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Surprise Is the Key: Leave Your Old Favorite Records on the Shelf!

7 July 2006

The flip side of the too-much-music dilemma is this: the more music I open myself up to, the greater the likelihood that I will be surprised. There’s a greater chance of getting overwhelmed or feeling jaded, for sure, but there’s also a better chance that I’ll stumble across something brilliant that I never would have sought out.

What seems to happen with so many people as they get older is they restrict the music they listen to, by looking towards only what they know they’ll like (old favorite bands/genres) or what gets thrown in their faces—the music that’s become part of the public arena or that all their friends are listening to.

I came across most of my favorite bands by accident. I read a brief review somewhere and it intrigued me enough that I bought a recording of a band I’d previously never heard of (like RIDE and GUIDED BY VOICES). Or as a teenager I checked a CD out from the library just ‘cause I liked the cover (TOM WAITS) or had my curiosity piqued by the musician’s name (PROFESSOR LONGHAIR). I happened to catch a band whom I’d never heard of play live, and they blew me away (UNREST, SPENT). Or a friend left an indie-label compilation CD in my dorm room; I played it and became transfixed by a particular song (THE MAGNETIC FIELDS).

These days it’s less about friends and libraries than it is about getting promo CDs in the mail to review, listening to MP3s on blogs, or getting to shows in time to see the opening band. The Internet and my writing-about-music hobby are the main reasons I’m overwhelmed with quantity of music—they’re also the main reasons I’m constantly coming across new music that absolutely blows me away.

So far this year, most of my favorite music has been a surprise in some way or another… not necessarily musicians I’d never heard of, but those I took for granted as good but from whom I didn’t necessarily expect out-and-out greatness (CASIOTONE FOR THE PAINFULLY ALONE, GHOSTFACE KILLAH) or always liked but had nearly forgotten about (LISA GERMANO). And some bands I absolutely hadn’t been listening to before, either because they’re relatively new (THE CASTING COUCH, THE SEXY ACCIDENT) or because they’d just passed me by in the past (SUPER XX MAN).

Then there’s things like WILLIE NELSON’s album of songs written by CINDY WALKER—not something I would have sought out if I hadn’t been assigned to review it, but absolutely fantastic. The other day I reviewed for another website a cast recording of South Pacific featuring REBA MCENTIRE and ALEC BALDWIN—definitely not anything I ever would have given a second glance to! But you know what? It’s really good.

And at the same time, plenty of the albums that I expected to be great ended up letting me down. ROBERT POLLARD’s post-Guided by Voices double album, BELLE AND SEBASTIAN’s newest album, BUILT TO SPILL’s ‘comeback’ album… to my ears these all fall somewhere between decent and boring, while I still consider three bands/musicians to be my favorites. In the hip-hop world I’ve found myself listening to an ambitious album by a group I previously disliked (7L AND ESOTERIC) much more often than a mediocre one by someone I generally like (BUSTA RHYMES). And that’s part of what’s great about this life as a music fan—you can’t depend on anything.

It’s all random—taste, circumstance and change all dictate that you can’t predict what music you’ll like or dislike, without hearing it. If you only pay attention to the musicians that you’ve decided are in your own personal hall of fame, you’re liable to miss out on so much. If you keep up with only a handle of musicians, what will happen when they all inevitably disappoint you, when their inclinations veer away from yours? Hearing as much music as possible is a way to keep the element of surprise as a factor.

I’m always coming across great music from the past that is new to me, great record labels where I find that I like pretty much everything they put out, and exciting new bands that I look forward to following as they grow. And I expect it to be that way until the day I die.