Streaming Culture, Platinum Hits, and The Art of the Tracklist


Full disclaimer: this article was initially written in early 2018. While it sat as a draft for nearly one year, I recently revisited it and felt like the sentiment is still relevant and worth sharing. Please excuse how firmly-rooted in 2018 this is. 

Let me get one thing out of the way at the top: defending Migos is not the hill I want to die on. Don’t get me wrong, the Atlanta rap trio has brought me incalculable joy throughout the years (along with love for the adlib), but I’m not sure I can defend the artistic integrity of anyone that talks about Pateks this much

When Migos dropped their long-awaited sequel to Culture in early 2018 the release was met with… mixed reception. Typically churning out anywhere from two to six mixtapes per year, Culture II felt like an anomaly for the Atlanta natives in that fans had to wait a full year between releases for new music. While various features and a collab album between Offset, 21 Savage, and Metro Boomin helped to tide listeners over, the one-year wait for Culture II had fans anticipating the group’s next moves like never before. 

After the landmark “Bad and Boujee,” Migos had finally achieved the mainstream success that longtime fans always knew they were capable of. As most people saw it, the problem with Culture II wasn’t that the songs didn’t stack up, or that the group waited too long to release it, but rather that it was too damn long

Comprised of 24 tracks that collectively clock in at one hour and 45 minutes, many fans found the release a slog to get through, especially in contrast to the original album’s much more traditional 13 track running time. 

In addition to fan outcry, select publications also called out the group, accusing them of gaming the streaming system for sales, and even going as far as to call the release a data dump. While these are valid criticisms, Culture II is merely the symptom of a long-emerging trend. Ever since Drake discovered that ten songs equal an album sale, it’s been a race to the bottom. This album-loading strategy worked for Drake on Views, but he failed to recreate this success on More Life which (despite being longer) was quickly eclipsed by Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. 

Since then every artist from Lil Yachty to Post Malone has seemed happy to embrace this album-packing approach by dropping 20-plus-songs at once. As a result, they boost their streaming numbers while simultaneously overwhelming radio stations, playlists, and digital airwaves with a glut of new music… and you know what? That’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

While there are obviously some outliers like Chris Brown (who blatantly asked fans to fudge his streaming numbers), these rappers are entirely within their right to unleash a deluge of music if they want to. Any artist should be free to release whatever they want, but one thing you’ll notice about this streaming scandal is that it’s primarily hip-hop acts who are carrying it out. 

Fans were mad that Culture II wasn’t as concise as its predecessor, yet from my point of view, the songs are of the exact same quality. There was no significant change in sound, lyrical content, or musical approach. The only thing that really changed was the number of songs the group delivered at once. 

On top of the sheer size of Culture II, most people preferred its predecessor because they’d been able to enjoy it for a year. They knew the choruses and had a year’s worth of nostalgia built into those 13 tracks. Removing myself of all those feelings, Culture II is a nearly-identical album that simply gave us twice as many songs. 

Setting aside the fact that they used to release multiple mixtapes a year (each of which would range anywhere from five to twenty-seven songs) Culture II was dinged primarily because it was viewed as oversaturation, especially when compared to the first. 

Now there’s something to be said for a concise album, but that’s not what I’m arguing. Migos should be able to release any number of songs they want because they can

Do you know why albums are usually under an hour? Because they used to be printed. On physical media. With restrictions. The whole concept of an “album side” was practically dead until vinyl’s resurgence in the mid-2010s, why should we expect any modern group to be beholden to this archaic structure? Why should that be a factor or an expectation for anyone releasing music in the streaming age? Sure, that was the standard for a long time, but there’s no reason for that in 2018. If Migos want to release 100 songs on Spotify tomorrow they can, and there’s something awesome about that. 

Conversely, we saw half a dozen albums from the G.O.O.D. Music camp throughout the summer, each of which weighs in at seven tracks and under half an hour. There’s no real precedent for that, but I think it’s incredible that if an artist wants to release art in this EP/album hybrid then they’re free to. Migos shouldn’t be condemned for releasing a 2-hour album, because they could be pioneers. 

This running time could be the new hip-hop standard for all we know, and the only thing that’s made that possible is the ubiquity of products like Spotify and Apple Music. I’m not even arguing the quality of Culture II (because it’s mostly by-the-numbers), but it’s nowhere near as bad as some fans and critics seem to think it is.

There are certainly more artistic ways to “frame” a long-form release like Rae Sremmurd’s triple album or Drake’s half hip-hop/half RnB release, but at the end of the day, those are only small distinctions.

When I read criticism of Culture II, I feel like people are expecting more from Migos than they really should. These are three dudes from Atlanta who got famous for rapping about the same thing for ten years. They are personable, pick good beats, pull solid features, and have an uncanny influence on pop culture…. but album-crafting artisans they are not. Migos make great trap music, but their efforts are far from high art. 

Most people listening to this album will be putting it on in the background of a party, letting it play, and not thinking twice of it. Nobody expected Culture II to make some grand artistic statement, so why should the release be judged on those merits? Migos make music for clubs, for dancing, for driving, and for partying. If they give you two hours of competently-made party music at once, it should have no impact on the enjoyment of your party nor the group itself. 

In the end, this discussion doesn’t matter because people will stream this album, it will be successful, and the group will continue to release more music. These songs will be played at parties and rack up millions of plays on every hip-hop station. Expecting Migos to follow traditional running times or some arbitrary “artistic” frame is beyond the group’s scope. 

Culture II may be unwieldy, but the songs themselves are of the exact same quality of those that came before. I love short albums as much as the next person, but it’s clear to me that hip-hop can exist in a different format than a 10-track album with a standard running time, and Migos should be celebrated for that. 

Justin Vernon’s Ascent Into The Artificial


How A Winding Career Led One Man From Folk Hero to Electronic Mastermind

The story of Bon Iver is almost cliched to recite at this point. Heartbroken over a breakup and frustrated with his unsuccessful music career, 25-year-old Justin Vernon embraced his inner-Thoreau and recoiled from civilization in a remote Wisconsin cabin. Over the course of a 2006 winter, Vernon spent his days in isolation hunting for his own food, contemplating his relationships, and recording his thoughts to music in a process that would eventually form his breakthrough album.

Released the name Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago would come out in the summer of 2007 to widespread critical acclaim and unexpected crossover success. Led by the undeniable indie hit “Skinny Love,” Vernon’s unveiling as Bon Iver put him on the map, solidifying him almost instantly as a bona fide folk superstar. This record, along with Fleet Foxes self-titled debut, would serve as an entry point to the indie and folk genres for an entire generation of budding music fans. Despite his humble origins as a soft-spoken folk singer, Vernon has gone on have one of the most interesting, unexpected, and diverse careers in his field… but it didn’t get that way overnight. 

For Emma, Forever Ago contains lots of things you would expect on a folk album: acoustic guitar, heartfelt vocals, and even some expressive brass instruments on a few tracks. It’s a choral journey through the frigid darkness of heartbreak and depression, but the greatest trick Justin Vernon ever pulled was what came next: a series of albums that grew in size, scope, and influence where each was more diverse and masterful than the last. But to fully appreciate the steps he took to get there, we have to start at the beginning. 

What Might Have Been Lost


Even a cursory listen of For Emma, Forever Ago will reveal why the record became a gateway to the folk genre for a generation of fans. While music from this genre can easily become “folksy background noise” that’s pushed to the back of millennial’s campfire and bedtime playlists, Emma is anything but. Thanks to varied instrumentation, full-hearted emotion, and Vernon’s “melody-first” approach, the record reaches out and demands your attention. It’s a cozy-sounding album that you can sink into and lose yourself in. 

Despite its rustic, folksy sound, one song in particular sticks out as the album’s most complicated and heart-wrenching tracks: “Wolves (Act I and II).” Coming in at track number four of nine, “Wolves” finds itself exactly halfway through For Emma, essentially acting as its emotional low-point. It’s a breakup song, yes, but after dozens of repeated listens, one moment in the song has stuck with me more than any other on the record.

The song starts just as straightforward as any other on the album, however, it’s deceptively-simple beginning quickly makes way for the densest track on the album. Opening with a single acoustic guitar, the song features a multi-layered vocal that finds Vernon harmonizing with himself. The most striking moment in the song comes halfway through the track where the bridge enters and (presumably) the second “act” begins. Vernon sings “What might have been lost” repeatedly, and the most telling moment comes at 2:50 where the third repetition bears a twinge of autotune on the word “lost.”

What might have been lost
What might have been lost
What might have been lost

Vernon goes on to repeat that phrase a total of fourteen times throughout the song, eventually interrupting himself with pained cries of “Don't bother me” that gradually build until a clatter of instruments brings the song crashing to an end. 

“Wolves” is a heartbreaking song, and it’s weird to get hung up on the delivery of one word, but that single use of auto-tune planted the seeds for the rest of Vernon’s discography. They forecast what was coming next. They offered a one-word hint toward Vernon’s future, one that he may not have even been conscious of at the time, but we can point to now that we have all the pieces. 

Up In The Woods


Two years after the initial release of For Emma, Vernon published an update: a four-track EP by the name of Blood Bank. Clocking in at 17-minutes, Blood Bank was only a bite-sized follow-up, but one that was eagerly devoured by Bon Iver fans who were hungry for new music. 

Bearing snow-covered album art, Blood Bank seemed to rekindle the same type of tender wintery feeling as Emma, and sure enough, the release starts off just as you would expect. Opener “Blood Bank” is a frostbitten love song of candy bars, a waning moon, and, of course, a fateful trip to the blood bank. “Beach Baby” is a post-breakup song that features a spiritual lap-steel guitar outro that personifies loss and contemplation. “Babys” is centered around an ever-mounting piano line with lyrics that bear almost as many exclamation points as a Sufjan Stevens song title. And finally, the EP’s fourth track “Woods” closes out the release and signals the first time Justin Vernon fully stakes his claim on the electronic embrace. 

“Woods” is lyrically-straightforward, containing one verse repeated eleven times:

I'm up in the woods
I'm down on my mind
I'm building a still
To slow down the time 

It’s interesting (and worth noting here) because the song contains almost no traditional instrumentation whatsoever. Initially singing straightforwardly, Vernon croons the first verse with a voice that’s dripping in autotune. 

The second verse finds Vernon harmonizing with himself, singing the same words in two different styles with two different emotions. The third verse adds an additional take, and so on until a multitude of different vocalizations are all flowing and emoting simultaneously. By the time the song reaches the halfway point, ghastly echoes reverberate through the background of the track, and the vocals at the front of the song are singing with even more passion, pain, and expression. As the end of the song nears, the momentum has built to a fever pitch and the autotuned cries all fade out into total silence. 

It’s a haunting and goosebump-inducing track. While “Woods” initially came across to me as the musical equivalent of a thought experiment (“let’s see how many times I can layer myself singing the same thing”), it ends up becoming a gut-wrenching and transformative piece of art. That’s probably why Kanye West tapped Vernon to close out his 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Using the same lyrics as the original song, Kanye and Vernon use a similar emotional build on “Lost In The World” as a gateway to an explosive hip-hop beat laid over Vernon’s autotuned crooning and bombastic drums. This song paved the way for future hip-hop collaborations with Kanye, but also Vernon’s later electronic work. 

“Woods” acted as a proof of concept that Vernon need not be tied to acoustic guitars, folk instrumentation, or even traditional song structures. Emotion and technology were enough.

Shifting Layers


While Emma and Blood Bank are insular and inward-looking, Bon Iver’s 2011 self-titled record is the complete opposite. Massive, arid, and expansive, Bon Iver is a pivot from Vernon’s snow-covered origins, yet in retrospect feels like a completely logical stepping stone. 

Featuring swelling arrangements, atmospheric instrumentals, and sweeping vocals, my first listen of Bon Iver initially left me underwhelmed. As did my second listen. In fact, it took me around five years to fully-realize the brilliance contained within this record, all because it didn’t sound exactly like its folky predecessor. Now I hear the opening cascade of “Perth” and receive instant goosebumps. I see the brilliance of “Holocene” and recognize the sadness contained on songs like “Beth/Rest” are just as valid as anything on Emma… they’re just packaged differently.

Overall, Bon Iver might use less overt electronics than anything else in the rest of the band’s discography. Instead, it sees Vernon enlisting the help of his friends for a fuller and richer-sounding record that leans even harder into the choral flavors only briefly touched upon in Emma

While there may be less overt electronics, Bon Iver is a record of layers. Vocals are layered, instruments are layers, ideas are layered. There are airy horns and explosive drums. Background vocals echo far off in the distance as ornamental swirls overwhelm the senses. It’s a feast for the ears and ends up being a complicated record that’s dense yet emotionally bare. 

The album benefits from an obviously-improved budget when compared to Emma, but it finds Vernon exploring the possibilities that a studio brings. The different shapes his ideas can take outside of a traditional folk song, the different ways ideas can be transferred yet still be used to the same effect. The way melodies can be muddled, shifted, and played with until they’re nearly unrecognizable but still manage to come through… which leads to his next release.

The Arrival


On August 12th of 2016, the Bon Iver YouTube account unleashed two lyric videos onto the internet: “22 (OVER S∞∞N) [Bob Moose Extended Cab Version]” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ (Extended Version).” If the names alone didn’t give it away, these songs represented a massive departure from everything that came before them. The former was a flame-engulfed crooner accompanied by dueling English and Spanish subtitles, and the later was a glitched-out beatbox spitting out distorted lines and stuttering forward endlessly. 

The two songs represented the first new Bon Iver material in over five years, and fans consumed them voraciously, if not a little hesitantly. Drawing early comparisons to Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz, Radiohead’s Kid A, and Kanye West’s Yeezus, the two tracks were electronic, dissonant, and wholly unexpected. A left-field creation for which there was seemingly no precedent… But there was. 

The day these songs were uploaded, Bon Iver’s site was completely revamped. Mostly bare, but sporting a new “bio” section written not by Vernon, but Trever Hagen, a Bon Iver collaborator and one of Vernon’s childhood friends. This new page was a long-form update captured in a TextEdit screengrab that attempted to update fans on what had happened over the intervening years. It also framed the two new singles better than any traditional press release ever could:

So, in short, 22 A Million isn’t as simple as a change in sound; it was a spiritual inevitability.  

A Pathway to Understanding


I’ve built this narrative of Vernon’s increasingly-electronic career in my head for some time now. The pieces were all there from the first twinge of autotune on “Wolves” to the ever-mounting brilliance of “Woods,” but I didn’t know what to make of these disparate pieces until that summer day in 2016. When Bon Iver’s third album finally released that fall, it wasn’t just a new record from a band I already loved; it was the missing piece of a puzzle and the actualization everything that came before it. 

Despite some early comparisons to genre-shifting albums of greats like Sufjan Stevens and Radiohead, I also remember reading speculation that 22, A Million wouldn’t be as good as his previous work. Of course anyone attracted to Emma’s soft-spoken folk music will find themselves lost in 22, A Million, but at that point, I had come around to Bon Iver after years of doubt and now knew to trust in Vernon completely. 

What Trever Hagen was saying is that 22, A Million isn’t actually that different from the records that came before it. If there’s any trend to Bon Iver’s discography, it’s that every Bon Iver project is an album without precedent. For Emma, Forever Ago sounded nothing like Bon Iver, and 22, A Million sounds nothing like either of its predecessors. The difference here is that 22 is a complete dismantling. The first two records at least existed in the same sonic realm. Songs used familiar structures, familiar sounds, and familiar language. They were different but still comparable. Emma was a folky and intimate snow-covered cabin. Bon Iver was a wide-open sun-drenched field. 22, A Million is a meteorite. 


Where previous Bon Iver songs were built around simple guitar lines, mounting drums, and easy-to-grasp melodies, 22, A Million strips songs of everything but the melody and reconstructs them from the ground up. The instruments that that are present are twisted and distorted until they’re alien and unfamiliar. There are horns, and guitars, and percussion, but they’re scratched up and broken. There are vocal melodies, but they’re chopped up and shifted around. 

In fact, Vernon and his engineer Chris Messina invented a new instrument just for this record: The Messina. Better journalists than me have detailed the creation of this instrument, so I’ll just link them here along with this quote from its creator:

“Normally, you record something first and then add harmonies later. But Justin wanted to not only harmonize in real time, but also be able to do it with another person and another instrument. The result is one thing sounding like a lot of things. It creates this huge, choral sound.”

For the purposes of this article, the invention of the Messina was a major step in Vernon’s career. The Messina allowed not only for the creation of 22, A Million, but some of Vernon’s most beautiful songs. The instrument’s effect is felt all over the album, but one song in particular stands out as 22, A Million’s most breathtaking creation. A song that takes the stripped-back dichotomy of “Woods” one step further. A song that Vernon’s entire career feels like it was leading up to: “715 - CRΣΣKS.”

Lost in the Reeds


While  “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” and “10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄” are great songs on their own, they also had to serve double-duty and act as a primer to what 22, A Million stood for. Once those two tracks are out of the way, the record throws listeners into the proverbial deep end with “CRΣΣKS” which, Messina aside, is done entirely acapella. 

As most Bon Iver songs do, “Creeks” opens pointedly. 

Down along the creek
I remember something

These lines are sung straightforwardly, but set the scene for the song and introduce the recurring phrase “I remember something.” With each following line more and more of the Messenia leaks into the vocals until the third verse where Vernon reaches a near-yell as the song explodes with passion.

Toiling with your blood
I remember something
In B, un—rationed kissing on a night second to last
Finding both your hands as second sun came past the glass
And oh, I know it felt right and I had you in my grasp

Put simply, “715 - CRΣΣKS” is sublime. The song is a beautiful and one-of-a-kind creation that represents millions of branching paths all converging to create something practically too beautiful for this world. If Vernon hadn’t shown the propensity for electronics, his path wouldn’t have led to this song. If the Messina hadn’t been invented, this song wouldn’t have been possible. If Vernon hadn’t stowed himself away in that cabin over a decade ago, these feelings would not have been realized. 

“CRΣΣKS” is the ultimate marriage of humanity and technology. The entire time you’re witnessing Vernon’s emotion breaking through with each word and waiting to see what comes next. He leads the listener with each line, forcing them to lean in closer and closer until he violently breaks through the cold, indifferent wall of technology. It’s explosive, fragile, and heartbreaking. It’s a song that never fails to make me feel, and there’s something to be said for that. 



Vernon’s journey from folk hero to electronic mastermind was a long and winding multi-year-long process. It’s a journey that continues to this day as he tours, performs the songs live, and even on side projects like Big Red Machine where Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner both encourage each other along their respective increasingly-electronic journeys

The saga of Bon Iver has been a thrilling story to watch over the past decade. From the first wintery guitar strums of Emma to the final piano notes of 22, A Million, Vernon has weaved a multi-part epic on heartache and the human condition. Each song peeled back another layer, revealing the human behind the music, and that unfolding has been a fascinating, touching, and rewarding thing to witness.

While I hope we have many more years of music from Vernon, 22, A Million is undeniably an incredible third-act in the discography of Bon Iver. It’s more than folk music. It’s more than indie music. It’s more than electronic music, art pop, or any other label you can place on it. 22, A Million is human music. 

A Guide to Supporting Bands in the Streaming Age


The landscape for how music is consumed has changed unrecognizably in the past 10 years. When we started the label we were selling hundreds of CDs (imagine that?!). Nowadays streaming is a big focus and can make a huge difference to whether we break even on a release or not, and if a band gets heard outside their immediate scene. This isn't meant to be an attack on streaming, I'm a big fan, it's super convenient and I've discovered loads of great bands through Spotify. But the reality is payment rates for streams are tiny (£0.003-4 a play). 99% of streaming income goes to the top 10% of tracks and we're participating in a system which only works financially for those at the top and leaves those at the bottom unheard and unpaid! 

It looks like that system is sticking around for a while, so here are a few ideas for how to support artists you like and try to level the playing field a bit. 

Be An Active Listener

Playlists, algorithms, 'radio' playlists all work to highlight those lucky few who get handpicked or get enough data to enter the recommendation algorithms. If you never break that threshold you're destined to remain in '<1000' streams territory. 

Listen to small artists, listen to ones you already like, actively check out ones you haven't heard, listen to their tracks in full (don't skip through), save their songs / albums to your library. 

Use Playlists
Set up some playlists for songs you like, maybe separate them by genre. It doesn't matter if anyone apart from you listens to the playlist, Spotify picks up on what tracks are on the same lists together and will use that data for their recommendation algorithms. 

Turn Off Auto Play!
You know when you finish listening to an album and it starts auto playing similar songs (usually from the lucky handful of top artists in that sub-genre)? It's nice not have an awkward silence, but it does serve to inflate the play count of those already popular artists. By not using it, you're choosing what to listen to and who to support. 

If you're looking to discover new music, by all means check out Discover Weekly, Release Radar and other recommendation systems. But also try listening to your mates playlists, look through related artists, listen to what's come out recently on labels you like, check out what blogs are recommending, read reviews in zines / MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL / Razorcake, look through the Bandcamp homepage. There is endless good shit out there and the best stuff is not necessarily what's being directly recommended to you. 


The influence of traditional media is dwindling, the influence of online music websites is dwindling, how many people actually look outside their own social media bubble anymore? The reach of bands and business Facebook pages has basically dropped to nothing unless they're willing to pay for it.

Your personal social media probably has more influence on the tastes of your friends than anything else! If you like a song, tell your mates, if you like a video show your mates, if you're going to a gig invite your mates or at least encourage them to check out the bands. If you have a playlist of new music, share it with people! If you're at a gig, take a photo / video, stick it on Instagram (obviously try not to be obnoxious about it, we've all been stuck behind someone at a gig that can't put their fucking phone away). If you're playing a record at home stick a photo on social media. 

If you do a blog / write reviews, I love you, you truly are doing awesome work! But it doesn't need to take that kind of time commitment to help share music, a simple repost and "If you like 'X Band' / 'Y Band"' type recommendation really helps. 

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

The reality is most artists aren't making any significant money from streaming. If you can afford to support in other ways it will make a huge difference to their ability to continue touring and continue making music. Music will always be created regardless of the financial returns, it's fun and its cathartic, but a healthy music economy means that making music isn't only for those privileged enough to have spare cash and spare time to put into it. 

Buy The Record
I'm sure you've all heard about the so-called 'vinyl revival', and yes in total record sales are higher than they've been in years. But just because everyone's dad is buying Led Zep reissues at Tesco, the reality is small bands and labels are struggling. There are so many records coming out now, pressing turnaround times are going up, prices are going up. If you like physical music, buy that record you've been streaming constantly! 

Buy Advance Tickets to Gigs
Touring is pretty much the only consistent revenue stream for most bands! So go see them, buy advance tickets when the shows get announced, and try to bring some of your mates along. Services like Songkick do a great job of emailing you when bands you've been listening to on Spotify / Apple Music are playing nearby, so sign up for that as well as actively looking at venue listings and following local promoters. 

Buy Merchandise
Apart from touring, merch is probably the next most lucrative way bands have to make money. So pick something up at a show, check out their Bandcamp page and see if you can order online. 

I know some of this shit is obvious, and hopefully this isn't teaching you how to suck eggs! You have more power than you think to help out musicians you like, and it doesn't take a huge amount of time or money. No one's getting rich off this shit, bands you perceive to be doing well are probably still struggling, your support & enthusiasm can mean the world.

 I love talking about this kind of stuff so if you have any thoughts / ideas hit me up - 

A PDF of this is available free at Words by Andrew Horne, layout by Kay Stanley. Specialist Subject Records is an independent record label and shop based in Bristol UK. Follow them on Twitter here.

The Elephant Visual Album


When I trace my musical history back to its origins, there are four or five key discoveries from my childhood that have gone on to become foundational cornerstones of my taste. I’ve written about many of them here from my first iPod and 2006 pop music to entire genres that I stumbled into by accident all thanks to people with better taste than me. I measure my life with music, and these events have all become part of my personal mythology; milestones that have gone on to inform not only my taste, but who I am as a person.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with a dad who cared about music. While that mostly relegated itself to me raiding his CD collection to rip classic rock albums onto my iPod, there were also a small handful of (then) modern bands that we bonded over as I began to show an interest in music. The shared section of our musical Venn Diagram has expanded over the years as my taste has continued to mature, grow, and spiral in unexpected ways, but the first “new” band my Dad and I found common ground with was none other than The White Stripes. 

Luckily, because my dad loved The White Stripes, this meant I had the band’s entire discography at my fingertips. He owned their studio albums, B-sides, singles, live albums, demos, side projects, you name it. As a result, I have a worryingly-deep connection to (and knowledge of) Jack White’s musical catalog.

Around this same time, I was also taking guitar lessons. Aside from the standard “starter” songs like “Smoke On The Water” and “Pipeline,” The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” proved to be low-hanging, easy-playing fruit for a 10-year-old Taylor. Between borrowing the CDs and playing the songs, I showed enough of an interest that my dad decided to take me to see the group on tour in 2003 for my second concert ever. 


While I’ll admit that the 1.5-decade marination time of nostalgia plays a huge part in it, Elephant remains one of my favorite albums of that genre, this era, and my entire life. Hits and overplayed singles aside, there’s a lot to love about Elephant, and there’s a reason it remains the band’s most enduring release this many years later. 

Literally every track on Elephant hits. “Seven Nation Army” is an unparalleled anthem of the early-2000’s. “Hardest Button to Button” bears one of the best drumlines of the decade. “Ball and Biscuit” is one of my favorite songs of all time with its lumbering blues riff that slowly erupts into blistering guitar solos. There isn’t a wasted moment or an unpolished idea. Elephant is rock in its purest form. A feeling that can’t quite be put into words made by two people with two instruments. Perfect.

As eye-opening as Elephant was, sometimes your favorite albums can slide into the background of your life without you ever noticing. New music, other mediums, or life events can keep you from venturing back, and as embarrassing as it is to admit, this had absolutely happened to me with The White Stripes. It’s almost like taking art for granted. I’d listened to Elephant so many times, heard “Seven Nation Army” in so many different movies and TV shows and commercials that at a certain point it just kind of feels like “well, yeah, everyone knows this album is great, so what’s the point?” 

While my relationship with Elephant is ongoing, a chance encounter with a designer completely renewed my love for the record with a project that was crafted as lovingly as the album itself. Sometimes the classics are not only worth revisiting, but worth diving into on a microscopic level, and that’s exactly what Chandler Cort did with this beloved album. 

Creating what he calls a “visual album” Chandler transposed Elephant onto a 9-foot scroll that tracks the entire record second-by-second. Interpreting each instrument’s volume and the exact starting point for every word sung, Chandler’s creation is one-of-a-kind and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in my life. There’s something to be said for standing face-to-face with one of your favorite records and taking in the entire thing as it towers above you.

While it’s impossible to translate the feeling of interacting with the scroll itself, I wanted to share this beautiful and original piece of art with as many people as possible. Not only was Chandler kind enough to let me share his incredible work on Swim Into The Sound, but he also sat down with me to talk about the process that went into making it as well as his personal background with the band. So without further adieu, I’m excited to present The Elephant Visual Album. 

Full-resolution PDF version of the Elephant Visual Album at the end of the article.

The Visual Album and Its Creator: An Interview With Chandler Cort

Much like Taylor, I have a very distinct memory of my introduction to the White Stripes. I came to the party very late, as my parents found it borderline impossible to break away from anything outside of the typical 60’s - 80’s hits they grew up with.

There aren’t many specific events in my life that I would refer to as “life-changing,” but hearing “Rag and Bone” for the first time in my high school art class was absolutely one of them. My obsession with the White Stripes began with Icky Thump and worked its way back to the very beginning of the group’s discography until I had completely immersed myself in everything they had ever produced. The White Stripes were something I listened to exclusively for months. When I wasn’t listening to them, I found myself watching interviews with the members, reading about their history, and completely immersing myself in the group’s mythology. I had never quite felt myself become so taken by a band before.

Six years later, the White Stripes are still one of my favorite bands, if not my all-time favorite. Jack and Meg White have taken hold of a very big piece of my heart, and I don’t know if that will ever be able to be eclipsed.

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The way the project really came about was kind of funny. I was in my first infographics class at Portland State University, and we were told to make a timeline for our first project. The professor made sure he kept things very open-ended, so we had the choice to do an incredibly accurate historical timeline, or we could do something more whimsical like a timeline of the Harry Potter Universe.

I remember going on break one day listening to Elephant, and thinking “it would be funny to do an infographic on the number of times Jack White goes, ‘WOO!’ in one album.” So that’s where it really kinda started. I refined my guidelines a little bit further and decided that I would track the main instruments: guitar, drums, and piano, as well as the vocals. 

The process for this piece is something I feel just as proud of as the actual work itself. All of my research for this project was done entirely audibly. I printed all of the lyrics to every song, and I would sit down at my desk every day, listen to the song, and get the second-by-second timestamps for every lyric, and then go back through, and repeat the same process for the guitar, drums, and piano. This means I listened to every song at least three or four times in full, not counting pausing, rewinding, and playing again to make sure the time signatures were as accurate as possible.

In addition to the individual instrument timelines, each song also got a “genre gauge” that I had designed too. Because Elephant is such a diverse album, I feel like it was very important to describe how each song was different in comparison to the others. Every song was ranked on a scale of punk, blues, folk, and pop, with the end result being a circular graph that represented the track’s sonic texture. 

This was then translated into a second graph that I constructed to help best visualize the album in its entirety. I’d guess this project took somewhere between 40-45 hours total. It was truly a monster, which can be seen in the final 9-inch by 9-foot print. I remember people telling me in class that I was doing was ridiculous, and that I was crazy for even attempting something like this, which honestly just kind of pushed me to do it even more.

A lot of my design work has been very music-focused, and I have done very intense pieces about other albums I love, but I feel like this one is probably the most accessible, and the most interesting. I describe this piece as a visual album because I feel like it is the most literal visual translation of an auditory piece. I’m so happy that this piece has received the reaction it has, and I’m incredibly thankful that Taylor was moved enough to offer me this opportunity, and I hope to be here again someday. 

Until then everyone, be good, and love what you listen to.


Poptimism, Complexity, and Musical Stockholm Syndrome: Why Some Albums Grow On Us Over Time and Others Don’t

One of the biggest musical revelations of my life, like many things, came from a podcast. It wasn’t a cool song or the discovery of a new genre, but a conceptual framework that changed how I viewed the entirety of music.

The statement, born of a drunken video game discussion, found one of the hosts outlining his definition of pop music. His parameters weren’t based on the artist’s popularity or the sound of their music, but rather something that you could “hear once and enjoy.” He went on to elaborate “I didn’t even like most of my favorite albums the first time I heard them.”

I’m paraphrasing massively here (because I don’t remember the exact quote, episode, or even year), but this general notion is something that has stuck with me for almost a decade. It’s a bit of a roundabout way to define the pop genre (which I still love and appreciate), but it’s also a slightly snobby framework that looks down on an entire genre while simultaneously glorifying your own taste. So sure it’s problematic, but I also don’t think it’s entirely wrong. Pop music is scientifically designed to be catchy, appealing, and broad, that’s inherent in its DNA.

Still, the more I thought about this framing device, the more I found it to be true. I especially latched onto the host’s claim that most of his favorite albums were “growers” he found himself enjoying more over time. As I searched through my own music library, I realized that nearly all of my favorite albums were ones I’d listened to dozens of times and seemingly got better with each listen. In fact, most of them were records that I thought nothing of or flat-out dismissed at first but eventually grew to love. Oppositely, there were dozens of other albums (pop or otherwise) that I’d listened to once and forgotten almost instantly.

So this theory seemed to hold water, and it’s a filter that I’ve used to view music through for nearly a decade at this point. Recently the idea of albums being “growers” brought up online and spark quite a bit of debate. There’s one side that subscribes to the “grower versus shower” mentality, and another that views this behavior as simply subjecting yourself to an album over and over again until you like it. As with most everything, there’s truth to both sides and neither is truly “right.” So I’ve spent some time mulling over this framework, asking people about it, and gathering opinions from both sides of the fence. I’ve uncovered ten different inter-connected elements that are at play within the “grower” concept. I’m going to outline each point below along with personal examples in hopes that I arrive at some sort of conclusion or thesis statement in the process.

1) Denseness and Complexity


One of the biggest arguments in favor of returning to albums and the concept of “growers” is the idea that some genres/bands/records are so musically complex that they encourage it. Whether it’s lyrical, instrumental, or contextual, sometimes there is so much going on in a record that it’s impossible to take everything in on first listen. Take something like Pet Sounds or The Seer where at any given moment there are dozens of individual components all fighting for the same sonic landscape. You can listen to Pet Sounds once and “get it,” but repeated listens reward the listener by allowing them to slowly discover everything at play in these carefully-layered songs. It’s like crossing things off a list; once you know the lyrics you can pay less attention to the vocalist and focus on a different element of the arrangement. You can keep revising an album and delve deeper each time until you have the full picture; one that was impossible to see the first time you listened.

Meanwhile, pop music is almost always internationally bare. By remaining surface-level (both lyrically and instrumentally) pop songs are easier to grasp at first pass. This allows pop artists to more easily fulfill their primary purpose by transporting a single supremely-catchy hook or chorus into the listener’s brain. As a result, the pop genre as a whole actively avoids things that could “distract” the listener because those experimentations and imperfections are often things that risk detracting from the core message that’s being delivered. That’s not to say pop songs don’t require skill to make, just that they avoid anything too “out there.”


Take Katy Perry’s “California Gurls”: it’s a song that I adore, but I’ll be the first to admit there’s almost no substance to it. The main elements at play here are Katy Perry’s voice and a warm radiating synth line. There’s a guitar and bass laid underneath these primary elements along with a handful of ad-libs from both Mrs. Perry and Mr. Dogg, but those the closest thing to musical depth that this track offers. Much like the music video, “California Gurls” is a synthetic and sugary-sweet pop song that exists to convey a single straight-forward message. As a result, you have a song that’s catchy due in large part to the fact that it’s presented in a barebones way. By being lyrically or musically complex you risk immediacy, so you must present your song in a pointed way so as to embrace catchiness.

So obviously sheer mass and complexity are major factors in this debate. Some of my favorite records are indeed sprawling epics that I’ve essentially bonded with over the course of several years. Records that have drawn me back in time and time again and improved my impression of them in the process by developing a unique and ever-changing relationship with me. A musically-dense record will always be more rewarding to return to because it rewards repeated listens and allows the listener to pick up on something new each time. Meanwhile, a pop track may keep a listener coming back for the earworm factor, but won’t necessarily be as deeply rewarding the same way that a “complex” album would be.

2) The Unknown Factor


Sometimes there’s a mysterious, unknowable X-factor that keeps you coming back to a record. Even an album you don’t like can draw you back, if only to pin down its ephemeral magnetism. This has happened to me in 2012 with Carly Rae Jepsen’s megahit “Call Me Maybe” and (after dozens of listens) I’ve since pinned it down to her unique delivery of the goosebump-inducing line “and.. all the other boys.” Early on in his excellent 150-page CRJ-based manifesto, Max Landis does an excellent job of breaking down the song’s undercurrent of distress and subversion, but the point is in 2012 we, as a society, were collectively drawn to this song for some reason.

Sometimes it’s as simple as a weird vocal quirk, other times it’s an attention-grabbing instrumental moment, or a riff that gets stuck in your brain like jelly. In any case, these unique moments aren’t limited to one genre and their ear-worminess plays a huge part in why we return to a piece of art.

I’ve done this with countless songs. Sometimes I’ll find myself listening to an entire album just to experience a single moment in full effect. Sure I can listen to Hamilton’s “Take a Break” in isolation, but it’s only when I listen to the entire play from the beginning that I fully tear up at the song’s implication within the larger narrative. Moments in the song like hearing Phillip’s rap, coupled with Alexander’s growing distance from his family, and dark multi-leveled foreshadowing, are all made more impactful when the piece is taken in as a whole. We don’t get to pick the little things that draw us in, but this search is one of the most rewarding aspects of music appreciation and discovery.

In a third case (I’ll fully-delve into deeper this December), up until last year, Sufjan Stevens has been an artist that I wanted get into. Thanks to a serendipitous iTunes DJ Shuffle back in high school, I became infatuated with exactly three of his songs and I spent literal years listening only to these three tracks until I was ready to explore the rest of his discography.

The Carly Rae Jepsen example proves that there’s still room for these moments in a pop song. Experimentation and subverting expectations can reward the artist in unexpected ways, but if there’s not something there to make the listener curious enough, then it’s unlikely that they’re going to go back and try to figure it out on their own.

3) Critical Acclaim, Message Boards, and Peer Pressure

Like it or not, critics play a role in dictating taste within culture. I suppose it’s less like “dictating” and more like influencing, but I think we’ve all been swayed by reviews at one time or another. Whether it was being convinced to stay away from a bad movie, or giving a record a spin based purely on universal acclaim, critics have an undeniable impact on our cultural landscape.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. At worst it will make you more hesitant, and at best you might give something a chance that you never would have known about otherwise. I did this with Kanye West in 2010 following the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, after its perfect Pitchfork score and placement as their best album of 2010. Aside from Eminem, I’d never really listened to any hip-hop in earnest, but this level of praise couldn’t be a coincidence, right? I downloaded the album, gave it a reluctant spin, and came away from it mostly underwhelmed.

As a side note (before I get called out) it’s worth noting that I didn’t have any context for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at the time. I had no idea about Kanye’s background, or what the album represented within his career. I also had no real appreciation for the record’s layers upon first listen (circling back to Point #1) but I went on to rediscover and genuinely love it in 2016. The point is I picked up this album solely because of critics.

Continuing the Kanye West anecdotes; I’ve already written about how the internet’s reaction to the release of Yeezus spurred me to give the album a shot. I still didn’t get him. For whatever reason, I gave the album another listen a couple months after its release and suddenly everything clicked. I loved Yeezus and soon found myself venturing back through Kanye’s discography from the beginning. I’d like to think that I came to love Kanye of my own free will, but the reason I gave him a chance in the first place (and the second place) is because of other people. Whether it was a “reputable” journalistic source like Pitchfork, or simply witnessing the unbridled joy of hip-hop heads on an internet message board, I could tell I was missing out on something, and that kept me open.

4) Personal Context, The Language of Genres, and The Passage of Time


After “discovering” Kanye West in 2013, he was the sole hip-hop artist I listened to for some time. I would casually browse forums and keep up on large-scale movements within the genre, but it wasn’t until years later that I would find myself delving deeper into the contemporary rap scene. By the end of 2015, I was listening to everything from leaned-out trap, conceptual double albums, absurdist mixtapes and even Drake. Soon I found myself listening to goofier (then) lesser-known acts like Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, and Desiigner. I can guarantee you that I never would have latched onto any of those guys if it wasn’t for Kanye breaking down my personal barriers and dismantling my hip-hop-related hangups. It took time for me to go from actively disliking hip-hop to embracing it wholeheartedly, and that’s a journey that can only happen over time.

While your personal journey within individual genres matters, there are also things like general knowledge and maturity at play too. Once I got out of that shitty high school ‘everything that’s popular sucks’ punk mentality I opened myself up to dozens of new artistic directions. I gained a new appreciation for things I’d previously despised, and I began to understand why things like MBDTF were important. It’s a combination of open-mindedness and cultural awareness that comes with age, and one that I hope never slows as I get older.

Maturity is an uncontrollable factor that’s hard to pin down, and impossible to quantify. I’ve experienced “musical maturity” as recently as this year with the Fleet Foxes. They were a member of my generation’s pivotal “indie folk movement” and I consider them one of my gateway groups, but despite their importance, I’d never really considered myself a fan. And it’s not for lack of trying, I own all their albums, gave them multiple chances throughout high school and college, but I had always found them interminably boring. I didn’t see what other people saw in them… until this year. With the multi-month build-up to 2017’s Crack-Up, I found myself giving into the hype and giving their older albums another shot for the first time in years. To my surprise, after a handful of half-passive listens I really liked everything I heard. All three of their previous releases grew on me over the course of several weeks, and I became a fan like that. I can still see why I found them boring in high school, but I think the real reason is a lack of maturity. I now have the patience and appreciation for the kind of careful, measured indie folk they’re making, and that openness has rewarded me with hours of enjoyment.  

Circling back to Point #1: it’s often hard to fully grasp an album on first listen, and sometimes a record’s complexity doesn’t allow it to truly grab ahold of you until years down the line. In a way, this is also a point against pop music since so much of it “of the moment” it tends to age worse. It’s a genre that’s by nature the most tapped into pop culture, and as a result, it’s harder to go back and enjoy older songs when A) you’ve heard them thousands of times, and B) there’s more recent stuff that’s more tapped into the current sound. It feels like there’s more of an “expiration” to pop music which means it’s not necessarily as rewarding to venture back to.

5) Streaming, Permanence, and Getting Your Money’s Worth

A semi-recent extra-musical factor at play in this discussion has to do with how we consume music. Up until about a decade ago the process was 1) hear a song 2) go buy the album at the store 3) listen to the album. With the rise of iTunes, YouTube, and more recently, digital streaming platforms the entire process has become flattened. A song can come to mind, and we can pull it up on our phones within 30 seconds. You can hear a song at a bar, Shazam it, and add it to your digital collection within an instant.

As a result of this, albums as a concept have been diminished in both stature and importance. You have people like Chance The Rapper releasing retail mixtapes, Kanye West updating his albums after release, and Drake releasing commercial playlists. But on top of these (somewhat arbitrary) distinctions, there’s a layer of increasingly-pervasive accessibility. You can hear about an artist and have their discography at your fingertips within seconds. You can read about a new release and be streaming it by the time that it takes you to finish this sentence. That freedom has forever changed how we consume music. Comparing this on-demand accessibility with the “old ways” of going to a store and buying a physical record, it’s easy to see how the times have changed.

As a result of this shift, people are less committed to albums. If you don’t like an album you can play another just as quickly. We can jump ship with no loss at all. We’re not connected to the record, so it’s easy to abandon.

Funny enough, with the rise of streaming we’ve seen a near-direct correlation with the rise in the popularity of vinyl as it’s on track to be a billion-dollar industry this year. These are people that want and miss that physical connection with their records. There’s an undeniable difference between listening to an album on Spotify and hearing it come out of your vinyl player at home. “Warmth” and all that bullshit aside, this is an example of the format influencing our listening habits. If you’re using Spotify and don’t like an album, you can easily stop streaming and jump to any of the millions of readily-available alternatives.

Most importantly, when streaming, there’s also no reason to “justify” your purchase because we haven’t dropped $20+ on a piece of physical media. If you bought a record and didn’t like you’d damn sure try to listen to it more than a few times because you invested in it, goddammit!

There’s also a pattern of familiarity at play too. Every time you open Spotify you’re given the choice between something new and something that you already like. If you gave an album a shot and didn’t like it, you’re now given a choice between that and something you know you already like. So why would you ever opt for the thing you don’t like?

Reddit user nohoperadio explains this phenomenon and the wealth of choices that we have in the modern music landscape:

“Those pragmatic constraints on our listening habits don’t exist, and we have to make conscious decisions about how much time we want to devote to exploring new stuff and how much time we want to devote to digging deeper into stuff we’ve already heard, but every time you do one of those you have this anxious feeling like maybe you should be doing the other. It’s only in this new context that it’s possible to worry that you’re listening wrong.”

It really is an interesting psychological door that’s opened with our newfound technological access, and analysis paralysis aside, it explains why some songs draw listeners back by the millions. Drake’s “One Dance” is the most streamed Spotify song of all time with 1,330 million plays. It’s a good song, but not that good. It’s an example of a song achieving a balance of accessibility and pervasiveness until it becomes habitual and self-reinforcing. That’s something that only could have happened in the streaming world.

6) Fandom


Up until now, we’ve mostly been talking about this framework within the context of “new” albums, but what about when you already have context? What about a non-accessible release from your favorite artist?

This has happened to me with many albums over the years. I wrote a 7,000-word four-part essay that was mostly just me grappling with my own disappointment of Drake and Travis Scott’s 2016 releases. For the sake of talking about something new: The Wonder Years are one of my all-time favorite bands. I’ve written a loving review of their second album, and I plan on doing the same thing with their third and fourth releases as well. After a trio of impactful, nearly-perfect pop-punk records, the band released their fifth album No Closer to Heaven on September 4th of 2015. While it’s not an “inaccessible” record, it’s easily my least favorite from the band and a far cry from their previous heart-on-sleeve realist pop-punk. It took me months of listening to the album to fully-realize my disappointment, and even longer to figure out why. I’m still not sure I can accurately explain why Heaven doesn’t gel with me, but that’s not what this post is for. The point is I’ve subjected myself to this album dozens of times racking up nearly 700 plays at the time of this writing. In fact, it’s my 19th most-listened-to album of all time according to, and that’s for an album that I don’t even enjoy that much!

I was driven to this album partly by my frustration and confusion, but also my love of the band. I’ve enjoyed literally every other piece of music they’ve ever recorded, what made this one so different? I guess 700 plays isn’t something you’d afford even the most promising album, but this is an example of the listener’s history influencing their own behavior and desire to love an album. It’s trying to make an album into a “grower” when it may never be one in the first place. That leads nicely into #7…

7) Instant Gratification, Uncertainty Tolerance, and “Forcing It”


The most common argument I see against the concept of albums as growers is the idea that the listener is “forcing it.” This is problematic mainly because everyone’s definition of “forcing it” is different. Some people have a specific number in mind ‘if you listen to an album three times and don’t like it, then you’re forcing yourself’ others base it on feeling ‘if you’re despising every second of an album, then just turn it off. Otherwise, you’re forcing it.’

The idea is you force yourself to like something out of pure habit or by subjecting yourself to it over and over again, eventually becoming hostage to something that you didn’t really like in the first place. To me, this is the meatiest discussion point here because it’s such a multifaceted issue. I’ve already discussed this concept within the context of Drake’s Views, but to briefly recap: I loved his 2015 album If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and he had a killer summer with What A Time To Be Alive and a high-profile rap beef. I was beyond hyped for his next release in 2016 but came out of my first listen incredibly disappointed. Over time I grew to like most of the songs, presumably from sheer repetition, but I still recognize it as an album that isn’t good on an objective artistic level. So is this forcing it? I never hated any of those listens, I just grew to like the album more after time had passed, but I still don’t think it’s good.

I’ve done the same thing this year with Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy. After an impeccable 2015 release and a metamonths-longinterview-ladenlead-up to the record’s release in April I, again, emerged from my first listen disappointed. I have come to enjoy the album more over time, especially after giving myself a break from it and seeing some of the songs performed live. So maybe these two cases just have to do with unrealistic built-up expectations and already being a fan (Point #6) but no matter how you look at it, I wanted to like these albums and kept subjecting myself to them.

At any rate, the biggest flaw with this argument is that everyone’s definition of “forcing it” is different. Unless someone’s making you listen at gunpoint, there is no force. You can stop at any time and you shouldn’t feel pressure to like something just because. But I fully recognize someone could see my listening history with Drake’s Views and say “my god, why would you listen to an album you’re lukewarm on that many times? That’s torture!” but I guess what’s torture for some is simply passive listening for another.


For a more scientific perspective, this youtube video details some of the crazy behind-the-scenes factors at play in making pop music particularly pervasive. Everything from the radio to Urban Outfitters to fucking memes spread music and have the ability to make something exponentially more popular. This circles back to “forcing it” because you may have no power in these cases. God knows after years of the same retail job I grew to hate some songs that were otherwise great just from sheer repetition. It would make sense that this then becomes “forcing it” since you have no power, but sometimes even that can circle back to genuine love if you build enough positive associations over time. I may not like “Hotline Bling” as a song, but god knows I’ve upvoted enough memes featuring the turtleneck-clad Drake that I enjoy something about it.

Furthering the pseudo-scientifical discussion of articles I that don’t have the intelligence to write of research: this blog (which cites this study) discusses “addiction economy” and explores the profiles of “explorers” and “exploiters.” The primary difference between the two groups is their propensity for either delayed or instant gratification. The study explores the idea that technology has accelerated this process which (in a music context) circles back to Point #5 of streaming’s role in our listening habits. Why bother trying to listen to something “difficult” or “weird” when you can have the instant hit of euphoria that comes with a bouncy non-offensive Taylor Swift song?

I really think this one comes down to what you’re in the mood for. If you have the attention, time, and necessary background, why not explore something rich that you may love? But if you just want something quick and easy, just put on the Spotify Top 50 for some background noise. It becomes the musical equivalent of a hearty homecooked meal versus a big, greasy fast food burger. One may be objectively “better,” but it’s not always right for the situation.

8) Expectations and The Initial Approach

Another factor that exists outside of the music itself is the listener’s initial approach. If you go into any art with a preconceived notion you’ll either be surprised by the outcome or have your beliefs confirmed. If you go to a shitty movie expecting it to be shitty, you’ll emerge thinking “well duh.” The inverse of this could also be true (a shitty movie turning out good, etc.), but the real discussion here has to do with the viewer’s initial expectation.

I do think with music it’s rare that you’ll do a complete 180 in either direction. The most likely case of a “grower” is generally a record that you go into not knowing anything about and then some unknown factor (Point #2) keeps bringing you back. It’s also true that you could dislike and album and over time come out liking it (as I did with Views). And while it’s a rare occurrence, I suppose an album could also be a “shrinker” that you love on first listen, but grow to dislike more and more.

Circling back to genres, I think pop music tends to be a shrinker more often than not. It’s something that’s (by nature) immediately accessible but slowly drives you mad with each repeated listen like a screw tightening into your skull. We’ve all been there (especially anyone with a retail job) but I can’t think of a single occurrence where I’ve done that to myself of my own free will. Oppositely, I know people that only interact with music by listening to songs until they’re absolutely sick of them. That’s not how I prefer to interact with art mainly because I feel like there’s only so much time in the day and so many other things to listen to, why force that upon yourself?

I think that the listener’s starting point is a huge concept. Reddit user InSearchOfGoodPun outlines his thoughts on the initial approach and the impact of time on your listening experience:

“My personal opinion is that if you listen to almost anything enough times with a receptive attitude, you will start to appreciate it. It might not become one of your favorites, but you’ll like it for what it is. In any case, at the end of the day, you like what you like.”

The key phrase here is receptive attitude. If you aren’t listening with a receptive attitude, then you’re forcing yourself. Then you’re just making it unenjoyable no matter what. I think this is one of the biggest points in this whole write-up and a key indicator of who you are as a consumer of art. It’s all about being receptive regardless of your starting point.

9) The Language of Genres


Jumping back to Kanye: it was a long and winding road filled with lots of resistance, but despite my own hangups, I now consider myself a hip-hop head. I listen to the genre constantly, I’m up on the “newcomers” and I find myself devoting an absurd amount of time to researching the realm’s happenings each day. I wouldn’t have cared that much without Kanye, and I wouldn’t have discovered half of the shit that I currently love without Yeezus breaking those barriers down.

I’ve spent this entire time talking about albums as “growers,” but it’s also possible that this concept could be applied to entire genres too. I mean, after all, a genre really is like a language you have to learn, and I was fortunate enough to have Kanye as my teacher. Through his discography, I learned about the genre’s history, who its major players are, as well as the language, cadence, and frameworks that it uses. In another sense, it’s almost like “building up your tolerance” to something you previously didn’t understand or couldn’t grasp.

I’ve detailed my own history wading into genres like hip-hop and indie, but it makes sense that this personal context would impact how we would interact with albums through the broader umbrella of their genre. I wouldn’t have understood hip-hop if I jumped straight to Migos. Everyone has a starting point for their musical taste, and it spreads outward from there. Pop music is an easily-accessible taste, but most other genres take a little bit more of an adjustment to get used to. Certain albums or genres are just objectively less-accessible, and harder to get into as a result.

In fact, it could easily be argued that exploring a genre could be the biggest decider on whether an album is a “grower” or not. Contextualizing a record within a larger space can help the listener and understanding it better and appreciate it more. Listening to one album multiple times might be the exact opposite of the correct approach, because while the listener may not like it, they may find something musically adjacent that’s more up their alley.

10) Songs Versus Albums


For the sake of furthering the discussion outside of albums, it’s also worth zooming down to a micro level to look at individual songs. While I tend to listen (and think of things) in terms of albums, it’s undeniable that songs are the main component at play. In fact, a single song is probably the reason for you checking an album out in the first place. Thinking “hey I like this one thing, maybe I should check out the rest” is how I’ve discovered most of the music in my library.

But this same framework of “growers” can easily be applied to songs too. When listening to an album the first time, occasionally only individual songs will jump out at you right away. I love Lost in the Dream by The War on Drugs, but for the first dozen or so times I played the album, the only song I could remember was the opener “Under the Pressure.” That song had a memorable chorus, a catchy riff, and a driving rhythm. It alone is the sole reason I kept coming back to the record, but each time I put “Under the Pressure” on I’d find myself thinking ‘ah, I’ll just let the rest of the album play.’ Eventually, the rest of the record revealed itself to me and individual songs emerged from what was once an amorphous blob of sun-drenched heartland rock.

I did the exact same thing with Young Thug’s breakthrough 2015 album Barter 6. I’d already had a passing interest in Thug thanks to his previous collaborative efforts with Rich Homie Quan, so I gave Barter a semi-attentive spin and left underwhelmed. After a glowing Pitchfork review (Point #3) I gave the album another shot but couldn’t find myself getting past the first track. In a good way. I kept relistening to the album opener “Constantly Hating” and every time I tried to move onto something else, this transfixing opener drew me back in. Soon Barter 6’s second track grabbed me just as hard. Then the third. Then a single. Then a late album track. Eventually, I was listening to the whole thing front-to-back and enjoying every song. Individual songs are a viable path to an album becoming a grower, and while I don’t like digesting albums piecemeal, sometimes that approach can allow an album to creep up on you over time.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, there’s a difference between feeling lukewarm on an album then giving it a few more chances and hating an album but feeling like you’re obligated to listen because you “should” like it. Usually, there’s some redeeming quality that brings you back, God knows there’s plenty of albums I’ve heard once then forgotten forever.

Patience is key, and that receptivity can lead to an album becoming better over time. With pop music, I feel like there’s an individual tipping point that everyone hits where you go from fully-embracing a song to actively combatting it. We don’t all have the time or patience to devote ourselves to “difficult” albums, so sometimes the road less traveled is less appealing.

After writing all of this, I’ve come to the conclusion that my initial theory is a flawed. Like many things, it’s not universal. There’s no one “right” answer or perfect framework that applies to all of music. This theory still works on a case-by-case basis, but there’s nuance to every genre, artist, and song, and this broadness makes it hard to view music through such a broad lens.

If anything, a big takeaway is that there’s no one “better” genre, just different fits for different people. With all these possible elements at play, it’s easier to see how someone could gravitate towards one easier genre meanwhile a different person has cut their teeth in a different genre and has a more developed understanding of its intricacies.

And whether you look at it as “a grower” that gets better over time or a “shrinker” that driver you more insane with each listen, there is a point at which you are “forcing it” but (again) that varies from person to person. The only absolute is that there are no absolutes.

The truly compelling part of music is the way that you interact with it. What you bring to the experience and how you interpret the artist’s work. Whether it’s going track-by-track or listening front-to-back, or listening to one single song until you’re sick of it. Music is special because of what we project onto it. The memories we make around it.

It’s obviously incorrect to view all pop music as shallow, just as it’s incorrect to view all rock as deep, or all rap as thuggish. Everything is on a spectrum, and your perspective within the genre, the artist, your life, and the world all come into play when listening.

I don’t think there’s any defined “conclusion” to arrive at, just many different elements to keep track of. These frameworks can help explain why I like A while you like B. The absolute most important thing to take away from this is to keep an open and receptive mind.

I’ve recently come to the realization that my dream job, the one thing I really want to do, is to share things that I love with other people. To spread art, joy, and love in hopes that someone else is affected by these things the same way that I am.

That requires an objective mind, but you still won’t ever like everything. And that’s okay. You shouldn’t have to.

I think sharing things and spreading love is productive for the world.

It’s the most positive impact we can make on the world around us.

It’s spreading beauty.

Both being able to see why someone likes something and being able to share your own experience. It’s the one universal. The human experience. We all have unique perspectives, thoughts, and lives. Sometimes sharing is the only thing we can do.

Art is a bonding agent.

What we add to it is the special part.

Remain open.

Share your love.