Introducing: On Shuffle

Posted: by The Editor

Graphic by Madison Van Houten

When I was a kid, I had a real thing for maintaining the perfect music library. I’d spend hours on my parents’ computer, wrangling and tussling with the latest version of iTunes to make sure all of the metadata was just the way it should be, that every song was sorted into just the right place, that every record had the highest quality .jpeg attached. I went so far as to consistently alter the information attached even to those albums and songs that I purchased on the iTunes store—you might think that this data would be optimized for the perfect digital library experience, but you’d be wrong. 

I changed artwork that bore the “Deluxe Edition” graphic that infuriatingly obscured half of the original image. I restored original album titles in defiance of some long lost attempt to rewrite history (that old Jimmy Eat World vs. Bleed American debate). I waffled on whether that Shins song was called “Spilt Needles” or “Split Needles” maybe a dozen times. I made sure that Cover Flow—a feature I would venture to guess that Apple designed mostly for the purposes of making the most interesting looking commercials—looked fucking flawless. 

All of this was a waste of time. I think even back then I knew that—but I also couldn’t stop whatever weird thing in my brain was making me argue with the iTunes UI, which for some reason loved to separate songs by the same artist into different, seemingly identical sections on a whim. It was something I did back when I was 14 and swim season was over and I’d get to come right home after school to an empty house, something I did while I was stealing stuff from my sister’s iTunes account (hoping she hadn’t actually bought whatever I was trying to steal on iTunes so that it wouldn’t ask me for a password every day for the rest of my life) and sifting through the forums and user reviews on AbsolutePunk or places like that. 

photo of Apple's cover flow feature

Will television ever return to its golden era (Apple cover flow commercials)?

I became less of a perfectionist later on, but when the time came to give in to the impending ubiquitousness of the streaming industry or whatever, I ended up picking the kind of underdog option (though not the most underdog, remember Rdio?) in Apple Music, almost entirely because it would allow me to maintain a lot of that work I’d wasted my afternoons tinkering with, the once-perfect library that used to mean so much to me. (I would find later on that whatever mechanism they would use to match library songs with Apple Music-endorsed songs would fuck up a lot of the live versions and B-sides collections I’d cultivated, but in the end was I really listening to that demo version of Northstar’s “For Members Only” or whatever all that often?) 

I have stuck with Apple Music as my elected streaming service since the day it came out, all in honor of that stupid kid’s perfect Cover Flow, even though, like iTunes before it, it’s buggy as all hell and continues to drive me nuts and alienate me from my 99% Spotify-user friend group. (When I make playlists for myself and my friends, I have to make them twice. I’m still working for this stupid kid.)

All of this is to say that, against all odds, I’m still holding on to most of a digital music library that is at this point over 15 years old. Salvaged across more than one of my parents’ PCs that were ravaged by Limewire viruses. Protected from college laptops drowned by hot tea from an unstable cup. 

LimeWire logo

Sorry, mom and dad

A few weeks ago, Parting Gift Records and Near Mint Records announced that they were collaborating to release a pressing of the 2004 This Providence record Our Worlds Divorce on vinyl. I hadn’t listened to this album in so very long, but it still remained in my digital library. It’s still good. I got to thinking about all of the stuff that’s still collected here, all of it “mine” only in a very tenuous, fragile way. But it’s still mine.

Sure, I could find Our Worlds Divorce, or any of the albums that I remembered because of Our Worlds DivorceThis Providence or Phantoms or In the Land of Lost Dragons or Wonderland or We All Need a Reason to Believe—but what are the odds that I’d stumble upon them randomly? Is anyone gonna bring Forgive Durden back into the conversation? (Please…let’s talk about Forgive Durden.)

Another thing I used to do when I was in high school was listen to my library on shuffle on my iPod Touch or, a couple years later, my iPod Classic. It’s a little counterintuitive to the whole perfectionism thing but even then I worried that I would forget some song I once loved, that if I wasn’t constantly reminding myself that these things existed then they would cease to exist. The only way to do that was to keep giving every song an equal shot at being heard.

But I stopped shuffling at some point. I knew that I couldn’t hold on to everything forever. There were too many new songs to listen to, too much stuff to talk about on Twitter, too many new records in my inbox. Everything moves so fast, it felt more important to stay in the now when it came to listening to and writing about music. 

But lately, the pressure to keep completely current has felt a little stifling. I finally fall in love with something that came out two years ago and the time for a take or opinion on it has passed. I rediscover an old favorite and find that the next significant anniversary is years away. I’m falling into ruts of writing about the same bands too many times. 

I want to write all the time, but I find that I’m too beholden to impulses. I can bang out four reviews and an interview in a week and a half but then I go through a huge dry spell. A lot of things may speak to me, but what’s the point? Who cares? What is there to say, really? I do better in a lot of ways when I have a little ritual I can fall back on. A consistent thing I can do and I don’t have to think so much about all the implications of doing it or not doing it or whatever—the point is that I just do it, every week, at this time, and it’s already locked in. So I just do it. 

Given that I have this whole, long-lived library to work with, I figure I want to start working with it. I have little stories behind so many of these songs, even the ones I haven’t listened to in a decade, and these songs probably have a lot of little stories as well. Or, at the very least, funny comments and analyses on from 2005. The problem is, I can’t start writing about them until I dig up the song. And there’s only one way to do that (there are probably a lot of ways to do that but I don’t think I’m as creative as I wish I was so for all intents and purposes, there’s only one way to do this).

So I’m gonna start shuffling again. Every week, I’ll put my library on shuffle and I’ll write about the first song that comes up (I did a little testing and it doesn’t seem like there’s too much bias when you just put shuffle on and press play…let me know if you know more than me on this one and we can find another way to fairly spin the wheel I’m sure). It may have been lurking in the depths of my iTunes since 2007 or I may have added it last week. It may have some personal history or it may be the first time I’ve bothered to actually listen to it. It might be my favorite song of all time or my least favorite. Likely, most of these songs will fall somewhere between all of these extremes, and that will be fine too. 

Alongside whatever I’ll have to say about the song I’ve stumbled upon in that particular week, I’ll do a little research. I’ll dig up whatever I can find on it—I’ll scrape the internet for errant YouTube comments, WayBackMachine interviews, deprecated pre-2013 online news stories. And together, we’ll get to the bottom of whatever random track decides to rear its to-be-determined-pretty-or-ugly head. Maybe it’ll be by that band Savages—remember Savages? Maybe it’ll be that band Shone—remember the Shone thing!? That was a mess. I’m just glancing at the S section of my library right now, don’t worry if you don’t know these stories. 

Because we’re gonna get to them eventually. I figure I’ll do this for a modest trial period of every single week for the rest of time. At the end of time, I’ll take a brief pause, talk to my fellow editors at The Alternative and decide if we need to re-tool or refocus. I’m reading this contract we drew up and those seem to be the terms. I definitely haven’t been cursed by a demon or turned into a dog Eddie McDowd-style and forced to do this if I ever want to return to my human body. Definitely don’t help me. 

Photo of dog Eddie McDowd from TV show

Photo of me trying to get started on those good deeds

But this will be fun. Maybe some other folks will want to get in on this. I think that’d be sick. Maybe I’ll lose my mind immediately after shuffle chooses a second Transplants song for me to write about. That’d also be sick. Regardless, I think it’s just going to be cool to look back into this weird, large repository that I have at my disposal, one which in some way acts as a living document of my musical interests. This is not so much forsaking my duty to pick and choose and curate what I want to spotlight as it is a practice of asking my current self to explain the choices that my past self made years ago. 

So I guess…let’s get started? Unless you have any questions? You’re gonna have to speak up, I can’t hear you. Alright I guess no objections then. First column goes up tomorrow. 

Jordan Walsh | @jordalsh

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