Music Listening 101: with LP, CD & streaming

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I am not a completist at critical music listening as the word suggests, but I am truly “a collector who attempts to collect an example of every music subtype in a particular genre”.

However, I am a completist as I try to complete whatever I set myself out to do, and I try to do it well. Impatient, obsessed and tirelessly, I chase my critical music listening passion throughout my every day life.  I surf record collecting websites & physical record shops across Europe (yes they exist!) almost daily.  My goal is spurred forward because I am always creating & adding to a list of all the music that I intend to buy.  My list may never fully be completed, or not within a certain timeframe anyway, as even I have boundaries.

For every CD on that list (YES, I buy CD’s – don’t go there, it’s for another blog), I’m always buying what’s considered the best version, sonically. I spend hours on Steve Hoffman’s Music Forums and on different streaming services. One huge limitation of streaming today is the fact that we’re almost never given all available options for CD’s. Take ‘The Doors’ for example, the versions available from Dunhill Compact Classics and later DCC Compact Classics mastered by the legendary mastering engineer Steve Hoffman are second to none. I believe that the majority of listeners can compare and easily understand why they’re so popular among audiophiles but they’re never available on streaming services. That’s one of the main reasons I keep buying CD’s.

The Miles Davis CD’s from MFSL are another perfect example. Not available on streaming services, but a huge step up in quality. I’m trying to explain that I’m very fond of creating lists and completing lists, but I am definitely not a completist by nature. I will tell you how it started and how it changed my way of listening and buying music completely.

First and foremost, I create lists of CD’s I want to buy, long lists of music to listen to in a controlled manner with my portable headphone rig:

  • Source: Tidal Hifi via iPhone 6
  • Headphone dac / amp: Chord Hugo
  • Headphones: Sennheiser HD800
  • Cable: Black Dragon headphone cable V2 balanced XLR with neutrik converter from XLR to 6.3mm  via Moon Audio

In 2003, Rolling Stone published their first list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time“. It was based on a vote by 273 rock musicians, critics, and industry figures and in 2005 it was released as a book with the same name. I discovered it in 2010 when a job change made my a annual mileage peak around 36,000 miles. Therefore, suddenly I had a LOT of time to spend listening to music while traveling for work. So when I found the Rolling Stone list something just clicked inside me to say “what if I listened to EVERYTHING on that list, & even album by album or song by song!? My heart skipped a beat. What a project!

A couple of weeks after the start with nr 500 (Outkast – Aquamini) or somewhere around Brian Eno’s ‘Another green world’ at 425 I almost gave up. This was too hard!

I hated a huge portion of the albums and I was sitting in parking lots all over the country, just finishing songs before going to customer meetings. It did not help my career or sales at all but I kept going. Some months later I was finally done and I felt like I never wanted to hear music again. Sure, a lot of the music was good but imagine hearing 3, 4 maybe 5 albums in a row that you DO NOT like.

However, one memeory beckons me back to August of 2011, I was upset about something and I put on the magnificent 1996 Refused album ‘Songs to fan the flames of discontent’. The first song; Rather be dead, came on and I just froze. I had heard that song a million times, but it felt like when I heard it for the first time in 1996. The contrasts of different music that I had experienced when forcing myself to listen to the 500 albums in the list had involuntary created a hiatus between me and the music I loved.

As days went by, I revisited my own collection, and it was like every album sounded different. Every song that I thought I knew before had new nuances that I hadn’t heard before. Drums sounded more emphasized in songs where I had barely noticed them, I discovered new things everywhere so I decided my project had not been in vain. My taste had evolved because I forced myself to listen to try to understand what other people thought was great even though I did not always agree.

In 2012, the 500 list was revised and I decided to give it another go. It took 9 months this time, but I did it differently to make it more interesting. I created a grade system similar to Robert Christgaus but in local language and with some differences.

For instance, I put an asterisk on an album that deserved another listen and I started to understand my initial opinion of an album might change after listening a second time. I then created an excel spreadsheet and wrote short review for each album. The same thing happened this time, my collection again felt fresh and updated so I was hooked! This critical listening has truly transformed my collection to an adventure into new musical genres & sub domains.

By listening to every Beethoven composition in chronological order, I had begun to understand that a classical score can be interpreted in different ways. Beethoven’s compositions (a lot of them) didn’t have tempo descriptions since the metronome was not invented (but when it was, Beethoven was an early adopter). This new thought & point of reference made my listening experience very interesting yet which one did I prefer?

I spent weeks and months figuring out which pianist could perform each of Beethovens 32 piano sonatas to my taste. That threw me into some months of listening to piano music which spurred my new interest into Bill Evans. Understanding Bill’s evolution by listening to everything recorded in chronological order truly changed jazz for me. Until then, jazz had been something odd and disturbing, but in 2013 I realized that my taste was getting broader and more eclectic. The more I try to understand the evolution of an artist, the deeper I dig, the more eclectic my taste gets and it’s truly a wonderful process that keeps evolving my passion, deepening my understanding & respect for all musicians & performer alike.

I truly urge everyone to really listen to other genres of music that don’t excite you at first listen. Over 200 jazz CD’s later, I understand only a fraction of how important jazz is, and 10 versions of Beethoven’s 9 symphonies has changed the way I look at variation, tension and release in music forever.  I also learned that one of my favorite albums: Refused – Shape of punk to come, patterned its name from Ornette Colemans ‘Shape of jazz to come’ and now I truly understand why. The final step of my eclectic & evolving music transformation is not only being open to change & challenging my preconceived notions but also making sure I buy or listen to the BEST version available. I go as far with my music as I go with my equipment and ‘I trust my ears!’ 

Next time, I’ll publish a few lists of albums that are different but related to each other to challenge you to some critical listening & your feedback. Until then, reach out on twitter or comment below!

Thanks for reading!

 Gustav

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