Journeys Through Discographies

There are a lot of different ways to listen to music.  You can get the "Greatest Hits" packages of an artist or just go for the best albums in a discography, etc.  But if you go for anything less than a completist approach, and you end up with some dark corners there, stuff you would never find unless you shine the light everywhere.

Lately I've been doing through the entire discographies of various artists.  Some of them I'm familiar with and listened to on a regular basis.  Others, I only knew a few tracks from the radio or (showing my age) the years when Mtv played videos. 

It's interesting to see how bands and artists evolve, whether it's organic or forced.  For example, I'd never heard the earliest albums by REM nor the most recent.  I was there with them in that middle period when they were popular.  I didn't get in on the ground floor, and I didn't stick with them after they did that disconcerting detour with "Monster."  It's interesting to hear where they came from.  The early albums have a lot more quirky tracks that would never have made it to any compilation.  Eventually they figure out they're a pop band.  They write pop songs.  They become radio's darlings.  I wouldn't say they sold out; they managed to retain their identity, just in more polished form.  Where did they go after that?  It was interesting to see.  That's why I call this a journey.

Time traveling

If you undertake a journey through a discography, there are several approaches you can take:
I've never gone the middle strategy, but I have tried the "bouncing around" approach with Rush and Bowie's respective discographies, mainly because I was familiar with large sections (i.e., several entire albums) by each already.  Also their early material would be difficult to plow through for several albums in a row before they grow have proficient and original musicianship.

However, in general I have simply worked forward chronologically, and that's perhaps for the best in most cases.  You get to see the evolution of the band or artist.  Components of the repertoire are accumulated and less effective devices are shed.

Additionally, it's important to go back through and listen to things again, at least once.  After you've gotten to the end of a musical journey, it's a good idea to go back and listen to the same material again with your new understanding of who the artists end up being at the end of the journey.  You pick up on a lot of things you've missed the first time through.  I wasn't doing this when I first experimented with musical journeys.  However, one of my partner Dani's friends was taking a similar approach as I was (independent of me), only she always made three passes through, which is a good idea if you have the time (or dedication) to do that.

Things to listen for

To appreciate the changes (and the context in which they occur), you can listen for certain longitudinal patterns within the music.  Here are some I found myself pursuing.

Stylistic periods - Listen for distinct changes from one style to the next that are retained for several albums.  These often follow from changes in the band's line-up (e.g., Pink Floyd sans Barret, then Waters), but it may also come out of instrumentation, such as when REM's Peter Buck started including the mandolin and other instruments in their recordings more frequently.

Joining contemporary trends - For example, incorporating electronic sounds as REM and Clapton did during the late '90s and '00s.

When they weren't on the A-list - A lot of great material escapes notice during periods when artists aren't getting a lot of airplay.  Sometimes this is before they make it big; other times it follows their peak.

Some bands whose journey I've taken

I've listened to everything by the following bands/artists:

Note that there are plenty other bands like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin are ones who I grew up listening to and grew to know organically; I didn't listen to them systematically the way I did with these guys.

You find interesting things like how Brian Eno had almost a completely separate career as an anti-rock star on his first handful of albums before delving into purely instrumental music for the next few decades.  Or that Queen sounded a lot like Led Zeppelin in their early years before they developed the more flamboyant style(s!) we think represent them now.  REM turned out to be capable of producing some really great songs on their later albums that were too quiet and contemplative to ever be hits.  I was floored by the quality and kicked myself for having given up on them decades earlier.  Similarly, while Depeche Mode's early albums did nothing for me, I loved their later albums and found many of the songs among their most beautiful work.

Copyright 2012 Alexplorer

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