On the 19th of this month, Spoon will release “Transference” and you bet your ass I’m excited.
And that leads me to my point.
This is a post I’ve meant to write for a while but have kept putting off. A nice fluffy music piece.
We all get the question: “So, what kind of music do you like?” And we all equally hate it. It’s the kind of question that throws us into an existential bout of self-doubt. “What music do I like?” “How do I explain my musical tastes with anything less than a 15 page thesis with footnotes?” “Who am I, really?” It can be tough.
Inevitably, we may try to answer with the musical genre that we are most drawn to. Rock. Country. Electronica. Disco.
But that is difficult, because even within those genres, the range can be immense. Maybe we try to narrow it down more.
Classic Rock. Alt Country. Dub Electronica. Polka Disco. (I bet that exists. And I bet it’s awesome.)
Still, labels are so limiting. Maybe it’s just easier to name a few favorite bands. But defining your favorite bands can be a stupefying task . It’s easy to think, “Band X is my favorite band,” because they have been since high school, yet you realize as time goes by that you don’t really listen to Band X anymore. If one of their songs come on, it’s a blast of nostalgic joy, but you haven’t actively sought out their album (or mp3s) in months, maybe years. You grow up, your tastes expand, or change.
And then there are those of us whose musical tastes are far too expansive to give a label or sum up with a few bands. There is a tendency to label anyone whose musical tastes don’t include the Black Eyed Peas or Lady Gaga as “indie” (though plenty of ‘Indie’ kids love Lady Gaga, so that’s probably not even a fair example). But “indie” as a descriptor of aesthetic, style or factual grouping (i.e., independent music) can at times be both too broad and too limiting.
In our modern Internet world, being indie means anything you want it to be. Frankly, I’m usually insulted when someone says I or my tastes are indie because it’s mainly meant as a way of quickly classifying me without engaging who I am or what I like. And I don’t think it’s very accurate, because most of my favorite artists are on major labels (or were), even if they may be respected in indie circles.
So what do I do when I’m asked the question? Well, I list my 3 or 4 favorite bands/artists and hope the diversity in their styles indicates that I listen to a lot of different music styles, but it always feels ineffective. I love Outkast but it wouldn’t be true to list them as one of my favorite bands, and if I did it would just incorrectly skew people’s ideas of my musical tastes.
When people ask, I tell them, my favorite artists are:
Radiohead – They have been my Numero Uno since I was a freshmen in college and that has never faded. These guys don’t falter.
Ryan Adams – I always feel like I need to add, “Not Bryan Adams” when I say this. And I realize the link is pretty much empty.
Rufus Wainwright – This is an example of a musician I love completely, yet I don’t find myself listening to him as much anymore. Part of that was because his last studio album, Release The Stars, was only ‘okay’ for me. There are some great songs on there, but others that just leave me kind of cold. Still, watching him live, whether in concert or on DVD is always pure fun.
And then there’s the Beatles. Which doesn’t need any commentary. You either love the Beatles or you’re AIDS. Fact.
If you look at my Last.FM page, you’ll see that my top 3 most listened are the top 3 I just listed, with the Beatles in a healthy 6th place.
Oddly, when I think of my favorite artists, I rarely think of Elliott Smith, yet as you can see he’s right up there in 4th place and his music hits me emotionally in such a unique and wonderful way. Unequivocally, he’s one of my favorite artists. For some reason, though, when I’m asked the infamous question, “What kind of music do you like?”, his name doesn’t come to mind. I don’t know why.
Spoon is another one of those artists (see, there was a point to my intro). They don’t have a bad song in their whole catalog (even back in the day when they sounded like a Pavement cover band). I mean, seriously, their last two albums were amazing. I don’t own “Girls Can Tell” even though it’s often considered their best album, but I have a lot of the songs off of the album, and I can attest that the songs I have are great. They don’t have as many listens on my Last.FM as the other bands I’ve listed, but they are easily one of the best, most consistently listenable bands I have in my vast library.
Iron & Wine is creeping up into that status for me, especially with their (his) absolutely fantastic last album, “The Shepherd’s Dog” (fabulous!).
I adore Rilo Kiley (and Jenny Lewis, by extension; though that adoration is less, shall we say, pure) as well as Sufjan Stevens, as the number of scrobbled listens on Last.FM reflect (of course, in Sufjan’s case, it helps that each of his albums is like 70 songs long), yet I don’t actually think of them as artists in my all time favorites, at least not in the same way Neko Case or The Mountain Goats fit the bill.
Beirut write absolutely amazing music (well, Zach Condon does), and I’ve gone back and forth on whether to include them in my list of ‘favorite bands’. Ever since first falling in love with Beirut, I’ve thought that if I could write music (or had any musical ability at all), I would write songs exactly like them. At the same time, I go through month periods where I skip past a Beirut song anytime it comes on my Ipod. I just don’t feel like listening to them. It’s either absolute love or absolute meh with them.
Other artists I cherish, yet don’t think of as ‘favorites’ (but maybe I should): Antony (and the Johnsons), Sigur Ros, Neutral Milk Hotel (amazing band, but they only have 2 albums and no longer exist to keep whetting my appetite), Sleater-Kinney, Tom Waits, Andrew Bird, Ray LaMontagne… the list could go on. And on.
If you were to just look at those bands I’d listed, I’d say it would be fair to label my music tastes as ‘indie’ (both in the aesthetic and technical sense). But if you catch me listening to my Ipod, you’re just as likely to hear Jay-Z, Nirvana, Kylie Minogue, The Beach Boys, Yeah Yeah Yeahs (right now, I am addicted to “It’s Blitz!”), Justin Timberlake, Patti Smith, Talib Kweli, Bill Withers, Joe Cocker, Interpol, Nas… etc, etc.
I will admit that my largest musical habits lean towards the Alt-Country/Folk spectrum of indie music (I’d rather listen to Old 97s over Vampire Weekend, though I like both), but that’s not always the case (I much prefer The Magnetic Fields to Fleet Foxes, though, again, I like both).
There is no easy label and there is nothing wrong with that.
I love the internet age exactly for the same reason I hate it. Easy labels are becoming harder and harder to affix to anything.
I can live with an existential crisis anytime someone asks me “What kind of music do you like?” as long as I get to continue to discover untold amounts of new artists in a raging sea of music.
And don’t ask me what 3 albums I’d take with me on a desert island.