Columns - Features

Lists For Life (Not Just For Christmas)


Christmas has finally come!

Streaming sites are starting to publish playlists showing which songs we’ve all listened to this year, and while I, like many of you, have enjoyed seeing how that particular contest panned out for me (Not at all what I expected, but the order is entirely believable) it also indicates the beginning of another and much more important recent yearly tradition, saving/stealing all my friends procedurally generated top songs of the year playlists.

After last year’s surprising elections and much talk of how we all live in news bubbles it stirred the idea that a similar bias is an inherent part of how we listen to music. I’d thought about this when Last.FM first emerged before Spotify and other similar platforms began to reinforce this bias as they gently curated their content to our tastes based on algorithms and other related dark arts. I have to admit these processes work on me, I like what Spotify brings me on the whole and every now and then it brings in something brilliant out of the blue. Even before the revolution in listening brought about by the rise of the mp3, with streaming services soon giving effectively limitless cheap access to musical content, in the days of physical media the need for you or someone you know owning a hard copy of any song to hear it enforced a similar bias in listening limited instead by your circle of friends and the music they owned.

In an attempt to get around my own bias, this time last year I sneakily stole a copy of every playlist of this type I could lay my hands on, saved them all and made the time to listen to them over December and January. The results were a lot more interesting than I had anticipated and this second year has helped me put my finger on a quality of these lists that in hindsight should have been obvious, though I hadn’t quite been able to place.

When we communicate or act we make hundreds of tiny decisions almost subconsciously about how we represent ourselves outwardly to the world and inwardly to ourselves. Music we talk about, share or compile would often be the same by implication. These playlists I gathered up are being compiled using aggregated data based on our listening and undermines our ability to control what we share, showing what we listen to habitually rather than what we choose to show and share publicly. The difference in the outcome – among those I know at least – was the appearance of mysterious and unexpected outliers I wouldn’t have ever known they listened to, songs so niche or obscure they likely think no one else will care and so rarely think to speak of them, others being just jarring and inconsistent with everything else listed and what I know about their taste personally. These outliers and my curiosity lead in some cases to confessing that I had borrowed their playlists and the asking of questions about these unusual songs, in almost every case there was a good story about why the songs were important or of a period where they listened to a song a lot and why (and in one case a tale of a children’s party demanding some Taylor Swift song on repeat for hours).

Even with these interesting trends I didn’t anticipate, the most important thing I took away from little experiment and what I am here to preach about is how this proved to be a very successful way for me to get myself out of my own way. Now that this year’s list of songs has appeared about half of the top 10 came from other people’s lists last year which just hung around, the rest of the list is heavily salted with them other people’s favourites from last year and I have more music which is entirely new to me this year.

Everyone spent a whole year and potentially hundreds of hours of their time building these lists whether they liked it or not just by listening, and there is so much more excellent music accessible now but there simply isn’t the time to find it all. I honestly find the choice of music distracting at times. Relying on my friends to do some of the heavy lifting has made listening to unfamiliar music I wouldn’t otherwise hear much more rewarding. I realize that this may send some of you scurrying for your privacy settings. That’s only fair I guess but before you do that, honestly if I (or anyone else for that matter) has looted your procedurally generated vault it’s because someone trusts your taste.

At least now I can say I gave you all fair warning anyway. It’s only music after all.

Happy Christmas! Stu Fletcher

Belfast-based freelancer and Black Country exile, loves the Baggies, Belfast, baseball films and alliteration.