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)

2017 Rock Music Big Year: Not so easy, practice needed

Practising listening to rock music albums, surely that’s not needed! I’ve ears, I listen, done, right? Well, with just over a month to go until New Year’s Day, my practising reveals problems. Listening – deep enough listening – aint easy while writing and I’m not a headphones-on-train kind of person and I hate being antisocial at home. What do I listen to? I subscribe to Kindle versions of Uncut and Q magazines, but although they’re terrific, I have the sense they’d lead me to old-person music that isn’t fresh enough. But I can’t spend hours trawling the Internet for cutting-edge indie music. Those two problems are not the only ones.  How do I keep track of the complex mix of stuff I might listen to, how do I choose between this or that, how do I record my aim of listening to each album three times, how do I record that I’ve actually done so, etc., etc., etc.?

Confusion abounds. And this is meant to be the “oh so easy, on the sidelines” Big Year, ranking well behind writing and cycling! The answer right now? Keep practising. (Image modified from Mink Mingle’s photo on Unsplash)

Rock Music Big Year: Will someone please build an app?

What would a “Strava for music listeners be like”?

Put this down as my geekiest thought ever. Strava lets me record a run or ride as it happens and then provides complete documentation of the action. No need for separate lists, databases, nothing.

Why not the same for listening to rock music albums? If I listened to a song, the song would be identified (that is, I wouldn’t need to write it down beforehand) and ticked off with the closing notes (that is, no need to write down a tick mark). If I got through an entire album of songs, the album would be noted for all time as “listened to on such-and-such date.” At any time of the year, I could check out this mythical app to easily see how much listening I’ve done, what it comprised and when I did it.

You won’t be startled to hear that the mythical app is, after all, a myth. There is no “GPS for music listening.” Music comes from so many sources and is heard in so many ways that nothing will automatically track the activity, let alone store it for posterity. Googling this notion produces a welter of manual methods used. Listeners use all manner of documentation methods and kludges.

For my Rock Music Big Year, I decide to set up a precise, almost elegant Evernote notebook and recording template. It will have to do.

(Photo by Callie Morgan)

2017 Rock Music Big Year: Why the hell not?

I hereby commit to listening to a rock music album every day of next year. A full album every day, beginning January 1 and ending December 31. From one angle, this decision is minor – surely it can’t be hard to bend an ear to music for forty minutes in a day? More accurately, the decision is minor but significant – in the thick of life, how do I ensure this gets done each and every day?