Rock Music Big Year: Do you enjoy writing album reviews?

I do. But this year isn’t the one for full reviews. Instead, I’m documenting the year’s daily regimen – an album a day, repeated three times – with what I’m calling a reviewlet, a playful, quick, rather rough encapsulation of my three-listens impression. A reviewlet comprises the artist; the album title; my rating out of 10; three hopefully apt words about the album; and a short judgemental sentence. You won’t be able to use my reviewlet for a buy-or-not decision, but my fleeting impressions might  prompt you to seek more fulsome reviews (or to shy away from that album altogether).

If I can stick to this Big Year, I’ll produce 122 reviewlets. Don’t worry, I don’t intend to post them all on this blog (the tedium!), but if occasionally you’re interested, I will be sticking them on a Pinterest board (go to


My Big Decade: Follow my progress?

In 2016 I obsessed, day on day, with writing and jogging. In 2017, writing becomes even more intense, but on top of a Writing Big Year, I’ll do a Fitness Big Year (cycle, jog and gym) and a Rock Music Big Year (listening!). You might find this quirky struggle of interest! If so, go ahead and click the Facebook button.

2017 Day 1

One of the paramount rules of a Big Year: start on January 1. Today’s mandatory three tasks:

  • Get up in the dark to write well
  • Cycle, jog, or lift a dumbbell
  • Listen through Teenage Fanclub’s album Here

Not so straightforward, for it’s New Year’s Day and a special person’s birthday. All going well, it will be a day of two halves.


2017 Rock Music Big Year: Hearing isn’t listening

These last few weeks, I’ve been practising. Here’s the drill: every day, listen to an album, either through home speakers or on-the-move bluetooth headphones; take some form of notes; after three listens, wrap up that album with what I call a “reviewlet,” a mini encapsulation of my experience in a form that’s meant to be swift and simple; every week buy an album (the rest come through via Spotify); keep searching for the best of new music to queue up for listening.

Here’s the rub: hearing isn’t the same as listening. When I was young, we soaked up music fully and effortlessly. Music was life itself. Music surrounded us. Asked for an opinion, we could rattle off song names, the guitar riffs, the lame tracks, the scorchers, the highly specific genre positioning, an album’s societal vibe . . . all this after what seemed like no time at all. Every key record lodged in our minds whole and replete. We LISTENED.

I’ve lost that. Last week was a typical, hopeless practice attempt. If I played an album through while writing, either the writing vanished or the music did. Walking to Bar Ristretto with Angel Olsen on headphones partly worked but I felt careless and unsafe. On spare evenings, ragged with tiredness, could I work through an album in its entirety? No, I could not. As a dress rehearsal for the first week of January 2017, last week came as a fat flop.

All this doubles my determination to carve an hour out of each pulsating day. Somehow. Somewhen. Have the courage, Andres, I whisper, to LISTEN and tap into the sublime.

2017 Rock Music Big Year: Seek out the young, I say

Angel Olsen turns 30 in January. The American singer-songwriter and guitarist put out My Woman this year and what a revelation! Practising for my Big Year, that album-a-day obsession, has been tough, but this is the reward, disappearing into the deep musicality of this younger woman’s torchy, reverberating, serious, tuneful indie rock. What beauty! What profundity! How catchy! We can soar!

Let me point out one aspect of Angel Olsen that is, for me, crucial. She is in her 20s! She’s not in her mid 50s (a great gig from Mancunians James in November), late 50s (that brilliant Robert Forster album or the umpteenth sporadic brilliance of Robert Pollard or Nick Cave’s sublime Skeleton Tree), 40s (Okkervil River), late 30s (Band of Horses), mid 30s (Conor Oberst’s magical latest) or 30s (Eluvium’s majestic take on electronica).

You get the picture? I’m celebrating the fact that one of this year’s best listening experiences comes from an artist who is in her late 20s! When I was young, any singer or group aged over 23 was immediately a no-no. We knew that music, fresh vital music, came from the boldness of youth. Why don’t I listen to teenagers?

One answer to that puzzling question: I don’t know any young bands or singers or musicians. My sources – the music press, key websites, newspaper reviews – live just as much in the past as I do.

Well, sod that! Anyone out there who knows a vibrant young band, holler!

2017 Rock Music Big Year: Can you cultivate listening skills?

“Listen” . . . trivial to utter, harder to do. Most of my generation only listens to stuff they absorbed four decades ago and they’re not listening in any real sense. They’re singing along to a soundtrack in their minds. Maria Popova (Brain Pickings) summed up a 1982 book, Elliott Schwartz’s “Music: Ways of Listening,” as recommending the following seven cultivated skills:

  • Develop your sensitivity to music
  • Develop a sense of time as it passes
  • Develop a musical memory
  • Acquire a working vocabulary
  • Try to develop musical concentration
  • Try to listen objectively and dispassionately
  • Bring experience and knowledge to the listening situation

The author’s genre was classical music, what I call “fossilized pop music,” and there’s no doubt that listening to R.E.M. or Sex Pistols or Can or Guided By Voices is fundamentally different to appreciating Mozart, but what I like about the above list is that it exhorts me to develop skills. We’re told that appreciating fine art in galleries is partly an acquired habit and sensibility – why should music be any different?

Over 2017, will regular listening to new music enrich my listening skills? That’s certainly what I’m hoping.

2017 Rock Music Big Year: Old people struggle to change habits

Next year I’m meant to listen to an album each and every day. When I say listen, I mean really listen, take heed, absorb, LISTEN. I’m practising right now and it’s a right disaster. Last week my holiday packing incorporated headphones and three albums on my iPhone, and being holidays, practising the art of listening proved straightforward, right? Not at all – I failed miserably. The days were busy and for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to concentrate in an antisocial manner.

Why? When I was young, listening to music was like breathing fresh air. Easy as easy could be. Having fallen out of the habit over the last decade (two decades?), it feels alien to listen deeply, absorbedly. I see the same phenomenon with 60s-aged friends who say they can’t read books, so they don’t ever do so, not at all. Put them in a book group, however, force them to read a book a month, and after a year or so, bingo, they become committed readers.

The lesson for me? Practise now and get over this reluctance!

(Photo via Visual Hunt)