Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bubbling Under Wrap-Up

With the revelation of album number 101 the "Bubbling Under," or honorable mention, section comes to a close and we prepare ourselves for the proper Top 100 Albums of the Aughts.  It should be noted here, once again, that the list is one of favorites and not of critical analysis; and, as with any list of this type, the "final" rankings really capture a moment in time--in this case, the literal end of the decade that the list represents--and not a definitive statement.  Some of these albums will fall out of favor with me.  Others will grow in stature so that they would rank higher if I rewrote the list in a few years. 

I've spent the past seven weeks listening again to the 25 albums that compose Bubbling Under.  So far, the list contains no embarrassments or albums I wish I hadn't included.  As I know from my 1999-2000 examination of the Nineties, which I've revisited multiple times since then, opinions can change radically over time.  I will continue to buy Aughts releases that I had no chance to evaluate during the decade of their original issue, and may like them more than Aughts albums I bought upon initial release.  Also, placements on a list of this nature can represent ephemeral, whimsical feelings; undoubtedly, I could shuffle the 25 albums of Bubbling Under around in dozens of permutations.


Today, a wealth of possibilities exists for a music fan to track his or her listening habits.  iTunes, playlists, and online services can maintain a count of the songs a person plays, and these kinds of statistics capture trends and cycles in a way that memory cannot.  If a person keeps no track of what is listened to over the course of a year, much of which was heard will be forgotten. 

About twenty years ago someone asked me if I tended to listen to certain records at certain times of the year: were my habits seasonal, nostalgic, or cyclical?  I didn't know.  I decided in 1992 to keep track of everything I listened to.  This would include only music that I played intentionally--no radio play, chance listening in public spaces, or concert attendance would count toward what I came to call "the Log."  In 1992, there was no iTunes program to do it for me; so, I did it all by hand.  I abandoned my efforts after a couple of months, but the thought remained compelling and in 1993 I relaunched the Log and have kept it ever since.  A stack of notebooks became computer files somewhere in the Aughts and now I do it on a spreadsheet that allows me to shuffle the data at will and get a snapshot of the year--or, if desired, of years at a time.  It took me a while to develop a reliable methodology, so the figures for 1993 followed a weak measurement protocol and can't be compared to those of 1994 to the present.  In 1994, my brother joined me in keeping the Log, giving me someone with whom to compare my endless listening statistics.  At the beginning of that year, we introduced a point system in which one play of an album is worth 10 points and one play of an E.P. is worth 4 points.  So, if an album has 129 points it's been played approximately 12.9 times.  This requires me to keep diligent track of what I listen to, and it's gotten increasingly difficult to perform accurate measurements as reissues with bonus tracks and discs have proliferated.  At any rate, what is supposed to be fun sounds merely clinical in these terms, so let's just move on...

Does a person listen the most to his or her favorite music?  For casual listeners, perhaps.  For record collectors, I argue that it is far from true.  I don't buy as much music as some, it is true, but I buy music at an alarming rate compared to most people.  My collection includes plenty of comfort listening; but, I also tend to buy in a wide variety of genres and movements with which I do not have a familiarity or comfort.  I prefer my listening to be challenging and, at times, scholarly.  To illustrate how I don't listen to my favorite music most often, let's take a look at what the Bubbling Under list would look like if arranged by frequency of play.

The first number in parentheses is the album's placement on the Aughts Bubbling Under list; the second number in parentheses is the number of points the album received in the Aughts; the next figure represents the album's ranking in my overall list of albums played in the Aughts/Since 1994. 

So, the first album here was the most-played Bubbling Under album of the Aughts; on my list of Aughts favorites, in came in at 108; it got 196 points in the Aughts; it was the 13th most-played album of the decade; and, finally, is the 48th most-played album since I started keeping track in 1994.  And so on.  Tiebreakers are determined by what album was played most recently.

1. (108) Gimme Fiction, Spoon (196) 13/48
2. (125) Behind the Music, The Soundtrack of Our Lives (157) 46/113
3. (115) Before the Poison, Marianne Faithfull (140) 65/159
4. (104) Journey to the End of the Night, Mekons (137) 74/175
5. (120) Seventh Tree, Goldfrapp (125) 99/222
6. (105) Uh Huh Her, PJ Harvey (124) 102/225
7. (124) Deep Cuts, The Knife (122) 106/233
8. (122) Pocket Symphony, Air (115) 125/273
9. (118) Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop, Luke Haines (104) 160/343
10. (121) Van Lear Rose, Loretta Lynn (103) 165/352
11. (111) Before the Dawn Heals Us, M83 (103) 167/354
12. (106) Velocifero, Ladytron (101) 176/372
13. (109) Cripple Crow, Devendra Banhart (93) 202/426
14. (107) The Silence of Love, Headless Heroes (92) 208/436
15. (117) At My Age, Nick Lowe (90) 217/453
16. (123) That Lucky Old Sun, Brian Wilson (88) 228/473
17. (101) Christie Malry's Own Double Entry OST, Luke Haines (83) 256/527
18. (110) Lullaby for Liquid Pig, Lisa Germano (83) 257/528
19. (103) The Convincer, Nick Lowe (78) 288/591
20. (113) Black Sheep, Julian Cope (78) 290/593
21. (114) Imperial Wax Solvent, The Fall (78) 291/594
22. (116) Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Neko Case (77) 296/600
23. (119) Charlie Louvin (77) 297/601
24. (102) Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, Bill Callahan (71) 344/682
25. (112) Oh, My Girl, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter (64) 427/790

Based on these figures, the only Bubbling Under albums whose favoritism literally equal their exposure are Mekons' Journey to the End of the Night and M83's Before the Dawn Heals Us; statistically, this is a fluke. 

You may wonder, for example, how one could possibly be familiar with an album he's played fewer than seven times (Jesse Sykes's Oh, My Girl), let alone qualify it as a favorite.  This may be an artifact of the massive volume of listening that I do; in the Aughts, I listened to over 3,600 different albums and EPs.  Adding up the points for all that listening comes to 115,642 points--the equivalent of eleven thousand albums.  When a person has eleven thousand albums to listen to, he or she may be lucky to hear something twice, let alone seven times.  Taking a look at the figures above, I was surprised by the top result.  While it is one of my favorites from the decade, I would've said you were nuts if you'd told me that Gimme Fiction was my 13th most-played album of the decade and 48th most-played album in the first seventeen years of the Log era.  This is how the Log can reveal truths that memory never could.  The truth about favoritism and exposure emerges most bluntly when I look at Bill Callahan's Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, which was played a little more than seven times in the Aughts and at the close of that decade ranked 682nd overall: I am far more intimately familiar with Callahan's album than I am with the Spoon LP.  I could hum most of the Callahan album from memory, can anticipate every nuance when I listen to it, and simply like it more.  Spoon's nineteen plays, then, in some ways mean far less than Callahan's seven plays.

While it may not be interesting to float around in one man's listening arcana, you may extrapolate from these figures things about your own habits.  If you really want to find out what your own habits are, though, I urge you to develop a point system and keep track yourself rather than relying on computer programs.  iTunes play counts and the like are far less accurate and leave less room for the inevitable grey areas that surround any auditory experience.  Keeping a Log can enable you instant access to all kinds of wild info--the fifty most-played albums of your twenties, the fifty most-played records of the Clinton administration, and so on.  Like hardcore record collecting, keeping track of your listening is a trainspotter's pursuit.  The real trends don't reveal themselves until you've done it for a while.  2010 marks the eighteenth year of the Log, and I plan to keep doing it as long as I am able. 


My list will appear pedestrian to some folks; partly unfamiliar to others; and, to the most sheltered listeners, willfully obfuscatory.  Out of curiosity, I've compared my Bubbling Under list to the scores received by the same albums on the critical analysis Web site Metacritic.  Metacritic collects reviews from a variety of sources--Web sites, newspapers, blogs, and so forth--and analyzes them to produce an aggregate score that represents the critical consensus on a particular album.  The categories below are those used by Metacritic; the number in parentheses is the album's "Metascore."  All information is current as of this writing, February 21, 2010.

Metacritic: Universal Acclaim
Van Lear Rose, Loretta Lynn (97)
The Convincer, Nick Lowe (86)
Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Neko Case (84)
Gimme Fiction, Spoon (84)
At My Age, Nick Lowe (82)
Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, Bill Callahan (82)
Imperial Wax Solvent, The Fall (81)

Metacritic: Generally Favorable Reviews
Cripple Crow, Devendra Banhart (79)
Uh Huh Her, PJ Harvey (79)
Seventh Tree, Goldfrapp (78)
Before the Dawn Heals Us, M83 (76)
Before the Poison, Marianne Faithfull (76)
Lullaby for Liquid Pig, Lisa Germano (76)
Velocifero, Ladytron (73)
That Lucky Old Sun, Brian Wilson (70)
Pocket Symphony, Air (63)

Not Covered By Metacritic
Behind the Music, The Soundtrack of Our Lives
Black Sheep, Julian Cope
Charlie Louvin
Christie Malry's Own Double Entry, Luke Haines
Deep Cuts, The Knife
Journey to the End of the Night, Mekons
Off My Rocker at the Art School Bop, Luke Haines
Oh, My Girl, Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter
The Silence of Love, Headless Heroes

The critical rankings of any writer will be open to argument and dissatisfaction; Metacritic is a little less culpable because it represents the positions of many critics.  Still, I personally find Van Lear Rose to be wildly overrated despite it ranking as one of my Aughts favorites--as of this writing, it is Metacritic's second-highest rated studio album "of all time" (i.e. since the site's inception in 2000).  I would've lost any bet that told me Imperial Wax Solvent would earn "universal acclaim" from anyone; it also surprises me a fair amount that both Nick Lowe albums from my Bubbling Under list earned that same accolade.


Next on NOYOUCMON is the proper Top 100 of the Aughts.  We'll forget the statistical analysis for now, and focus on what's really important--the music.  The essays will be longer, the selection of tracks I identify as album highlights will increase from three to four, and I'll even treat you to the impossibly subjective and ephemeral delight of each album's "most sublime moment."  As with Bubbling Under, new essays will be unveiled every few days and counting down to #1 before New Year's Day, 2011.  [UPDATE: As with any passion-run blog, life sometimes gets in the way of publication plans; as of New Year's Day, 2011, I was only up to #45.  The list carries on, to be finished when the time is right.]  And on to #100...

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