The Holy Bee’s iPod Playlist Project: An Overview

Faithful Readers, this entry promises to be none too interesting. Truth be told (and I’m always truthful with you), I am writing this so the month of July doesn’t go by without a single entry from Your Humble Narrator. So this entry is essentially a placeholder. If you’re new to the Holy Bee of Ephesus…well, for God’s sake, why? I can only assume you’ve at last given in to the relentless badgering by me on Facebook, or by me personally (you lucky bastard), or have somehow wandered here by accident because you’re bored at work, and have followed one of those bizarre stream-of-consciousness series of weblinks that eventually deposited you here, in the outer rim territories of the Internet. Welcome. My point is, if you’re gonna read my stuff, please don’t start here. There’s a pretty good piece on holiday comedies I wrote awhile back. Go there first. Go on. Scoot. Chop-chop.

So, obviously, you’re all dying to know what kept me away from slaving over a hot keyboard for the month of July. After all, I don’t work in the summer, so what’s to keep me from posting page after page of my nonsense? Well, the phrase I don’t work in the summer is not only a statement of fact, it’s also kind of a personal philosophy. Unless I’m burning with a desire to express something, doing these (usually) bi-monthly or so essays can sometimes be a grind. Why do it in the first place? According to Stephen King: “Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” Good advice, and I try to take it. Except in the summertime.

But the main reason the Holy Bee has been relatively quiet is that I’ve been trying to complete a project that I’ve been toying with for the past year-and-a-half, and that’s organizing every song on my iPod into a series of playlists. This project is directly responsible for the longest-running series of this blog — “This Used To Be My Playground,” (thirteen installments and more on the way) — which is based around my selections for my 1990s playlist.

What the project entails is emptying the cluttered mess that was my iPod at the start of this summer, sitting down for several hours each day (usually 8 a.m. to about noon, occasionally interrupted by my kids and their desire for “attention” or “food”) and listening to what’s on my home hard drive (500 GB) and trying to determine what makes it onto the playlists of my iPod (120 GB).

My playlists are divided into three types:

Artist: Every major artist in my collection is considered for their own playlist. The criteria for determining who gets chosen is strict and regimented (except when it’s not, see below) — the artist must have at least four full-length albums in their catalog (i.e., enough decent songs to compile a minimum-length 25 song playlist) and must be an artist for which I’ve established a fairly long-term admiration. No johnny-come-latelies. Sorry, Dr. Dog, I love you, but not for a long enough time. Probably next year.

Once an artist has been selected for the Holy Bee’s playlist treatment, I try to compile it as if that artist is getting their very own 4-to-6 disc elaborate box set (remember those?). If they already have a box set out there, I try to make mine better. Big hits, deep album cuts, B-sides, and total obscurities, all go into the mix. (I shy away from live tracks, unless they’re definitive versions, such as The Who’s “Shakin’ All Over” or Springsteen’s “Because The Night.”) Some artist playlists work better in strict chronological order (Beatles), some work better as a more abstract flow (U2). I try to represent every phase of the artists’ career. Even their shittiest album will get at least one song on the playlist. (Ever tried to pick the best track from Kiss’ 1984 album Animalize? Not pretty. The things I do for completeness…) The number of songs on a playlist must be divisible by 5.

I try to do each artist playlist as if they are the most important artist in the world at that moment, and not try to make them relative to other artists. Led Zeppelin released only 73 songs during their entire active career, not counting the crap on Coda. 45 of those songs made my Led Zeppelin playlist. On the other hand, my Social Distortion playlist numbers 60 songs. Does this mean I think Social Distortion is better or more “worthy” than Zeppelin? Perish the thought! I just try to create the most definitive, comprehensive overview of an artists’ career, for their entire career, from soup to nuts.

Mostly. There’s always exceptions to these rules. The Strokes got a playlist based on only three albums. The Allman Brothers playlist could only muster 23 worthy cuts. The pre-1989 Red Hot Chili Peppers are so poorly recorded and mastered as to make them unlistenable, so nothing before their major-label debut, Mother’s Milk, is on their playlist. Lynyrd Skynyrd re-formed and continued recording after the death of main singer-songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, but who gives a shit? Not me. The Skynyrd playlist stops at 1978 when that plane went down in Mississippi.

Genre: If an artist doesn’t get their own playlist, they can still pop up in a genre playlist. I have eight basic categories: Blues, R&B, Country, Punk & Early Alternative, 60’s Garage & Surf, Rap, Metal, and Electronica, and two miscellaneous catch-alls: Modern Alternative and Modern Rocknroll.

Much of these playlists are made up of good songs by good artists who either haven’t put out enough albums to warrant an artist playlist, or are simply “singles” acts and never really did much with the album format anyway. (There are some one-hit wonders here, but those mostly get saved for the Decades playlist.) For example, I could not imagine having an iPod without The Supremes. Or The Four Tops. Or Big Joe Turner. But even if you’re generous, those artists have about a half-dozen to maybe fifteen classic songs each. The same goes with many artists in the other genres. You get the idea.

The two miscellaneous genre lists are a little more nebulous, because there’s always the possibility that the folks there can graduate to an artist playlist of their own.

Modern Rocknroll consists mainly of stuff from the last decade or so, or rock’s latest “revival” period (in the wake of The White Stripes and Strokes) — The Vines, Arctic Monkeys, Reigning Sound, The Datsuns, Delta 72, Detroit Cobras, and many, many others. Everyone else in the Idle Time collective describes this style with one dismissive word: “Mattrock.” It’s my weakness, my critical blind spot. Basically, if it’s loud, guitar riff-driven, and of relatively recent vintage, it goes here.

Modern Alternative is kind of similar, but with harder-to-classify artists, and artists much closer to making the leap to their very own playlist. Here you’ll find your Blitzen Trapper, your Walkmen, your Arcade Fire.

Decade: These are fun. Lots of one-off, one-hit wonder type of things here. The 1950’s through the 1990’s each get a decade playlist, and each is a little different in tone and purpose. The 1950’s is pretty close to the genre playlists, in that many of the artists here did not really record full albums. Singles were the order of the day, and if you were trying to find Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard on my iPod, you’d find them in the 1950’s playlist. I wanted the 1960’s playlist to sound like a great oldies radio station — super-big hits, really recoginzeable songs from lesser-known artists. The Left Banke. Lou Christie. The Vogues. You may not know their names, but you probably know their songs. (“Walk Away, Renee,” “Lightning Strikes,” and “Five O’Clock World,” respectively.) The 70’s and 80’s are guilty-pleasure time. Styx. Night Ranger. Mungo Jerry. Eddie Money. The 1990’s, as long-time readers know, is my own highly personal trip down memory lane.

Now that 2010 is upon us, will there be a 2000’s playlist? Unlikely. The Decades playlists are supposed based mainly around radio hits, and what radio hits have there been in the 2000’s that are worth a damn? John Mayer? Ke$ha? These damn kids today and their shitty music…

The playlist project has really dug up some surprises. Stuff I haven’t listened to in years, or sometimes at all. It’s confirmed some old opinions (Pink Floyd is still a total yawn — “music for rich college kids” as Ozzy Osbourne described them — so no playlist for them), reversed some old opinions (I found myself digging The Cure), and yielded some controversial conclusions. (The Pixies’ first two albums — the darlings of the critics — sort of leave me cold. I much prefer the later Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde.)

As I write this, I’m approaching the finish line with the project. I only have the Electronica and Metal playlists to finish. (The much-longer Modern RnR and Modern Alt playlists will notbe completed before I have to head back to work, but that’s acceptable.) If all goes to plan, I will start re-loading my iPod with neatly organized playlists by the end of this week.

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