Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Hearing Loss: A Popless Preview

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On an recent unseasonably warm November night, I was driving around, windows down, blasting Elgin Avenue Breakdown: Revisited, a 2005 compilation of live tracks, singles and assorted studio recordings by Joe Strummer's pre-Clash band The 101ers. It's a terrific set that I bought several months ago, and finally got around to playing only after watching the documentary The Future Is Unwritten, which piqued my curiosity. It was such a pleasant way to spend an evening, cranking up songs like "Letsagetabitarockin'" and "Keys To Your Heart" without worrying about any impending deadline to write about them, or whether a review of The 101ers would be picked at for being "too obvious" or "too obscure." That night, I began to wish I could retreat from the front lines of music criticism for a while, and disappear into the archives instead, where the stakes are lower and the people are friendlier. And then I thought, "Hell, I'm a freelancer. No one's forcing me to do anything." So I made a resolution.

Beginning January 1st, I'm taking an indefinite hiatus from record reviewing. And I'm going even further than that. For the first ten months of the year, I'm not going to buy or listen to any new music. I'm not even going to buy any new old music. I'm going to spend those months dealing with what I've already got on hand–which is, frankly, more than any normal person should ever need. Even though I've made a big push in recent years to store and organize my music, I still have piles of discs on nearly every available surface of my home, and I have a hard drive groaning with songs that I'm unlikely to revisit, taking up space that could be filled by music I love. And because I spend the majority of any given week checking out CDs that I might need to write about, most of the time these days, I'm listening to music that I don't particularly like.

And honestly, it's getting to the point that I can't really hear that music anymore. Increasingly I'll pop in a disc full of heavily orchestrated indie-pop or foursquare roots-rock or singer-songwriter acoustica and I'll think to myself that what I'm hearing is just fine–and in fact may be better in craft and execution than similar music that I've loved in the past–yet I find myself incapable of working up any genuine enthusiasm for it.

I don't know whether people who don't review music for a living can identify with that dilemma, but surely many of you, in this media-saturated age, have been faced with a logjam of shows on your TiVo, or a Netflix queue you can't keep up with, or loose CDs strewn about your car, or more books than your shelves can hold. I think a lot of us have a packrat impulse, and like to believe that everything we've acquired over the years will come in handy somewhere down the line. But then one day we're trying to straighten up the clutter, and we find a still-shrinkwrapped DVD of Spider-Man 2 that our aunt got us for Christmas, and we wonder whether we really need it.

Let me give you a couple of examples from my hard drive. These are songs I've picked up from some source or another, and am now trying to decide whether to keep or trash. First up, Richard Reagh's cover of Neil Young's "Hangin' On A Limb," featuring El Perro Del Mar doing the Emmylou Harris part.:

Now I'm a big fan of Young's original, but this cover isn't a spectacular reinterpretation, and if I'm in the mood to hear this song, why wouldn't I just put on Freedom? The only reason I can think to keep it is that I like El Perro Del Mar, and if she goes on to a distinguished career, this song might be nice to have just for archival purposes. But it's not like she's featured prominently. So I don't know. What would you do?

Or how about Rita Wright's "Touch Me Take Me:"

I don't know much about this song. I probably downloaded it from the Soulsides blog, and though it's in a mellow R&B; style that I find appealing, I wouldn't exactly call it a premiere example of the genre. If I'm in the mood to hear a song like this, I've got dozens of better ones to choose from. But then again, what if I get tired of those other songs someday? Wouldn't it be nice to recall what I love about this sound–the smooth sensuality, the basic yearning, the echoes of a thousand movies and TV shows that played in the background while I was growing up–by rediscovering a song that I've never given much play before? This one I'd better hold onto, just in case.

My goal for 2008 is to pick my way through all the music I've acquired over the years, in roughly alphabetical order, and figure out why I have it, whether I still like it, and if it needs to be a part of my life ongoing. I'm closing down for a while in order to take stock. And I want you readers to help me. As the year goes on, and we dig deeper into the stacks, I want your input about what you'd keep and what you'd leave behind, and why. I'll explain the experiment further in a future blog post, coming at the end of the year, but in essence the plan is this: Together, we're going to break pop/rock/folk/soul/rap/jazz/country/gospel/dance songs down, to determine what's essential in popular music, and what's not. We're going to rediscover some old favorites, dig up some buried treasures, and take a hard look at some music that may no longer mean as much as it once did.

It's going to be a fun year. Letsagetabitarockin'.