Alphabetically ordered

A few weeks ago I finally maxed out my iPod — a two-and-a-half-year-old 40 gigger named Ishmael (think: “Circumambulate the city …”). Somehow the little fellow has managed not to kick it just yet. The battery’s worn, the surface is scratched, and more than once I’ve been tempted to retire it to an old shoebox that I hope one day to fill with a dozen mp3 players, like so many old 8-track cassettes. When I’m in the mood I’ll pull it out, shake it around a little, grab an old iPod at random. I’ll caress it like a photo of a long-lost lover, admire its retro red-lit function buttons (separate from the click wheel), and pop it in the cradle to see what I was listening to way back in the early 00s. It will offer a sort of musical diary. I plan to spend the rest of the summer listening to the 7,000 songs I’ve collected, weeding out a few loose ends I don’t want to keep, but for the most part I consider this one packed. Sometime this fall I’ll find a new friend — slimmer, shinier, probably black, with video capacity and color screens and more memory and a better battery, but right now I’m feeling fond of my little fatty, so recently filled.

love those little red lights. they don't make em like that anymore.

See, I never actually transfered any significant portion of my CD collection to my iPod, the same way I never systematically replaced my cassette tape collection with CDs. Sure, I repurchased some things here and there, but only out of immediate needs or impulses. Instead, most of my iPod is filled with downloads. A lot of the music is new — I use my pod primarily to audition new releases — but a good portion of it, thanks to the miracle of high speed connections and a series of lovely P2P communities, has to do with things I wanted in the moment, things I’ve owned in other formats but for some reason felt compelled to add to my little arsenal of songs that help to make daily walks just that much more cinematic.

My hard drive’s crept toward its currently full status sometimes slowly; sometimes it’s come along in spurts. I finished it off by adding 6 gigs at once. In addition to deliberate downloads I’ve pulled an album or two a day based on recommendations or reviews or something amazing I’ve heard on FMU or at Record Club. I’ve added a lot of stuff — including, most recently, a healthy amount of contemporary “classical” music, non-English rock and roll, and traditional musics from around the globe — with the goal of arriving at the semblance of freeform. I often haven’t heard new additions for months, since I tend to listen not by artist or album or playlist but by individual songs: Either I’ve let the so-called “shuffle” function take control — though like many I’m too paranoid to believe it’s truly “random” and think it tends instead to pull up the same songs and artists over and over according to some playlist-generating formula — or, more often, I’ve let the alphabet take control.

Thank God for the alphabet

The alphabet’s a wonderful organizer when it comes to digital music collections. I once had a friend who organized his theology and religious studies library in alphabetical order because he loved its leveling function, the way it put saints and heretics, the faithful and the secular side by side, gave authors a proximity in his collection they never would have opted for in real life. The same thing happens when you allow your iPod to play in alphabetical order. You find unexpected patterns and suprising juxtapositions, but since you’re the one who selected all the music, for the most part the mixes seem to work well. A few quick examples of the things you can learn:

  • The use of the term “rock” in song titles is ubiquitous but extremely flexible in its application. My “rock” songs start with “Rock’N’Roll Is King” by ELO, followed by “Rock-a-My Soul” by the Pixies, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Steel” by the Ex, “Rock and Roll” by the Velvet Underground (live in 1969), “Rock and Roll” by Edan (featuring Dagha), “Rock and Roll Woman” by Buffalo Springfield, “Rock Bottom Riser” by Smog, “Rock Me Easy Baby (Part 1)” by Isaac Hayes, “Rock N’ Roll Suicide” by Seu Jorge (from the Life Aquatic soundtrack), “Rock Rock Rock” from the fabulous new Sparks CD Hello Young Lovers, “Rock Song” by Gregor Samsa, “Rock the Beat” by the Jamaica Girls (from the recent Soul Jazz compilation Big Apple Rappin), and “Rock This Town” by Daniel Johnston. The “rock” set closes, felicitously, with ELO again, toggling between three-chord barroom rock, a bizarre opera bridge, and sweeping orchestral strings on “Rockaria!” (To some degree it’s an arbitrary finishing point, since David Kilgour’s “Rocket” and the Ramones’ “Rockaway Beach” both offer a lyrical echo of sorts to all the “rock” songs.)
  • Songs that begin with the imperative “Let’s” also range widely, some plaintive, some more aggressive. Whatever the strategy, these songs aim to persuade the listener to take some immediate action. You can feel a bit bombarded by this set, but it also mirrors the way in which modern life can overwhelm you with possibility and preference. As an aggregate these songs offer a chorus of competing seductions: “Let’s All Make a Bomb” by Heaven 17, with its drum corps whistle; “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto” by Philadelphia International Allstars (a call for civic responsibility in response to the NYC garbage strikes of the 70s); “Let’s Dance” by Bowie; the brilliant cover of the same song by M. Ward; “Let’s Do Everything for the First Time Forever” by Of Montreal; “Let’s Get Known” by The Unicorns; “Let’s Get Out” by Life Without Buildings; “Let’s Go Crazy” by the Clash (Sandanista is a wonderful ingredient for random or alphabetical music listening). “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince reorients you toward the metaphysical aspect of this persuasive set with its “Dearly Beloved” opening; Of Montreal reappears with “Let’s Go for a Walk”; Hercules offers an elevator music reprieve with “Let’s Go Out” and The Blue Nile adds “Let’s Go Out Tonight”; doe-eyed Sufjan makes a meta-request: “Let’s Hear That String Part Again”; Engineers make a lazier recommendation to “Let’s Just See”; The Foreign Exchange ask “Let’s Move,” followed by a more specific suggestion by Smog: “Let’s Move to the Country.” Wire says “Let’s Panic Later,” and Nick Lowe wipes away everything that’s come before with “Let’s Stay In and Make Love.” In case that doesn’t pay off, Isaac Hayes pleads “Let’s Stay Together.” And those are just the ones with the contraction “Let’s”: most of the “Let” songs make their own demands. By the time “Let It Be” comes on, followed by Feist’s “Let It Die,” you’re ready to comply, but then the Stones, characteristically, encourage you to “Let It Loose” again. (There are way too many more “Let” songs to list here, but Jeff Tweedy singing “Let Me Come Home” sounds particularly sad in the context of this set.)
  • Songs that directly address a lover (the ones whose titles start with “You”) go back and forth between love and hate: “You Ain’t Fooling Me” by Marshall Tucker Band is followed by all the “You and I” and “You and Me” songs; Chris Bell widens the address on the lovely “You and Your Sister.” Occasionally these songs simply become descriptive, as on Wolf Parade’s “You Are a Runner and I Am My Father’s Son” or Secret Machines’ “You Are Chains” or Antony and the Johnsons’ “You Are My Sister.” Once you move past the “You And”s and the “You Are”s, though, the songs become more demanding, as in Patsy Cline’s “You Belong to Me,” which in my collection is followed by Travis Wammack’s soul classic “You Better Move On.” (This list, like the “Let’s” one, goes on and on.)  
  • You learn that certain genres and artists cluster around certain letters of the alphabet. For whatever reason, hip hop artists have a lot of songs that start with “W” — all the who, what, when, where, and why songs — a set that can leave you feeling more perplexed about the world than you already were. Hip hop artists also tend to provide most of the tracks called “Intro,” for whatever reason. Minimalist composers and Brazilians provide a nice mix in the “O”s. (The “Oh”s — with an “h” — are more diverse.) Freak-folksters have a lot of tracks called “Untitled.” Perhaps they were too stoned to think them up. Bach has a lot of songs called “Variation.” (Har har.) Songs that begin with a parenthetical phrase more often date from the 70s than not.

As opposed to shuffle, playing alphabetically leaves you reassured that all your songs are available and being put to good use. It gives you good grist for clever mixtape transitions. The best one I’ve found so far: “Who” by Zelda Rose and her Singing Owl, from an old Muppet LP from 1978, followed by the live version of Talking Heads singing “Who Is It?,” in which Byrne sounds curiously owl-like. (Byrne, like the hip hop artists, has a lot of songs that ask questions.)

who, who is it?

One final set: The other night, by chance, I finally noticed the “Saturday” songs — which in my collection are only a handful, but they evoke the perfect mood for kicking back at the end of a weekend night. Built to Spill kicks it off with one of their new songs, a slow one that lets you feel your age; Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell pick up the tempo gently with “Saturday’s Gone,” but The Blue Nile (a band I discovered only last year, when Vashti Bunyan namechecked them in an interview) lays you flat with the 6-1/2 minute contemplative gem “Saturday Night.” In case you fell asleep, Saka Acquaye’s idea of a Saturday night is a little more festive (from the Ghana: High Life compilation), but Acid House Kings finish you off again with “Saturday Train,” which just happens to be the last thing we listened to after a night on the town whose highlights included climbing through a hole in a chain link fence and lying on our backs at the end of an abandoned pier on the East River, a marble ripple of clouds transforming a golden moon into a ghost ship.

So, TGW, readers: What can alphabetical listening tell you about your music — about yourselves? Tell us what’s on your player at these or other points of interest. 

15 responses to “Alphabetically ordered”

  1. Lane says:

    Like a few of us, we will be listening to Shelly’s magnum opus 5 CD set for the next few weeks.

    Additionally, has anyone plugged into Tibetian throat singing? It’s psychdelic bluegrass. A must.

    And finally, Bryan, last week FMU started soliciting ideas for new radio shows. I know you’re busy but perhaps you and Shelly could work something out. “The BS show!” That might work!

  2. Lane says:

    Hey I just re-read my comment and am worried you two might take BS the wrong way. I just meant your names, not Bull S***, it was a JOKE! O.K.!!!

    O.K. . . . I’ve got to get out of here, I have important things to do.

  3. Missy says:

    This is a great idea, as one of the bummers of listening to music on an ipod is that I seem to listen to less music than before. I spend more time listening, but I always go for the nearest playlist, or, if I listen on shuffle, end up with a lot of the same. Oh why did I ever put Starlight Express on my pod?!?

    So I did this today, and being vain, went straight to M, where it turns out there are a lot of songs that begin with Magic–Wagner’s Magic Fire Music from Seigfried, Heart’s Magic Man (I confess: I listened to this twice. I forgot how fun it is), Badly Drawn Boy’s Magic in the Air, Dusty Springfield’s Magic Garden (where apparently some crazy stuff goes down behind her “soft and warm” hedges), Babes in Toyland’s Magick Flute, Janis Joplin’s The Magic of Love, Lil’ Kim and 50 Cent Magic Stick, etc. I never made it out of the MAs, and there was still some repetition–who knew T-Rex and Babes in Toyland had so many songs starting with MA–but it made for interesting listening and I’m definitely playing this game again tomorrow.

  4. ooh. thanks for playing, missy. i only have 4 “magic”s on mine: “magic man” (you’re right to play it twice — what a freaking great song), “magic step” by sam prekop (from one of my 2 favorite summer CDs last year, the wonderfully named who’s your new professor?), “magic touch” by clor, and “magic wand” by little wings. What’s the T-Rex “magic” you have? i have t-rex greatest hits on here, but apparently it doesn’t include that one.

    b

  5. PB says:

    I am most proud that I have 4, yep, count them, four different versions of the folk song “Pretty Saro,” Also a “Pretty Polly,”” Pretty Mary” and a few “Pretty horses.” Apparently in 19th cent. Appalachia, looks were important.
    P.S. if anyone ever comes across the Hedy West version of “Pretty Saro,” let me know, it is my lifelong quest.

  6. Dave says:

    I started at the top this morning. The first song was “..” — a composition played entirely on dot-matrix printers. Then “.. of rebellion,” a tape collage piece, then “..Which Was the Son of..,” a funny little Arvo Paart number. Then “‘Round Midnight” (the apostrophe put it up top) and Bessie Smith’s “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.” I swear I have some rock music on there somewhere.

    Funny how we use iPods differently. I load most of my CDs onto mine, at least as I buy them, so I can listen to them around town, especially commuting on the subway. And I really like shuffle play. But this alphabet thing is intriguing.

  7. Dave — for the longest time my first song was “#9 Dream” by John Lennon. It was always the one that would accidentally turn on if I wasn’t paying attention, or the one I listened to if my battery was running low to avoid energy-draining commands. But recently it’s been displaced by “—” by Minmae, “-Not Listed-” by Silver Apples, and “->” by Final Fantasy. Then it goes into the parentheticals. One reason our strategies differ is that I usually download first and listen, then buy if I like it a lot or want to take it to club.

    P: One of the things I like most about ABCing it is listening to multiple versions of the same song. Bonny Prince Billy has loads of these on my iPod: the original Oldham/Palace version, the country version, the live-in-the-southeast version. I even had a few bootlegs on there for a while. I only have two “Pretty”s: “Pretty Eyes” by Silver Jews and “Pretty Things” by Rosalyn.

  8. Rachel says:

    Fun game, Bryan. I randomly checked out the beginning of the Bs. There sure are a lot of “baby” songs. My favorite juxtapositions are Simon & Garfunkel/Sir Mix-A-Lot and Britney Spears/Van Morrison.

    B Movie—Elvis Costello
    B-Boy Boullabaisse—The Beastie Boys
    B.O.B.—Outkast
    Baba O’Riley—The Who
    Babe I’m Gonna Leave You—Led Zeppelin
    Babelogue—Patti Smith
    Babooshka—Kate Bush
    Babushska—Dance Hall Crashers
    Baby—Of Montreal
    Baby [Baby]—Os Mutantes
    Baby Baby—Vibrators
    Baby Be Mine—Michael Jackson
    Baby Blues—The Stills
    Baby Boomerang—T.Rex
    Baby Britain—Elliott Smith
    Baby C’mon—Stephen Malkmus
    Baby Doll—Cat Power
    Baby Don’t Do It—Lyn Collins & The Famous Flames
    Baby Don’t You Do It—The Who
    Baby Driver—Simon & Garfunkel
    Baby Got Back—Sir Mix-A-Lot
    Baby Hold On—The Grass Roots
    Baby I Can’t Please You—Sam Phillips
    Baby I Got Yo’ Money—Ol’ Dirty Bastard
    Baby I’m A Star—Prince And The Revolution
    Baby I’m Yours—Barbara Lewis
    Baby It’s You—The Beatles
    Baby Love—Diana Ross & The Supremes
    Baby Love Child—Pizzicato Five
    Baby Lulu—Stereolab
    Baby One More Time—Britney Spears
    Baby Please Don’t Go—Van Morrison
    Baby Strange—T.Rex
    Baby Watch Your Back—Nellie McKay
    Baby, I Love You—The Ramones
    Baby, We’ll Be Fine—The National
    Baby’s In Black—The Beatles
    Baby’s On Fire—Brian Eno
    Babylon—David Gray
    Babylon—New York Dolls
    Babylon Sisters—Steely Dan
    Bachelor Kisses—The Go-Betweens
    Bachelorette—Tori Amos

  9. Missy says:

    I avoided the beginning of my alphabetically ordered play list because I assumed it would be track after track from Sigur Rose’s ( ) album, which I have to be in a pretty particular mood for–definitely not 80+ degrees with sunny blue sky music. But it turns out those are down in the Ts–as in Track One, Track Two, etc. and my actual first song is ’69 El Camino by Southern Culture on the Skids, which would have been perfect, followed by Heroes, listed as “Heroes,” which seems kinds of strange, but maybe that’s part of the song? An ironic commentary on how they “could” be heroes, but are not now? Did I miss a whole layer of meaning all these years?

    I don’t have any T-Rex magic songs, I just meant MA. On the way to school I heard Main Man, two different versions of Mad Donna, and Mambo Sun.

    I only have 9 babies on mine. My favorites are Baby, Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me–Mac Davis and Baby Come Back–Player.

  10. wow — thanks, rachel. i don’t think i’ve ever tried the babies before. i have:

    “babe you turn me on” by nick cave; “babies” by colleen; “babies falling” by magnetic fields; “babs and babs” by daryl hall (not really “babes” but it’s in order); “baby” by os mutantes; “baby’s on fire” by brian eno; “baby’s on fire” by eno and the winkies; “baby boy” by beyonce (an old guilty pleasure!); “baby c’mon” by stephen malkmus; “baby doll” by NERD; “baby face” by the muppet chickens; “baby gonna leave me” by tom waits; “baby i-ma want you” by isaac hayes; “baby i’m a star” by prince; “baby it’s cold outside” by arizona amp and alternator; “baby said” by hot chip; “baby take a look” by songs:ohia; “baby, i love your way” by peter frampton; “baby, scratch my back” by booker t and the mgs; “babydoll” by cat power; “babystritch” by stereo total. The next song isn’t a “baby” title, but it’s by babyshambles, which is a funny coincidence. wow — i’m going to listen to that set next time i’m out and about.

    missy: my copy of “heroes” doesn’t have scare quotes. maybe someone just entered the info in that way? my closest t-rex to the MAs was “metal guru.” i only have the 20c masters CD on there. maybe he likes MA songs because his name’s “marc bolan”?

    b

  11. Tim Wager says:

    I’m not an ipod user (yes, it’s true; some of us are still around), but for years I’ve been interested in the kinds of alphabetical weirdnesses that grow out of my record and cd collections. I alphabetize everything all together, with no separate jazz, blues, rock, country, etc.

    Here’s one of my favorite runs: Madonna, Gustav Mahler, Bob Marley, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Maria McKee, Meat Puppets, Mekons, Metallica, Charles Mingus, Minutemen, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison. So many different stages of my musical life, all sandwiched together.

    T

  12. brooke says:

    Bryan,

    Awesome post. Thanks for posting this when you did because when I read it I had just returned from dropping off a rental car. While reading your post, I decided to grab my iPod and play along. Hmmm, where *was* that little bugger? Shite, I had left it in the rental car! Fortunately, when I arrived back at Avis, the car had been washed and was on the block for the next renter. The iPod was still there, right where it had fallen. So your post most likely saved my iPod from a slow horrible death squeezed between the seatbelt housing and the passenger seat of a gold Chevy Cobalt. My iPod has actually had a rough couple weeks. It was recently retrieved from the cold concrete floor of the elevator shaft in my apartment, where it landed after falling about 60 after slipping out of my hand. Not much worse for the wear, I might add.

    Anyway, I love this idea! It’s a fun way to explore one’s music collection. You got me thinking about what my music collection really looked like. As a consequence, you also got me motivated to start hacking the iTunes database and visualizing my collection along various dimensions. I can think of tons of ways to have fun with this data. Is hip-hop really more heavily represented in ‘W’ than other genres? The answer is, in my collection, a little bit). I’m going to write a more detailed post about what I mine from this data later. In the mean time, a couple of informative graphs are: here, here and here.

    Here are some interesting anecdotal tidbits.

    First 11 Songs that start with ‘Roc[k]’
    Roc The Mic – Nelly
    Rock & Roll (Could Never Hip-Hop Like This) – Handsome Boy Modeling School
    Rock & Roll Bullshit – Government Issue
    Rock and Roll Remedy – Alpha Blondy
    Rock Classics – Knife
    Rock for Light – Bad Brains
    Rock it Tonight – Seven Dub
    Rock n Roll – Mos Def
    Rock n’ Roll Band – Mano Negra
    Rock ‘n Roll Medley – The Meters
    Rock of Gibralter – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

    A Short list of ‘She’ Songs
    She Knowz What She Wantz – Gangstarr
    She Lives in My Lap – Andre 3000 (OutKast)
    She Passed By My Window – Nick Cave
    She Sells White Weddings (Mash-up) – Smashup Derby
    She Watch Channel Zero?! – Public Enemy
    She Wears He Harem – Shudder to Think
    She’s Alive – Andre 3000 (OutKast)
    She’s Having a Baby (Knife)

  13. brooke — i hope you get a chance to explain those graphs, how you made them, and what you think they mean. you’re taking this to a whole new level.

    fwiw, i found two new sets over the weekend that may be worth mentioning. the “here” songs all seem to call you to a sense of presence, to command your attention, pull you into the moment. the “make” songs (including the “making” ones that follow) are similar, but they’re even more forceful. the “make” set is for your moments when you want your ipod to make you feel submissive. at least on my list — anyone else’s?

  14. brooke says:

    fundamentally, i think they mean i have way too much free time on my hands. and i’m a geek. those are probably the two takeaways. and i’m going with it. so i do plan on writing up a lot more about this, and where i’m going with it, once i clarify the ideas. i’ll post links here once i get something coherent.

  15. […] My overall album of the summer, the one I returned to more than any other and in more moods, is Detrola by His Name Is Alive (Silver Mountain/Reincarnate, 2006). Technically this isn’t a summer album. It came out in January, and I first stumbled onto it sometime back then, dragging-and-dropping it onto my iPod along with a bunch of other stuff. But given my listening habits I only heard its songs one at a time here and there, at least until a couple stunning piano-driven tunes that could have been written by Harry Nilsson and performed by Karen Carpenter — “Mama Don’t You Think I Know” and “Summer Left Your Heart Behind” — drew me into the album as a whole. […]