With mid-year list season well behind us now, it’s been fascinating to watch what everyone’s favorites of the year thus far have been – even if many have branded this as a slower year for music (myself included, though for me it’s a matter of quality over quantity). But it’s also fascinating to witness the divide between, say, lists churned out by big-name publications and independent voices. Because it encompasses multiple perspectives, the former camp, at least to me, is always more concerned with tracking the “best” music – the albums everyone needs to hear and appreciate, because you just won’t hear anything better this year thus far. They’re the technical marvels that are all fine-tuned to be critical darlings – the albums that require a slow burn to sink in and may not hit you at first until you really sit with them and understand what’s going on with them.
And because my focus is, of course, centered on country music, it’s easy to hear what albums or songs will typically find their way over to those eventual “best-of” lists. Sprawling concept albums or double albums (the latter of which no longer feel that ambitious), depressingly frank and raw deliveries encompassing their executions, and hey, if they don’t sound particularly country, that’s probably a plus (the genre-benders, if you will). Not to say that this is all there is to it or that the selection formula is bad, mind you – far be it from me to call it “wrong.” It’s just one way of going about it, and considering names like Orville Peck, Miranda Lambert, and Zach Bryan are among the most common names I’ve seen thus far to make said lists this year, I find it hard to complain.
But I don’t know. Call me predictable, but I always find it more interesting to read an individual person’s thoughts and feelings on the music that’s connected with them most – not just during this season but at any given point in time. You’re always more likely to find the true passion behind the reasoning, even if what one person likes may not be what everyone else does. It’s why I shy away from offering outright recommendations in my own reviews, because what I like or dislike and what you like or dislike could be completely different things.
It’s also why I shun the notion of an objective standard by which to judge music. That’s not to say there aren’t objective elements at play. An album or song can certainly be well-sung, well-produced, and well-written, among other things. But the main subjective element that’s always going to come out on top – the one we can’t quantify or accurately describe even for ourselves, and the one that artists can’t change for us – is the emotional resonance we get from it. If it doesn’t click with you, it just doesn’t. It may eventually or it may never, and either way it’s alright. If it does right away, congratulations. You’ve just discovered something awesome for yourself.
And let’s be honest, there is certainly a measurement by which we judge taste according to which acts are and aren’t on other’s radars. Personally, I find it hard to keep up with every name I’m apparently supposed to be a huge fan of. The modern age has made it paradoxically possible and impossible for us to hear everything out there, which is why – especially in country music – I think we tend to retreat to our comfortable niches. Red Dirt, Texas, Nashville, Americana, the rising Kentucky scene, whatever else lies deep within the underground … chances are there’s something out there for you to like if you’re a fan of the genre. The hard part, to me, is finding the point of the musical divide where it can all possibly come together.
And how we find that is something that escapes me for now. But no matter how much I’m unable to point directly at it, I think that despite this ever-growing niche of choices that we can piece together to form our own happy little libraries, there’s still this urge or notion to keep up with the “best” of the bunch – the pieces of music that are technically impressive but may not speak to us on that deeper level.
That’s something I’ve grappled with this year. I grew up on a (what seems to be now a limited) mix of 2000s country with some ’90s-era material thrown in for good measure. In a lot of ways, the music that got me into the genre and planted the seeds for my love of both it and writing is probably what informs my taste most more than anyone else I’ve found in recent years (it in part is what inspired my “Favorite Hit Songs” feature). And then bro-country happened, and I found myself gravitating toward the independent scene. The floodgates burst open with new discoveries, and … well, I started a blog and here we are, I guess.
But no matter how long I do this, I can’t write about music in any way other than how it appeals to me and only me (or doesn’t, on those unfortunate occasions). It’s hard to accurately describe why something clicks. Most people are content with leaving at something akin to, “I like the beat.” That’s probably what it truly is for me as well, and yet somehow I end up writing way too many nonsensical paragraphs anyway. I try to cover everything because I love that potential discovery of something I could love, but it can be hard to love every single thing out there. Lately what tends to click with me most is something I can easily put on and joyously listen to – the music that hits that indescribable happiness button – rather than something that requires a lot out of me. I won’t name specifics, mostly because this isn’t meant to be viewed as my way of comparing one piece of music to another as a form of competition, but there are certain albums I truly love from this year that are just hard to revisit because of how dense they are. Meanwhile, other albums – and here I will name specifics, like, say, Brett Eldredge’s Songs About You or Molly Tuttle’s Golden Highway – may get more plays from me simply for having more immediately enjoyable songs.
Of course, I love it when something can meet in the middle to be technically brilliant and appeal to my inner core of happiness. Caroline Spence’s True North, for example, is a very slow and challenging listen about struggling through life but pushing onward anyway and cherishing the moments that make it worth it. I can totally understand why it wouldn’t appeal to someone, but for me, it always offers a bright spot of reassurance. That’s not to say I have to find something innately relatable in order for something to work for me. It’s easy to appreciate and/or love something from afar for a variety of different reasons – a good story, an emotionally rewarding delivery, a simply pleasant sound, or, you know, because it’s got a good beat.
All an artist can do is what they want and communicate their messages in a way that’s best for them (I mean, ideally, if not always in actuality), and all we can do is give it a shot and go from there. There’s never a need to be something you’re not or listen to something you don’t actually enjoy simply because of its “status.” There’s plenty of music I respect more than I like, and I’m sure that’s actually a pretty common feeling. Of course, it’s also always good to walk into something with an open mind – to potentially broaden our horizons in beneficial ways and approach something objectively, even if our takeaways will be inherently subjective. No one can take away your country fan credentials for not liking the “in” thing or for liking something out of the ordinary … or something generally panned. It will be more freeing to connect with what you actually like anyway. And hey, in this day and age, if you do find something to love, cherish that feeling forever – there’s nothing quite like that rush of euphoria that comes with discovering something new that feels like it was made just for you … or revisiting something and remembering that same feeling.
6 thoughts on “The Melting Pot: Finding Happiness By Forgoing the Best Music”
One thousand percent yes! You nailed it. This is pretty much exactly how I’ve been thinking about things recently and you put it into words perfectly!
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Hey man, this was a fantastic post! Also gotta say up front your writing has been so good and I’m sorry I haven’t got a chance to comment more. Your Brett Eldredge post in particular I thought really captured what makes that album so enjoyable. Anyway I’ve been grappling with this very issue this year…well really multiple years. I’ve found it’s particularly hard to deconstruct and escape the mindset of listening to “what your supposed to.” When you’re getting blasted with non-stop music choices, it’s easy to get sucked in and wanting to keep up with the Joneses.
“And let’s be honest, there is certainly a measurement by which we judge taste according to which acts are and aren’t on other’s radars. Personally, I find it hard to keep up with every name I’m apparently supposed to be a huge fan of. The modern age has made it paradoxically possible and impossible for us to hear everything out there, which is why – especially in country music – I think we tend to retreat to our comfortable niches. Red Dirt, Texas, Nashville, Americana, the rising Kentucky scene, whatever else lies deep within the underground … chances are there’s something out there for you to like if you’re a fan of the genre. The hard part, to me, is finding the point of the musical divide where it can all possibly come together.”
^^^This my friend is where I think you truly touch on the heart of this issue. There’s just so much stuff to hear! And while we have the means to do so, we really don’t have the capacity. According to popular research, they say you can only have up to 150 meaningful relationships and I think this same logic can be applied to music. Not to mention with the ever-ending fire hose of music being sprayed out, it doesn’t give us the proper time to digest and sit with the music because of the urge to want to listen to the next thing to keep up. I’ve realized I’ve hit the point where I have to tap the brakes and force myself to stay away from new releases and listen to “what I got already.” And it’s so much harder to do than you realize! Yet without streaming who knows how many of our favorite artists we would have never heard? As you said it’s such a paradox.
This is an issue I could spend so many words on, but I’ll digress here haha. Thanks for such a thought-provoking post and articulating what many of us are thinking!
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Thanks, Josh! Really appreciate that. No worries, though – honestly, I get it! I myself have found it pretty tough to keep up with everyone’s posts myself and to find the time to write.
But yep, you said it! It wouldn’t matter if all streaming services offered top of the line service starting tomorrow. At the end of the day, we all get the same 24 hours, and even if you feasibly could give up sleep, eating, etc., would you really want to constantly cram your ears with something new? Of course not. If I’m being honest, part of why I’m covering less is because I’ve already got a plethora of acts I want to talk about without going overboard. When you constantly add new names to the listening rotation year after year, it gets harder and harder to add new ones, especially with the constant release cycle of today.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to turn it into a “back in my day” type of thing, because ultimately, it is better to have that unlimited access than not have it. It just feels like everything comes and goes (another issue for another time – we’re crowning legends after one album release, feeding into the notion that they have a short amount of time to maintain that momentum until the next thing comes along instead of just letting them be. There’s tons of new acts now I like, but am I ready to crown them all-time favorites just yet? No. They need time to sink in further with me and build and grow, and that’s ok!).
I hear you! It’s a lot to unpack and even now I feel I left a lot unsaid. At any rate, I loved reading your thoughts on the matter, man. It was good hearing from you!
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A terrific article, Zack!
Your last paragraph sums everything up so well. As I like to say, it’s important to be open-minded and willing to broaden your horizons, but there also comes a point where you’re so open-minded your brain falls out. It’s okay to be honest with yourself and admit what artists, sounds, subgenres, etc. do and don’t appeal to you. Realistically, no one likes all of the things you’re “supposed” to like, and at the end of the day everyone has their own tastes and interests. Life would be boring otherwise! ^_^
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A few more points now that I’ve had time to let my thoughts marinate a little…
Josh’s point about the human mind’s likely finite capacity to form meaningful relationships with music is very insightful and really struck a chord with me. I certainly don’t mean to impugn anyone’s music listening habits, but when I see people mention listening to several hundred (or even 1,000+) albums a year, year after year, I can’t help but wonder how much of that music they’re actually forming a meaningful connection with and how much of it they’re actually retaining. I kind of feel that after a certain point, we’re listening to music just to be able to say we’ve heard it, or just for the sake of trying to listen to as much of it as possible. Maybe some people can truly learn and meaningfully engage with that volume of music, I don’t want to presume, but as for me, I tried the “conveyor belt” style of listening for years and it proved to be a very hollow and unfulfilling way to engage with this hobby.
As for feeling obligated to like critically acclaimed music, my stance is that if you ever find yourself making yourself miserable by forcing yourself to listen to music you’re not really interested in because some people on the Internet say it’s good, well, it’s time to step back and reassess. I’m afraid I speak with vast experience in this matter. Music is just about the most subjective thing in the world, and what artists, songs, genres, etc. are considered “good” is intensely personal. It’s perfectly fine to not always be interested in what other people are (and vice versa). Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.
Remember that tweet going around a few weeks back about how almost everything you read online is written by a hyper-engaged enthusiast, and is not necessarily reflective of what people think in general? It really applies here. If fifteen people on Twitter say that X artist is the greatest thing ever and there’s something wrong with you if you don’t agree, keep in mind that that’s merely the opinion of fifteen people out of more than seven billion. You don’t have to let them dictate your musical listening choices. In reality there are many more people who don’t agree; they’re just not interested enough in the topic at hand to be responding to that Twitter thread in the first place. But selection bias makes it seem like those fifteen people have the dominant opinion when in reality they could be part of an extreme minority.
With the Internet and social media, we have so much access to other people’s opinions about how we should be living our lives or how we should be spending our time, and this level of exposure can cause us to constantly second guess ourselves when we otherwise would be living in blissful ignorance. And no matter what you do, there will be plenty of people who disagree with you. If you do X, people will say why aren’t you doing Y? But if you do Y, other people will say why aren’t you doing X? So in the immortal words of Ricky Nelson, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself. This not only applies to listening to music, but pretty much everything in life IMO.
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– I hear you. In 2020, because of the increased free time we all had, I reviewed 128 albums. 2021, I reviewed 98. It may seem insignificant, but covering 30 less projects was actually really beneficial in more ways I can describe. I got to absorb my favorites more frequently, I cut down on clutter that no one probably cared if I reviewed anyway, and it was just … better. My pace is even slower for this year and I’m completely fine with that.
Great points elsewhere, too. Social media has somewhat lost that “social” aspect in favor of being more of a top-down type of platform. And by that I mean, present an opinion as fact and see how many others fall in line with that, lol. It’s definitely an interesting point in history in all regards as the rulebooks keep defined and redefined. But it can difficult (and futile) to keep up with every little thing out there. So the best course of action is just to engage with what interests you!
… Granted, you just said all this in a way better form, but it’s worth reinforcing how great your points are! 😁
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