Saturday, January 29, 2022

My Year in Music (2021 Edition)

2021 Apple Music Replay
I use Apple Music, not Spotify. Hours instead of minutes, apparently...

At the beginning of 2021, I was presented with a challenge by the Internet: listen to an album from the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die list daily throughout the year. A handy tool (and the sponsorship of the presentation ad I saw) had already been prepared for me: Not knowing what I was getting myself into, I gladly clicked the link and signed up. I wound up listening to 209 different albums of a possible 238 (don't quote me on that last number, but it's close enough).

This post is a quick summary of the results of my listening year.

Top 5

There were some truly great albums in the set I listened to this year. (There were also some real stinkers, but I won't elaborate on them.) I rated 22 of them at 5 stars (the highest rating). I've narrowed that list down to the five I just couldn't do without. Here they are, in no particular order.  

Note that the links are to Apple Music where available. If that's not your service of choice, feel free to search for the album/artist in your preferred listening media.

Lady Soul, by Aretha Franklin. This album is objectively fantastic, even if you're not into Soul or R&B. There's a reason that Aretha Franklin is called the Queen of Soul, and it is on ready display on every track of this record. The fact that this was her TWELFTH studio album makes the level of greatness here that much more astounding.

A Love Supreme, by John Coltrane. My review at the time was "Jazz. Raw, unapologetic, beautiful, soulful, all of those other words that have certainly been said about it over the years, and more. This album is great, and definitely deserves a high spot on this list." This, like Lady Soul, is an album that you can use as an introduction to the genre if you're not familiar with it. 

Electric Ladyland, by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This was the last studio album that Hendrix recorded, I think, and it's a brilliant one. It was also long, especially for its time, at 73 minutes. The style is quite varied, and explores Hendrix's myriad interests. 

The Gershwin Songbook, by Ella Fitzgerald. I was less than one track into this 59 track album when I realized it was going to be spectacular. This one was the longest I listened to, clocking in at 3 hours, 14 minutes. It's also one of the older albums on my list, being recorded in 1959. This album is special in lots of ways, the least of which is that if you aren't familiar with either Ella Fitzgerald or the Gershwins, you get a great introduction.

The Genius of Ray Charles, by Ray Charles. This album takes its time -- it's not in a rush to overwhelm you with its greatness. He recorded this album with a Big Band as the main orchestration, which was a step out for him, and gives it a swing feel. I'm not sure if every Ray Charles fan loves this album, but I certainly do!

Sentimental Winner

There were shockingly few albums on the list that I'd actually listened to all the way through, much less owned. One, however, got a 5-star rating before I even pressed "Play."

Hysteria, by Def Leppard. I cannot count the number of times I've listened to this album. This used to be the default album I listened to while lifting weights. Or doing housework. Or driving to the grocery store. I had it on cassette and wore it out. I bought a CD version, which I'm pretty sure I still have. This album exemplifies all that was great about 80s hair metal bands. SO GREAT I CAN'T DESCRIBE IT ADEQUATELY! You have to experience it from my context to get it, I suspect, but you should give it a try in any case.


The other metrics are somewhat interesting. Unfortunately, the album generation website doesn't export a lot of information beyond the album title, artist, your rating, review, and a global rating. As such, actual breakdowns by genres, decades, etc. are missing, but I'll do my best to fill in a couple of blanks at least.

First up: Album Ratings!

Bell curve, anyone?

And now, with actual values!

The distribution of ratings was really well normalized. I suppose that shouldn't have surprised me, since that's how distributions tend to work, but I really did think that I rated more "Good" than "Bad", and not nearly so many in the middle. As it turns out, my median score was a 3, and my mean score was 3.06.

Next, here are the few summarized metrics generated by the site.

Why wouldn't you export the year and genres for me?

The first two metrics I've already mentioned. The other three, though, came as surprises to me. I'll state now that I'm not sure how the site determined the rankings, but I suspect that there's some kind of weighting based on my ranking, and then some division based on the total number of albums I listened to. With that in mind:
  • My favorite decade is the 1950s. This seems plausible, given I gave Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles 5 stars for their albums, each released in 1959. It's also possible that, somehow, my list had an overabundance of albums from that decade in general, so regardless of ratings it would be disproportionately represented. /shrug
  • My favorite genres are World, Jazz, and Blues. The second and third I acknowledge as being two of my favorites, but World is a surprise. Wikipedia says that World Music includes "styles of music from non-Western countries, including quasi-traditional, intercultural, and traditional music." Also, "music that does not follow 'North American or British pop and folk traditions' was given the term 'world music' by music industries in Europe and North America." Alright, given that broad brush, I can understand that rating better. There were lots of albums on the list that weren't traditional North American or British pop or folk, so that population was probably pretty dense.
  • My least favorite genre is Grunge?! This also surprised me until I thought about the fact that most of the pure Grunge albums that I listened to from the list were Pearl Jam and Nirvana, neither of which ever really floated my boat (Stone Temple Pilots FTW!). I suppose I was a non-traditional Grunge fan in that way, so this rating also seem plausible.

Finally, Apple Music told me that I listened to what seemed to me to be an unusually large number of artists this year, including the ~200 from the album generator list.

Is... that a real number?

I'm not exactly sure how Apple determines "distinct artists." 1,311 really does seem high. On the other hand, I'm reminded that Tanya and I tend to use genre playlists quite a bit in the evening or on the rare occasions we have people over (thanks pandemic!), so it's entirely possible that number is spot on. For the record, those kinds of lists vary in the quality of their curation, but stuff that comes out of Apple itself tends to be pretty good. Also, I don't know if this metric is one that Spotify surfaces, but it was an interesting one for me. I listened to three distinct artists everyday on average. Neat!

Final Thoughts

Apple Music is fantastic. Our service of choice is typically Apple Music (hence my usage of their data). Their library is really wide; I only recall struggling to find one or two albums there. We have Music as one of the services selected in our Apple One subscription, which has served us really well. We actively use 5 services (Fitness, TV, News, iCloud, and Music), so the cost was worth it compared to a family plan from other music services. Note that I am NOT shilling for Apple here, but if you find you use two or three of those services anyway, it might be worth getting the larger subscription.

Learning algorithms are only as good as their input. I neglected to actually rate any of the albums I listened to in my streaming service of choice. As a result, the suggestions I now get are... well, all over the place. While variety is the spice of life, if you actually do want your streaming service to suggest things you might actually like, you need to let it know the kinds of things you like. Oops. :-)

Listen on repeat? Probably not. This is likely to be the only year I participate in this album generator exercise. It was experimental to begin with and, while I'm glad I did it, I didn't enjoy it so much that I feel compelled to complete the top 1000 albums play through. Then again... it surfaced some stuff that I absolutely adore, so never say never...

Wanna see the goods? If you're really interested in the full history of my trip, I think it's publicly accessible here: If that link doesn't work for you, please let me know. Note that I started this journey alone, but at one point some of my coworkers caught wind of it and thought they might accompany me. A few of them did for a step or two, but ultimately this was a trek of 1000* steps primarily done solo. (queue Boulevard of Broken Dreams)

I hope you've enjoyed this summary. If you're inspired to take a similar journey, I'd be interested in knowing! Drop me a line if you're so inclined...

ADDENDUM: I wish I could allow commenting, but unfortunately the last time they were public, I received an inordinate amount of spam. If you need to get hold of me, you can email me at rusty ayat rustybentley diggity-dot com. :-)

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