The Critic: You can now lis­ten to ev­ery song ever. Take ad­van­tage of it

There’s a bet­ter way to lis­ten to mu­sic.

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - By Devin Leonard

THE AL­GO­RITHMS ARE WORK­ING AGAINST US

Afew months ago, I signed up for Ap­ple Mu­sic. As part of the in­tro­duc­tory process, it asked what artists I like. Drake? OK. Fu­ture? Sure. John Coltrane? Def­i­nitely. Based on this cur­sory ex­change, Ap­ple started rec­om­mend­ing mu­sic to me. I got a tor­rent of the lat­est rap and a lot of jazz from the late ’50s. The prob­lem was, I al­ready knew most of it. Where was the new stuff I re­ally wanted to hear?

Ben Ratliff, a jazz and pop critic for the New York Times, has the same con­cern about mu­sic-stream­ing ser­vices. As he writes in Ev­ery Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Lis­ten in an Age of Mu­si­cal Plenty (Far­rar, Straus & Giroux, $26), you can eas­ily find any bit of recorded mu­sic on the In­ter­net, whether it’s on Ap­ple Mu­sic, Spo­tify, or some other stream­ing ser­vice that li­censes mu­sic from record la­bels; on Youtube, e, which re­lies on its au­di­ence to up­load tracks; or on one of the many il­le­gal down­load sites.

But rather than us­ing this al­most in­fi­nite va­ri­ety to broaden our palates, many of us let al­go­rithms feed us a diet that’s no dif­fer­ent from what we al­ready en­joy. Ratliff com­pares it to be­ing “fed our fa­vorite meal re­peat­edly.” It sounds un­ap­pe­tiz­ing, and that’s his point.

Genre, Ratliff says, is just a mar­ket­ing con­struct. He urges us to re­sist the soft­ware that re­lies on this cat­e­go­riza­tion and in­stead seek out mu­sic based on more e mu­si­cally pro­found char­ac­ter­is­tics such as speed, sad­ness, den­sity, and loud­ness. This leads him to some sur­pris­ing com­par­isons (right): In a chap­ter about rep­e­ti­tion, he finds com­mon­al­i­ties be­tween the sem­i­nal min­i­mal­ist com­poser Steve Re­ich and Kesha, the mil­len­nial pop star. For quiet and still­ness, he pre­scribes the aus­tere work of Mor­ton Feld­man, the in­ti­mate bal­ladry of Nat King Cole and Chet Baker, and Me­tal­lica’s All Night­mare Long. Me­tal­lica also turns up, fit­tingly, in the chap­ter about loud­ness.

Writ­ing about mu­sic (not lyrics) isn’t easy, and few do it as well as Ratliff. He notes that the won­der­fully gloomy Bri­tish singer-song­writer Nick Drake used close tun­ings on his steel gui­tar, en­abling him to play “a spray of notes that sound hud­dled close to­gether.” He has thought­ful things to say about metal, a vi­tal but mis­un­der­stood medium: “It is metal’s pre­his­tory that keeps it mov­ing. Its roots ex­tend to fire and plague myths.” In a chap­ter about artists with what he refers to as “waste­ful mas­tery,” Ratliff cel­e­brates Dean Martin as a guy who made a ca­reer of singing as if he was in the shower: “He al­most com­mands you to re­lax your stan­dards, or to think dif­fer­ently about the pur­pose of art.”

My one com­plaint about the book is that it could be more user-friendly. It’s full of playlists, but they can’t al­ways be eas­ily repli­cated on Ap­ple Mu­sic; my guess is Ratliff did this in­ten­tion­ally, so we’d do the work for our­selves. That’s yet an­other prob­lem with stream­ing ser­vices: They have hun­dreds of thou­sands of songs but not much by, say, La Monte Young, a leader of the Amer­i­can min­i­mal­ist move­ment, whom Ratliff ex­tols in the rep­e­ti­tion chap­ter. (I had to seek Young out on Youtube.) I was able to cob­ble to­gether most of Ratliff’s “waste­ful mas­tery” playlist, in­clud­ing songs by artists such as Martin, Lil Wayne, Lou Reed, Fats Waller, Young Thug, and Nina Si­mone. It’s a hoot, and it sold me on the book’s cen­tral con­cept.

De­spite the oc­ca­sional dif­ficu culty or dis­ap­point­ment, I’m more opti-mistic about stream­ing ser­vices than Ev­ery Song Ever’s au­thor. Ap­ple’s al­go­rithms m may be serv­ing me the usual Kanye West and Th­elo­nious Monk, but the ser­vice also has ac­tual hu­mans cu­rat­ing many of its genre pages. They’ve in­tro­duced me to some new jazz mu­si­cians, like I Ibrahim Maalouf, a French-le­banese trum­peter who plays a four-valve in­stru­ment. The flesh-and-blood cu­ra­tors promo motedo him not be­cause they thought I’d lik like him. They thought he was some­one InI needed to hear—and they were right. <BW>

Strong “sin­gle note” per­for­man per­for­mances:The Ra­mone Ra­mones ( I Iwan­naWanna Be Se­dated),Seda Brian Eno ( The True Wheel), and Dr Drake( Fur­thest Thin Thing)

Ratliff’s “sad­ness” playlist in­cludes: Mozart ( String Quar­tet No. 19), Slayer ( God Hates Us All, Flesh Storm), and Etta Jones ( I’mThrough With Love)

Artists that have a “voicece within the voice”: Young Thug ( No F---s), Joni Mitchell ( Big Yel­loww Taxi, In France They Kiss on Main Street), and Dean Martin ( If, Just in Time)

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