Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Another Ten Years

Where But For Playlists Would I? (part two)

Since I wrote Part One of my playlist trilogy, I have realised that there are basically two things I want from my player’s firmware that I’m not currently getting: 1) better tools for handmaking playlists, such as the ability to edit tags, set markers and to do crossfades; and 2) a better AutoDJ. So I have decided to dissect a recent playlist project to expose current inadequacies, to unearth the oblique and often conflicting reasons for picking and sequencing the songs the way I did, and to examine how our engine might be coaxed into making similar choices.  In the final part of the trilogy (which will probably appear over here), I will go into the technicalities of how my proposed playlist engine will work.

It's hard, perhaps impossible, to be creative entirely without constraint. There have to be explicit rules even if only to work around, kick against, circumvent; a big fat problem is what gets the creative juices flowing. Way back in 1986 I got really serious about my comp-making rules, my necessary constraints. It was my Year Zero. That no artist should appear more than once on a given compilation, and no song may appear on more than one compilation were two inviolable ones (except when I decided to break them), but there was also an unspoken third rule of self-restraint and enquiry, which I will eventually attempt to define, so that the first comp of the new regime (called, modestly, “Now That's What I Call Music, Vol. I” - note the emphasis) didn’t just consist of my all-time favourites and leave me scratching my head over the content of the next one.

These were the explicit rules, and that’s a very good start for a computer program, but for a playlist engine to be able to make interesting and artistic choices, more subtle DJ voodoo needs to be brought out into the light. When, back in 1996, I made Ten Years, a celebration of my musical life through compilations, I chose to break that third, hard-to-express rule about ebb, balance and flow. Instead, I wanted each intro to provoke a gasp of delight from the casual listener – or in me, at least.

The subsequent decade, in which my publishing empire collapsed and none of my bands made Single of the Week, have been more problematic musically speaking, and it was difficult to know in what spirit to approach a follow-up. I decided to stick with the same no-holds-barred approach, but with the emphasis on favourites from the past decade. Also, I figured that, as a stateless, ineffable playlist it could run for as long as it jolly well liked. Hey! There goes another constraint: running time.

Fortunately, as the best comps do, Another Ten Years pretty much wrote itself, and I was amazed – as candidates suggested themselves – to find not just a lyrical theme emerging (a first for me), but one that tells the story of my difficult past decade. My core beliefs have been undermined and rewritten numerous times, on plenty of occasions leaving me grasping at my own identity – but I hadn’t realised how closely my favourite music was conspiring to comment on this. An interesting comp, then. (If a track-by-track runthrough doesn’t appeal, here’s a skip button.)

Yin and Yang

It was always pretty clear to me that I’d have to include Bear’s ‘70 Years’, from their sadly-neglected, final Taking Money From Kids album – mainly because I like the way the title clashes with the comp’s, but also because it’s one of Chris Trout’s very best songs. It was going to be the opener, but intros have a way of piling up, especially when you’re preparing for a long journey of indeterminate length. So, first, the amazing Natalie Imbruglia track (yes, you heard right) ‘That Day’ (which I have just discovered) dervished ahead of Trout’s dour evaluation of human worth under capitalism, sparking gems like “what a marvellous mess… I accept everything… everyone’s a cynic, and it’s hard and it’s sweet, but it’s supposed to be like this”.  After trying several permutations of the first few tracks I realised such a hippy-dippy opening wasn’t right either; it needed a dirge-like drone or monotone first, which role is currently filled by Low’s ‘Lion/Lamb’ (the demo version, with no string orchestra but a massively obtrusive e-bow solo); and although it still doesn’t quite hit the right note, the question “Are you a lion or a lamb?” is pretty pertinent so I’ll probably leave it.

In the interests of keeping the yin and yang swinging, the epic, bombastic conclusion to ’70 Years’ of course leads to the understated beauty of Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Strange Boy’: an exploration of kidulthood well ahead of its time, implicitly asking if there’s more to life than ‘mere’ sensory pleasure – a recurrent theme of my turbulent decade. Hm, I should say something about conflict of philosophies, which is intrinsic to my personal comp-making style. I love pitting punks and hippies, hedonists and puritans against each other, so I’m pleased to have made a zigzag that runs: Low (Mormons) -> Natalie Imbruglia (New Ager) -> Bear (‘Drugs Not Jobs’) -> Joni Mitchell (solipsistic social commentator) -> The Cure (Goths); in this case each casts a different sheen on my life. I’m not proposing introducing an ID3 tag for Philosophy (or any of the other scategories that pop up in these discussions), but this is one of the many things social tagging could encompass.

It is hard to believe that 1984, the year I got into The Cure, is now twenty-two years behind me, and I have started listening to them again after at least a decade’s hiatus . There are probably a hundred live renditions of ‘Faith’ online, but the original has a clarity that’s hard to beat.

In 1995, the year of Britpop, The Lizard declared Pram Britain’s Best Band, and so they were. ‘Water Toy’ was the first thing I ever heard by them, and appears here as a reflective pause after all that philosophical rollercoastering. Then, proving that my life has been more yang than yin of late, comes ‘A Pillow of Winds’ – perhaps the loveliest of all Pink Floyd songs. In a piece of this length we can afford the odd double bill, and here – cocking a snook at, but not actually breaking the once-per-comp rule – we segue from one PF track to another: Easy Star All Stars’ loving translation of ‘Any Colour You Like’ from their rightly acclaimed Dub Side of the Moon, one of my favourite discoveries of the past year. Allowing a playlist engine to pivot about the actual artist name like this will be a challenge to pull off; I mean, imagine going from, say ‘Summertime’ by the Sundays to that awful cover version of ‘Here’s Where The Story Ends’ by Tin Tin Out? Disaster! There are far more bad covers than good ones, so I reckon a quick look at the user’s rating would be essential for this kind of move.

And oh! there had to be Yes. Although during my time as a music journo I vigorously championed the idea of Prog Rock, I became increasingly uneasy about the music I had actually liked from the early 70s, and indeed through the 90s moved so far from it that I failed to find any merit in the (I now realise) occasionally outstanding Porcupine Tree. This trend was suddenly reversed when someone introduced me to Yes (whom I’d almost totally ignored during my childhood prog-mania). As with most art of worth, there is an admission fee, and for many the sheer Jon Anderson-ness is not merely a bridge, but a middle 128 too far. (It’s the harpsichord breaks that can stick in my craw. Anderson’s overconfident falsetto twaddle has become a real plus, at bleak moments one of the few things guaranteed to lift me. There is also a perverse pleasure to be had in enjoying one of history’s most reviled bands.) ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ actually has discernable subject matter (alienation), but it’s the band’s deft moves, steered by rhythmic genii Chris Squire and Bill Bruford, that really impress. Originally I had ‘South Side of the Sky’ here (yes, Jon, mountains are cold), but the dub-isms on this one, which follow Squire and Bruford’s opening salvo, dovetail well with the All-Stars. And it’s the first Yes song I ever liked.

From one ten-plus minute track to another (I am digging the ability to pile them on without worrying about hitting the end of the tape). While Yes at their best could effortlessly extend a simple idea to a side of vinyl through tangent and embellishment, Quickspace Supersport achieved epic proportions through sheer insistence, a technique that only works, as The Fall can tell you, if you have a truly awesome riff to begin with. A band who seem forever smiling through gritted teeth, QS are a welcome addition to this first, direction-questioning part of the comp. Its single, oft-repeated stanza runs: “It’s a beautiful world / There’s no need to ask why / When the seas are green / Blue is the sky / And if you don’t like it / You’re not bloody trying.” La la la la la la la la la.

The Threefold Aspect of Everything

After completing the whole 32-odd-song running order (yep – lots more to come, sorry), I wondered if, with a little nip and tuck, a two-CD set would be possible but, while the celebratory last part should fit on a CD almost exactly, the more introspective opening section is almost twice as long. So I started to think about Another Ten Years as a (hopefully not too bloated) set of three CDs; the song we just reached in our walkthrough making a reasonable end to the first disk, and giving part one its obligatory subtitle, t’boot: “Not Bloody Trying”.

So disk two, which I’m thinking of calling “The Drift”, begins with two very different punkish offerings. I can thank Nomeansno, and ‘Metronome’ in particular, for the realisation that my vision of a freed, decentralised utopia is incompatible with traditional left-wing doctrine. I wasn’t a communist, as I’d thought, but an anarchist! Right on! This was long before the internet showed us that property is untenable, and social control an impossible centrist fantasy. “I want to jump out of my skin and be free,” bellows Rob Wright, and “I want to liberate this human machine”. All set to the most… well… metronomic accompaniment, and the persistent parent-like interjection: “Steady!”, concluding acidly that “… what attracts people to a steady beat is the certainty… of knowing what and who you are.” Music can indeed have a large impact on our beliefs and actions, as well as our feelings, but there seem few in Britain who remember this in 2006. While Placebo can hardly compete philosophically, this half-gay trio rock like rednecks – especially on the intriguingly-named ‘Allergic (to Thoughts of Mother Earth)’, which, under the relaxation of the inexpressible Third Rule, I feel obliged to include, for no reason other than they are unlikely ever to better it.

A little too young to appreciate Kate Bush when she first appeared in ’78, I was unable to escape her allure seven years later when Sounds mag commended Hounds of Love to me. I have loved many artists’ music over the years, but Kate’s alone made me fall in love with the artist herself. While her lyrics, like those of Alanis Morissette, would hardly win any poetry prizes, to this day even her silliest songs can make me cry: the sheer physical presence of her voice, in combination with the music, rarely fails to open the floodgates. With the recent Aerial album she was audibly pushing this uncanny talent to its limits, singing the first umpteen digits of pi and whatnot, and here, on ‘Mrs. Bartolozzi’ she pulls off a feat only Kate could: making a sexy song about laundry: “My blouse wrapping itself around your trousers.”

Part of the art of playlist-making is, by choice of position in the running order, to emphasise each song’s individuality as well as its connection to neighbouring songs, to the suite as a whole, to all of music. Having ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’ suddenly sprung upon me when I’m all Bushed and vulnerable is one of those ‘Yes!’ moments I’ve been aiming for. Of course, every song on The Bends is a candidate for this but it matters that we haven’t just heard ‘Sulk’. Suddenly the song Thom Yorke has described as the one that first made Radiohead feel like a proper band has a new identity, not merely as the closing track from one of the world’s favourite albums, but as the fourth track on the second disk of a Chris Ovenden compilation!

But seriously, it is the impulse to recontextualise, to hear music afresh, that drives me. ‘Chinatown’, extracted from my very very own copy of Orange Rhyming Dictionary, continues the run of personal highs. Regular readers know how I feel about Jets to Brazil; while ‘Sea Anemone’ is probably their peak moment, another ballad wouldn’t work here – we need to pick up the bastard rock-out groove again for a while (this track delivers with a cool whiteout climax) and continue it in the shape of a recent track from Minus the Bear, possibly the finest Pop Rock band on the planet right now. Lyrically, ‘The Fix’ takes us back into the realm of carnal imperatives: “This [underwater sex] is the difference between living and not living.” If they’re right I’m wasting my time twice over writing about their thrilling slap-back echo riff and fake-retro guitar solo.

In not wholly unintentional answer, I selected ‘Peel Away Velleity’ by the austere June of ’44. Its thematic aptness (‘velleity’ means a superficial wish on which no effort is expended – gravestone material for me) and full-on Boat Dub in sixes and sevens slips down easily enough – though I had forgotten its extreme length and that, a third of the way in, just after the rhythm straightens out, it descends irreversibly into a wonderful amorphous sprawl of competing guitar and trumpet squeals worthy of Sonic Youth.

And here I really, really want to do collage. June of ‘44 have done me a big favour, introducing a note of drone into the proceedings, but the pacing is all wrong. Rather than ‘…Velleity’’s closing stasis I want a drone that passes through several moods. This is why I need playlist capabilities that include splitting and cross-fading. I will have to resort to using the computer to make a custom mix. Not sure what the ingredients will be exactly, but my collage will probably return to June of ‘44’s guitar skreel before cross-fading into the opening screech of The Beatles’ ‘It’s All Too Much’, the happy kaleidoscope that ends Yellow Submarine (and the second CD).

The Future in The Past

Similarly, a bit of cutup is called for at the start of the final disk. I meant to call up ‘Zoo Station’ by U2 but accidentally picked ‘Zooropa’ instead. Quite a happy accident, as the latter closes with an apt, uplifting, subtitle-worthy imperative (“Get your head out of the mud, baby!”) and has a brilliantly fizzing, chaotic intro. The problem is what happens in between. I appreciate what Bono is trying to do with his oxymoronic advertising slogans, but they merely flick ass, plodding when they should be pounding. Again, some wave-editor jiggery-pokery is required, to splice in substitute verses from ‘Zoo Station’.

‘Bam Thwok’, the Pixies’ comeback track, is here for purely political reasons. I have bought mp3s from the 4AD website before, but was delighted to grab this iTunes-only release, sans DRM, on the first day. Didn’t really listen to it then; turns out to be quite catchy. And I wasn’t thinking at all about my theory that Frank/Black/Francis was the Nineties’ answer to David Bowie when I popped ‘“Heroes”’ in here, only that it works. Similarly “How Soon Is Now?”, The Smiths’ legendary dancefloor-clearer, is an ultra-lazy choice that I really can’t justify at all; though it’s nicely at thematic odds with Bowie’s ironic self-inflation.

That was all warmup. Now we get to the most forward-looking part of the whole comp. ‘I Chill’ by Katie Lenlow is extracted from the otherwise failed Portishead mashup album, Dumb, subtly blending ‘Wandering Star’ with ‘I Will’ from Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief (yes, them again; did I break the Unbreakable Vow this time? Sosumi). Yep, mashup is a great way to get your head out of the mud, and we continue this mini-extravaganza of DJ whizzmanship with some ‘Independent Woman’-based fun. The playlist says ‘Independent Woman Inside’ (Destiny’s Child vs Stiltskin – provenance unGooglable), but in my head it cuts into ‘Independent Room’ (with Fugazi via Party Ben) after the first chorus. More Soundforge work for me, all because I can’t put two little markers into the playlist. And without pausing for breath we’re into ‘Wrapped Detective’ – one of Go Home Productions’ slyest moves, mixing as it does Elvis Costello, The Police, Bob Marley, Peggy Lee, The Hollies and Led Zeppelin into one seamless Reggae stomp; and, with one sadly impossible crash-edit, up an extra notch with a cut I call ‘Rude Sk8ter Boi’, a cheeky McSleazy mash of Avril Levigne and The Selecter. To a typical trainspotterish male music collector, this alluring new mashed-up era is problematic in its undefinitiveness. I don’t know where it’s all leading, and my inner Hornby is dithering over its filing system, but I’m certainly enjoying the uncertainty.

As we’re already dancing round our intellects, a bit more high-speed sample madness won’t hurt, and Japanese acoustics’n’turntable trio ICU manage to tickle both my funny bone and my feet; and one upright bass always leads to another, putting Soul Coughing in the frame. I’m not allowed their killer track ‘Screenwriter’s Blues’ as it graces another of my fine creations, but ‘St Louise is Listening’ from their final El Oso LP comes close in throbbing menace. Though I never intended a Silencer/Lizard-era nostalgiafest, it is somehow fitting to wind things down like this. ‘Poolhouse Blue’ sounded magnificent the day in 1995 when I saw 18th Dye at the Piao! Club in Camden, and still lifts the heart now. And we were all glad that Gary Wiiija persuaded us to book Cornershop for our Christmas party extravaganza – they played a wired set of heaving, subcontinental ambience, of which ‘Jullandar Shere’ is unfortunately the only track to emerge in recorded form. (Please, please correct me on this.)

Continuing the wind-down vibe (about 1bpm slower) is The Beta Band’s showstopper ‘Dry The Rain’, which picks up the almost-forgotten lyrical theme. “If there’s something inside that you wanna say/ Say it out loud it’ll be okay” is a message appropriate to every Brit (though it must puzzle Americans and Italians). Six minutes of sighing trumpets would be enough to bring many a suite to its end, but I needed more. Or so I discovered when a jaunty track by The Shins happened to pop up unbidden at the end of the playlist. I’d never heard ‘New Slang’ before but not only is it an upbeat rejoinder to Steve Mason’s deadpan moroseness, but a happy reminder that there are still new things worth hearing.


It’s a complicated, ad lib and often whimsical business this compilation malarkey. If it is to have any chance of rocking our world, a playlist engine will need to be able to follow these maxims:

  • Location, location, location: at every level music has to have shape. Popular music is often accused, with some justification, of not operating at enough levels. Yes, most Pop often fails in he details of each introduction, coda, middle eight, break, refrain, etc; but we can give it fractal structure at playlist level. DJs have long understood how to shape the dynamic of a set of pieces of music, using each like building blocks. Without shape, our MP3 utopia resembles the old Soviet Union: the repressive law of the album broken, but nothing with which to replace it.

  • Pivot on this: however capricious the next choice, like good paragraph construction there needs to be an underlying link between adjoining tracks. It could be a puzzle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a joke, or it could just be that the two songs work really well together.

  • Folksonomised by presumption: genre terms are bad at the best of times. Only a tag cloud can do justice to the music’s many-faces, and del.icio.us-like social tagging would open the window still wider. Can we have an easy-peasy web interface for this, or do I have to make it myself?

  • Fade out again? Surprisingly much depends on how well you make ends meet. I want my database to remember the moment of the first and last waveform peak for those auto-generated pin-sharp crossfades and beat pivots.

  • User rating is overrated: picking favourites is great if you’re content to listen to your personal top twenty endlessly recycled, otherwise a track’s user rating should mainly be invoked negatively, as an overkill avoidance tactic, weighting towards the middle of the bell curve. The only exception I can think of is as a check when dipping areas where the failure rate is disturbingly high, such as mashups and cover versions.

  • Break the rules when appropriate: ok Hard AI crowd, what’s the algorithm for that?

And for those who will insist on building them by hand, could manufacturers please include in their next firmware upgrade:

  • Named markers, for insane cutups and well-timed crash-edits.

  • User-specified crossfades – using the above markers, natch.

  • Proper, decent, useful TAGGING!!

  • Oh, and on-player tag editing. Why waste precious family time editing my metadata, when I could do it on the bus?

I will soon be making Another Ten Years available in a downloadable form.