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You Can't Decide What Album to Play. Now What?
We all sometimes struggle to make decisions. Here are some ideas to get you unstuck.
Thank you for spending part of your day with Michael’s Record Collection. I appreciate your time and I apologize for missing our appointment last week. I went through an extremely busy period and, honestly, some of the recent deaths from the music world sapped some of my desire to dive too deeply into my feelings about music.
Jimmy Buffett’s death hit me hard, and that came in the wake of so many other legends recently, like Gary Wright, Steve Harwell (though I’ve often poked fun at Smash Mouth’s music), Robbie Robertson (The Band), Randy Meisner (Eagles), Jack Sonni (Dire Straits), Bernie Marsden (Whitesnake), Sinead O’Connor, etc. I never met any of those people, but you learn a lot about musicians through their music and one grows attachments, even from afar. We’ve been in such a dark time lately for losing rock royalty. Quite frankly, it’s been a lot to take. So, I took a short break.
However, much like music itself, this newsletter is a celebration, and hopefully it is at least somewhat positive and uplifting the way a good song can be. So, let’s get to this week’s story:
Probably three or four times a week, someone will ask me what I want to eat for lunch or dinner, and I will almost always honestly have no opinion. This has become a bigger issue as I’ve gotten older. It’s not that I don’t have certain favorite foods and restaurants. It’s just that I’ve experienced them so many times that I don’t have a strong preference in the moment. Maybe you or someone you know is like that.
The same thing can happen to me when it comes to music. I have had that issue since I was a teenager. In fact, back in the early 1980s, I wrote a Basic program for my Atari 1200XL computer designed to randomly select an album (on cassette) for me to pop into the stereo. I think I owned around 200 cassettes at the time. I used that program a lot, because it never seemed like I had a particular craving, but there were so many bands and albums I liked. Some people I knew simply listened to the most recent one they bought over and over in those situations. I never wanted to neglect the older titles in my collection.
Today, I don’t have a random album selector and I’ve got just over 150 vinyl LPs, well over 1,300 CDs, and various DVD and Blu-ray audio titles and box sets. I’m happy to listen to just about any of them at any given time, but there are times when it takes me almost as long to decide as it would to just pick one at random and play it.
Out of necessity, I’ve figured out some ways to help me decide what to play in those moments when I simply can’t make a decision. Hopefully one or more of these methods will come to your rescue and keep you from turning the TV on instead the next time you look at your record and/or CD shelves and just can’t make up your mind.
I realize that many people have probably never had this issue, but hopefully this will help some of you.
One of the methods I’ve been using for about a year and a half is to keep a Google document with a list of artists on it. I jot down the names of artists that I’ve either never checked out at all, have only a passing familiarity with, haven’t heard in a while (but they’ve suddenly been brought to my attention somehow), or that I’ve loved for many years and listen to regularly. It is usually a mixture of all of the above.
This list of artists is broken into two sections. The first of these consists of 15 artists. I listen to their full discography of studio albums. But, rather than going start to finish, I listen to the first album and then move that artist to the bottom of the 15, noting where I left off. Then I go to the oldest record of the next artist on the list. After I reached 15, which is probably the most manageable number for me, as it provides enough distance between two albums by the same artist to prevent fatigue, yet it allows me to get through a catalog in a reasonable amount of time. Below is what that list looks like. (It’s very simple.)
You’ll note that I’ve got a “Replace with” note at the end of each line. This is the artist that will take that artist’s place once I’ve gone through their full discography. It serves as an “on-deck circle” of sorts.
Obviously, the fact that there are artists included that I haven’t heard or am not overly familiar with on the list means that those are albums I don’t own, so I have to stream them. I have a premium account with Tidal (after moving over from Spotify) and I often listen to music through my headphones while I work. The only drawback is that sometimes there are artists who either aren’t on a streaming service or not all of an artist’s releases are available for streaming. In those cases, I do the best I can and skip titles when I’m forced to do so.
There is also a bottom section on the Google document, where I add the names of artists as I go. There isn’t room in “the rotation of 15” for them yet, so they are “in the dugout,” waiting their turns. As I finish a discography of an artist in the 15, I delete their name and leave the “Replace with” artist on that line, moving it to the bottom. Once that new artist in the rotation reaches the top, I play their first album and add the name of the first artist in the bottom section to that line as the new “Replace with” artist.
Here’s what the bottom section looks like.
Sometimes there have been 30 artists in that space and, at other times, just a few names, as there are currently.
I’ll often add the name of an artist that a friend or someone on social media mentions, whether I’m well acquainted with that artist or not. I’ll think, “Well, I like that band, so I should add them to the rotation!” or “Hey, I’ve been meaning to check out Florence & the Machine. Why not add them to the list?”
Is this method confusing? Stupid? Maybe it’s both, but it works well for me and keeps things fresh. When I think of a band I haven’t heard in a while, or much of, or at all, I put them on the Google doc. This way of doing things gives me an automatic selection for when I simply can’t decide what album to spin. It has helped me explore catalogs I might otherwise never have heard. It also helps me revisit favorites without having to be “in the mood for them.” And because I can access a web-based Google doc on my phone or at any computer, it doesn’t matter where I am.
Using this method, you can easily crank through a newer (or less prolific) artist’s catalog quickly, or you can spend months going through a discography, as I did with Prince and am currently doing with Dolly Parton. Both of those artists have insanely long discographies.
The Milestone Method
This is another of my favorite methods for selecting what to play. It probably requires being plugged in a bit on social media, checking Wikipedia often, or simply having a good memory.
Basically, what this method entails is playing an album on the anniversary of its release, or playing a favorite title from an artist on their birthday or the anniversary of their death. It seems to enhance the listening experience to know that there is some importance in listening to the album on a special date.
For example, a couple of days ago I saw on Twitter that it was the release date anniversary of A Farewell to Kings by Rush. I love the album and hadn’t heard it for a while. I double checked to make sure it was the correct anniversary date (although it really didn’t matter if it was, I’ve just got a touch of OCD), and then I played it. I have it in multiple formats, so I opted to go with the Blu-ray audio version for best sound quality. I also typed part of this newsletter while listening to Dance of Death by Iron Maiden, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary. Earlier in the week, I listened to Time Passages by Al Stewart on vinyl because I knew it was his birthday that day.
This method provides a connection to the artist and/or the album. For me, this method usually takes precedence over the rotation method, but it’s rare for more than a few milestones to occur on the same day — although it does happen. When I bust through my milestone titles, I go back to the rotation.
So, which of those methods do you like better? The second is more difficult to track unless you follow a lot of music accounts on social media (or, again, if . maybe you just have a fantastic memory). Either one should help you avoid indecision when it strikes. Both methods can also help you discover artists you didn’t know (or know well), so there’s an added benefit. I’ve recently gotten to know the catalogs of bands like UFO and the Michael Schenker Group, who I’d often heard of through the years but had never fully checked out.
I recommend using multiple methods. In addition to the two I’ve outlined above, you can also use the suggestions that streaming services provide you based on your listening habits. They can often help you find great music that you might otherwise overlook. Another thing you can do is track new releases and listen to them. You never know what might grab your attention when your mind is open to trying something unfamiliar.
If you’ve got other methods for those indecisive moments, please share them with me. I’d love to add some new tricks to my game.
Although you won’t see me say anything new in the video below, I’ve grown accustomed to including each new one with its corresponding newsletter, so, if you want, you can watch me say the things I said above, only more awkwardly, in the video below. You could also listen to Episode 119 of the Michael’s Record Collection podcast and get the added bonus of not seeing me illustrate the rotation method.
Thanks again for your time. Please consider sharing this issue of the newsletter with the music lovers in your life via the first button below, or sharing Michael’s Record Collection (in general) with the second. And be sure to check out the podcast version of MRC at your favorite podcast dispensary. I invite you to visit my website at michaelsrecordcollection.com and to take a look at the membership levels on my Patreon site at patreon.com/michaelsrecordcollection to find out how you can support independent writing and podcasting for as little as $2 per month (that’s only 50 cents per week!).