Book Review: Life of a Song

I recently had the chance to read Life of a Song: The fascinating stories behind 50 of the worlds best-loved songs. It’s a concise collection of fifty Life of a Song articles from the Financial Times. As I rarely have a reason to visit the FT website, and I only occasionally catch the Life of a Song podcast, the book was a great opportunity to catch up on what I’d missed. Regular readers may find nothing new in the book, but for pop fans and die-hard listeners, the short collection is definitely worth a read.

Life of a Song: The fascinating stories behind 50 of the worlds best-loved songs

The book consists of fifty articles from the regular Life of a Song column collected into book form. Each article takes on a different, well-loved tune from twentieth century popular music. Songs covered include ‘My Way’, ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’, ‘1999’, ‘La Vie en Rose’, and ‘This Land is Your Land’. There are only a few songs in the list that I didn’t know off the top of my head, including ‘Song to the Siren’, and ‘Rocket 88’. The articles usually include some remarks about the songwriter, often quoting them about their creation. Then they cover the journey from composition to hit recording, and usually mention other interpretations that followed the hit.

Each article appears to be less than 1000 words. As you might expect, that’s a lot to cover in that much room. So each article is pretty topical, relating a single anecdote about it, and only touching on the rest. For instance, in the article about ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, the author relates the recording process that shaped the final sound.

On take four of the remake, serendipity strikes. Session guitarist Al Kooper, 21, a friend of the band, walks in holding his guitar, hoping to join in. He is deemed surplus to requirements, but Dylan decides he wants an organ in addition to piano, and Kooper volunteers to fill in. He improvises his part, as he would later recall, ‘like a little kid fumbling in the dark for a light switch’. And suddenly the song turns into the tumbling, cascading version that will become the finished article.

There’s two pieces of information that you need to know about this book in order to enjoy it.

  1. It is a collection of short articles by many contributors.
  2. Those writers are almost entirely arts journalists, rather than trained musicians.

This book was written by a lot of authors. I counted fourteen contributors, each of whom appears to be an English journalist. This can lead to the book feeling somewhat disjointed. Each author is comfortable talking about their own domain of the music industry. Some interpret the lyrics, others relate interviews with creators, others pick up on business maneuvers behind the scenes.

In the introduction, David Chael and Jan Dalley write that the book “is not about singers, or stars, or chart success – although of course they come into the story. It is about the music itself”. If you are a musician, this may leave you expecting musical analysis, lyrical breakdowns, or at least comparisons to similar songs. The book “is about music” in as much as it tells stories about musicians, but it is strictly an outsiders perspective. There’s no illusion that the writers were part of the culture of the song, or involved themselves with the people in the story. A reader shouldn’t expect that in a collection such as this.

My favorite article is the one about ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’. That song has so much soul, that it surprised me to learn that the original title, given to the tune by its white songwriter, was ‘Midnight Plane to Houston’.

The soul singer Cissy Houston… decided to record its first cover version… But the title irked. It wasn’t the collision of Houstons – singer and subject – that bothered her, but one of authenticity. If she was going to sing this song, she had to feel it. And, she later said, ‘My people are originally from Georgia and they didn’t take planes to Houston or anywhere else. They took trains.’

Ultimately, Life of a Song is a great book to read on the way to and from work, or to sit in your book bin next to your favorite chair. It’s a book that can be read in lots of small chunks, and each chunk reveals a little bit more about a song than the recording.

Now if you don’t mind, I need to catch a plane to Houston.

Other Music of 2017

On computermusicblog.com I did my year-end roundup of the best EDM of 2017. Like any of these lists, it’s a very opinionated list. In this post I want to mention a few other albums I really liked that didn’t make the cut.

There are a few albums that I really enjoyed this year, but weren’t really striking in any way. They were enjoyable to listen to, but they didn’t stand out. Biggest amongst them is probably the new album from Odesza. It’s a fine album, but it nothing in it is unexpected. For me, one of the biggest surprises of the year was the amazing live show Odesza put on to support a relatively mediocre album. Another album that was good, but not great, was Float bySlow Magic. I really enjoyed listening to The Invincible EP by Big Wild, but in the end it just sounds kind of generic.

There are a few other albums that I discovered in 2017, and listened to a lot, but were actually released in previous years. I somehow missed Braincase by Electric Mantis when it was originally released. It’s a dope album of instrumental trap. Also great is the Kindred Spirits EP by Jai Wolf. I managed to see Jai Wolf twice in concert this year because he was coincidentally playing at events I wanted to see. His pure, old-fashioned turntable mastery absolutely dominated festivals crowded by much bigger names, and his EP is worth a few dozen listens.

Last up are the albums that BARELY missed the cut. There were hundreds of great albums released in 2017. Even focusing on EDM exclusively leaves more great albums than I could possibly list. I listened to Full Circle by Oliver probably twenty times. It’s great for getting psyched up for a hard job, or just for getting your hips moving. The new album from Giraffage is also great. It’s an album that really lives up to his previous releases. It feels mellow, sexy, and fun all at the same time. When I saw him live in San Jose, the show was filled with college kids, and that made me feel old. But I think it’s an album that has wide appeal to all listeners to EDM.

And that’s all the other albums from 2017 that I want to talk about.

Okay, obviously that’s not true. I loved so many more albums. LCD Soundsystem made a triumphant comeback. Bonobo released a very solid album earlier in the year. Bonnie and Clyde were the darlings of the internet for a week or two. I thought Sofi Tukker was over-hyped, but then they were terrific live. BVD Kult released a pretty paint-by-numbers pop/EDM track that I absolutely adored. Vitalic released a disappointing album. Jerry Folk released an album that I have very mixed feelings about. Some people from YouTube released some really good music. And someone named Andrew Applepie made a bunch of music that is actually really great in a quirky kind of way.

There was so much great music in 2017. Looking forward to 2018, there is a lot to be pessimistic about. Vladimir Putin seems intent on starting a war. Trump and the Republicans seem intent on destroying democracy in America. But still, it’s going to be a great year for music, and for human culture generally.

I love Pandora, but where is the discovery?

I have been a loyal Pandora subscriber since the month they started offering subscriptions. I love the service. I will continue subscribing forever, even if it’s only to keep my perfectly tuned Christmas music station.

But Pandora is not serving its audience very well, and that annoys me.

I probably listen to Pandora over five hours a day on each work day, and probably an hour or two on days off. When I tell someone I use Pandora, they inevitably ask me, “why don’t you just use Spotify?” More and more, I feel like they have a point.

In the past, I have preferred Pandora because it enabled discovery. It allowed me to create stations that would play music that I liked, but I had never heard. As a person who has spent decades of his life listening to and studying music, one of the main things I like about a piece of music is that I’ve never heard it before. In the past two years or so, I feel like this aspect of Pandora has dwindled or disappeared.

More and more, I feel like my Pandora stations primarily play the tracks that I have already voted for. Admittedly, some of my stations have been around for over a decade, so I have voted for a lot of tracks. When I vote for a track, however, it isn’t an indication that I want to hear that track every time I turn on that station. A vote is an indication that I want to hear tracks that are similar to that track.

But this is just too rare lately on Pandora. I hear the same Ellie Goulding tracks that I voted for last year. I hear the same Glitch Mob tracks that I’ve heard for the past six years. I still like that music, but I would prefer to hear something else. Why not play another track off the album that I voted for? Why play the same single track over and over?

“But why not click the ‘Add Variety’ button?” The ‘Add Variety’ button adds a new seed to that station. I don’t want to change the type of music played by the station, I simply want it to play OTHER music that falls within my already-indicated preferences.

What really irritates me, is that this doesn’t seem like a hard feature to implement. Why can’t a user tune the amount of new music they hear? Why can’t we have a slider that we can control with our mood? If the slider is set to 1.0, then we are in full discovery mode. Every track played will be one that we haven’t voted on. If the slider is set to 0.0, then every track played will be one that we HAVE voted on. In this way, Pandora could act like Spotify for users who like Spotify, and for people like me, it can act as the best shuffle on the planet.

As a programmer who has worked with large datasets, search tools like ElasticSearch, and written lots of web applications, I know that this isn’t a difficult change. It might require one schema change, and less than ten lines of new code. But it should be implementable and testable in under a week. Design might take longer, but here, I will design it for you.

pandora discovery slider
pandora discovery slider

And seriously, Pandora, I will implement this for you if you are that desperate. My current employer will loan me out, and even without knowing your code base, I could get this done in a month.

So come on, Pandora. Serve your audience. Stop making me explain why I prefer Pandora over Spotify. Add a discovery slider. Today.