all the top 40 hits you heard ad nauseum throughout the week at 1.5 speed with a bunch of additional programmed beats behind it? Definitely not my thing, but god forbid they do it to a song I actually like. Might as well let Iggy Azalea rap over "Hey Jude" next.
  • Fan of a properly placed horn section. I'm talking more "Saturday in the Park" than "Last Friday Night."
  • Not a fan of whatever that overused clicking beat thing used in a lot of popular hip hop music is. 
  • Fan of the revival of bygone styles. Bands like St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, and The Wild Feathers are catching my ear with their modernized brass, funk, soul, and Southern rock characters. I'm not suggesting these styles ever left, but it sure if awesome to see them gaining traction with a wide audience in the current era.
  • Not a fan of formulaic song construction. Again I find the greatest offenses in pop and dance music. Where's the excitement if I know exactly where the song is going melodically and structurally?
  • Fan of (nearly all) of the songs on the Cities | Places | Things playlists 1, 2, and 3. Give them a listen to get an idea of the tunes Collin, Mike, and I are jamming!
Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds at Hamilton Live in DC circa 2016. Photo cred: my iPhone 6 maybe?

Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds at Hamilton Live in DC circa 2016. Photo cred: my iPhone 6 maybe?

I don't know rattling off this or a similar list of musical elements I like and dislike is easier than naming my favorite musical genres, but it is fun to undergo my own personal music genome project. Lord have mercy on the next person that asks me about my music taste.

My knees were weak. My arms were heavy. Part 1.

My knees were weak. My arms were heavy. Part 1.

Realistic Expectations & Expected Realities

Realistic Expectations & Expected Realities