My 2014 in Music

Music has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. From getting into rap music in the mid 80s to discovering punk and hardcore in the early 90s, music has helped shape my beliefs and overall aesthetic.

Music, as an industry, is in a weird place. Like a lot of people, I imagine, the last year and a half saw a drastic change in my music consumption habits. Where my last evolution went from the shady side of the internet to buying MP3s from legit sources like eMusic, iTunes, and Amazon, the most recent evolution went from buying digital music to 100% streaming music.

It was a hard transition. Having grown up with “owning” music, whether it was the Run DMC cassette tape I saved my allowance for in 1985 or the 7-inches and (eventually) CDs I collected in the prime of my hardcore days, I always had physical objects that contained the recorded music.

In addition to holding the object, taking in the cover art and reading the liner notes/lyrics added a lot to the experience. That experience (for the most part) does not exist in the world of MP3s and streaming. (I would argue, though, the band website is the new liner notes.)

So why did I switch? Once you get past “ownership” , it boils down to this: it’s an incredible value. Much like Amazon Prime and Netflix is to shopping and TV/movies, if you listen to music and buy even a handful of albums each year, the price tag cannot be beat. For less than $10 per month, you can have access to more music than you could ever listen to in a lifetime. So that means all of your favorites, the guilty pleasure songs, and most importantly to me, discovering new music. And that’s the thing: there is SO much music now. Finding music you really like is challenging. The digital revolution has produced so much of everything, it is overwhelming at times.

I won’t go into the impact of streaming on musicians. There has been a bit in the news already, in this post-Taylor Swift era of streaming music. I will just say, though, there are obviously pros and cons for each side. Like most things in life, it’s hard to paint streaming with a broad brush. Each band or musician has a unique situation they need to evaluate, so we’ll just leave it at that. As far as users go, however, I think the only option is paying for streaming (versus using the free services), as that gives musicians the best chance of making money via streaming. I do hope these services figure it out soon, as all-you-can-eat streaming is pretty darn great.

The services

Over the last year I’ve tried three of the top streaming services: Rdio, Beats Music, and Spotify. Each service has good and bad, so I’ll try to run through those quick to give you an idea of what service might be best for you.

Rdio

What it does well:

  1. Design: the iOS and desktop apps are the best of the three.
  2. Social: I follow a bunch of people who’s taste I respect. This surfaces a lot of new music.
  3. Viewing weekly new releases: Rdio is slightly better than the number 2 app in this category - Spotify.
  4. Library organization: is fast and well-organized. Related to #1 above.

What it doesn’t:

  1. Catalog is smaller than the other two services. For example, no Revelation Records? It’s one of the most influential labels of the last 30 years.
  2. It’s the underdog. It was the reason I went to Rdio first, but I feel like a shakeup is coming to the world of streaming and Rdio is the most likely to be acquired or just plain disappear. Spotify is the king and Beats Music has Apple to drive it’s future. Those sites feel like a better place to plant my flag.

Beats Music

What it does well:

  1. Recommendations and curation — it’s the heart of the service and very well done. While I was testing the service, it surfaced old favorites I haven’t listened to in a long time as well as newer albums. It also put together some seriously great playlists based on themes (like songs featured on the Chappelle Show, for example)
  2. Browsing by Genre — the other sites don’t do it and I feel like it could be due to the free streaming. Beats has only a pay tier so albums are prominently featured.
  3. In my experience the catalog is a close second to Spotify, if not equal.

What it doesn’t:

  1. Ease of use — the app looks super nice, but it takes way too many taps to do basic functions. Pages like the album and song view take longer to load as well.
  2. No desktop app. I assume it’s coming at some point, though.

Spotify

What it does well:

  1. The catalog: it certainly feels like the best selection and it’s the biggest selling point.
  2. Family plan pricing: new family plans offer the best deal for multiple account families. For single accounts, Beats offers a 12-month discount, so that would be the cheapest plan.
  3. The desktop app has integrations like tour dates, Pitchfork, and Last.fm to help with the recommendations and discovery, which are otherwise severely lacking in the mobile apps.

What it doesn’t:

  1. The service feels built for the free users, which I guess makes sense, since it’s a majority of the user base.
  2. Organization of saved music and other app annoyances — for example, you save an album. The only way to get to it is scroll through the potentially 100s of saved albums. If you go in by artist the only option is to Shuffle — there is no album view.

The end result: I just started my Spotify Premium experiment a week ago, so I am going to hold my final judgement until I give it an entire month. At this point, however, I am leaning toward going back to Beats Music. I feel like it’s the best combination of all the aspects I went over above.

My Top 10 2014 Releases

So with that out of the way, here are my favorite releases from 2014:

  1. Sharon Van Etten - Are We There Oh my goodness. The first listen gave me shivers. So beautiful and haunting. I’ve been back almost 200 times according to Last.fm and for good reason.
  2. SaintsenecaDark Arc Such a surprise. Imagine if folk, bluegrass, and the Pixies had a baby. I wasn’t familiar with the band’s earlier releases, but this album is so damn catchy and worth your time.
  3. Ryan AdamsRyan Adams and 1984 Ryan Adams gets boosted to #3 strictly for having two releases that could be in my Top 10. His self-titled release is Adams being the best version of his alt-country self, while 1984 is Adams channeling Husker Du and The Replacements. Both are great.
  4. The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream Another band I wasn’t familiar with until I saw this pop up on my Rdio feed. Vocal styles heavily influenced by Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, while the music blends “Dad rock” with atmospheric indie rock. The War on Drugs are a great live band too!
  5. St. Vincent - St. Vincent Annie Clark is pretty amazing — both as a guitar player and creative song writer. I haven’t spent much time enjoying her music until this year and I can’t believe how much I missed. Won’t make that mistake again.
  6. Every Time I Die - From Parts Unknown I may have a bit of a Buffalo bias, but these hometown fellas certainly know how to write chaotic (yet catchy), brutally heavy songs. I can’t wait to see them this month — it’s been like 16 years since the last time.
  7. The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers Any band with AC Newman, Neko Case, and Dan Bejar can’t go wrong in my book. TNP delivered probably their best album in 10 years.
  8. Owl John - Owl John Owl John is Scott Hutchinson from Frightened Rabbit — one of my favorite bands. This album isn’t a great departure from his FR work, although (as you would expect) it tends to be a little more experimental.
  9. Bob Mould - Beauty in Ruin Mould’s recent touring to commemorate Copper Blue (from Sugar, his previous band) certainly rubbed off on his song writing for this album. Copper Blue is one of my favorite records of all time, so I am more than happy with the result.
  10. Mogwai - Rave Tapes One of the best live bands I’ve ever seen, Mogwai delivered one of their best records in quite a few years.

Bands I Saw in 2014

I’ve seen many hundreds of bands in the last 25 years, but that pace has slowed dramatically over the years. I’ve made an attempt to see more live music over the last couple years. Here’s my list from 2014:

  • Field Trip festival in Toronto (Broken Social Scene, Chvrches, Constantines, Fucked Up, Do Make Say Think, Gord Downie and the Sadies, Hydra, Washed Out)
  • Pinback and Tera Melos
  • Slapshot, The Longest War, and FU Pay Me
  • Grade and The Longest War in Hamilton, ON
  • The War on Drugs
  • Every Time I Die (in December)

What was your 2014 like in terms of music?