You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Art of the Playlist

A new book contends that we can discover music better than an algorithm.

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I cued up Frankie Beverly & Maze’s 1993 slow-burn “The Morning After” on Spotify, listening for one specific moment that Ben Ratliff highlights in his book Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty. The song is about infidelity, but Ratliff hears a spirit of devotion in Maze’s long held note about three-quarters of the way through, an acknowledgement of something powerful and mysterious beyond the singer. Various illustrations of devotion, Ratliff reasons, can be heard across styles, periods, and geographies. It’s audible in that moment from “The Morning After,” but also in John Lennon’s aching paean to his dead mother “Julia,” and a 1983 live version of “Haq Ali Ali Moula Ali” by legendary Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 272, $26.00

Ratliff uses these songs and a handful of others to pose a query about how music works. “Can you point at an emotion in music, and claim it as a function or property of the music itself, rather than of what the listener brings to it?” It’s a deep and controversial question, one that has been mostly limited to classical music theorists and educators. Yet Ratliff’s idea with Every Song Ever is to allow the listener/reader to judge for themselves. He assumes (rightly) that any reader can easily hear these recordings while reading along, thanks to massive digital streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube. More importantly, he contends that listeners should attend to music in this way, using the newfound agency that comes with having nearly any song available with the click of a mouse to seek out musical characteristics that the services themselves can’t deliver.

Algorithms are listening to us,” Ratliff warns in the introduction. “At the very least we should try to listen better than we are being listened to.” In the current “age of musical plenty,” as the book’s subtitle describes it, Ratliff feels there are limitless musical configurations possible in this vast new landscape, but senses a creeping dread in the new forms of music programming that streaming services are implementing. In Every Song Ever, Ratliff offers readers and listeners 20 different “ways to listen” that amount to a dizzying tour through musicology, social science, personal reflections, and descriptive prose. Enjoying the book is less a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with Ratliff’s conclusions, as engaging with his ambitious approach toward music appreciation and coming to one’s own judgments. The difference between Ratliff’s guidance and learning about music through Apple Music’s playlists is akin to consulting drone footage to learn the ins and outs of unexplored terrain and setting out into the mud with a guide who brings decades of experiential knowledge to the trek. 

Ratliff not only has no time for the digital services’ data-driven delivery mechanisms, but other forms of programming as well: Listening through commercial genres, for instance, provides nothing more than “a direct route to the bottomless comfort zone,” and even the album format itself “means increasingly little to us” at a time when tens of millions of songs are available individually on demand. In other words, do away with the record business’s antediluvian sorting mechanisms and learn to listen for unexpected connections between recordings. It’s a tall order for the average listener, to be sure, but Ratliff’s rigor and way with words, honed during his 20 years at The New York Times, is far from laborious. Indeed, the pleasure of reading great music criticism—which Every Song Ever is—lies in following a seasoned explorer who unearths the hidden passageways amid music’s intricate systems of interlocking tunnels.

Ratliff’s musical mind is as sharp as his musical tastes are catholic, and he switches theoretical approaches as quickly as he shuffles through a century’s worth of recorded music. In Chapter 5, he raises the vexed question of music’s free-floating existence as a standalone entity outside of the bodies or cultures that create and circulate it. “The vibrato is real; the larynx is not,” he writes, prefaced by the caveat “at least for now.” This last bit perfectly illustrates how Ratliff operates in Every Song Ever: He adopts a controversial stance less as a scorched-earth statement of musical ontology than as a discursive cul-de-sac for an argument about music’s capacities. In the next chapter, he’s back to considering embodiment and agency via Thelonius Monk’s legendary single-note runs, which through the force of their repetition represents “a person, a will.”

The connections that arise from Ratliff’s exploratory methodology are at turns poetic and revelatory, and most certainly are not what ends up on the average playlist. In a chapter on musical speed, he links jazz drummer Roy Haynes’s performance on a March 1953 recording of “Salt Peanuts” to the American hardcore band D.R.I. through a shared fondness for “blast beats,” the short bursts of sixteenth notes hammered out on snare and tom drums. In the chapter on improvisation, Jimi Hendrix’s blistering, multi-part solo from “Machine Gun” (off the 1970 live recording Band of Gypsys) segues perfectly into “Mikka,” a single, fluctuating glissando for violin played by mathematical theorist/avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis. By contrasting dynamic sections with long held notes, Ratliff explains, each piece makes statements “about motion relative to stasis.” Each recording also suggests something about human experience: Improvisation may be composition slowed down, as the adage holds, but it’s also living sped up, Ratliff adds. Yet improvisation is a fundamentally different sort of speed than blast beats, which aren’t a reflection of sped-up modern living as much as an endurance challenge issued by the drummer to the listener: “Keep up!”

Ratliff’s chapters are designed more as analytical frames than exclusionary categories. The speed-obsessed bebop jazz of Haynes, for example, shows up later (as half-myth) in a sociologically-themed riff on exclusivity and community—music designed to exclude those who couldn’t keep up. Ratliff reframes a certain form of virtuosity as an experiential velvet rope: musical time organizing social space. Ratfliff is superb when writing about music and space, triggering synaptic connections between recording and production techniques, lyrical themes, and experience. In his brief disquisition of sonic and experiential space in Miley Cyrus and Dr. Luke’s “Party in the U.S.A.,” for example, he notes that the track is compressed within an inch of its life—hardly a revelation. Yet instead of dismissing such a technique as crass (as do his less-enlightened peers), or a tactic to compete with the cacophony of the modern soundscape, Ratliff hears a reflection of Cyrus’s character’s anxiety and fatigue as a Nashville girl entering a fancy L.A. party. It all evaporates when the DJ plays a song she loves, of course: hearing Jay-Z or Britney over a PA system redefines an alien space as one nation under a groove. “It’s a song about listening,” Ratliff claims. “One of the greatest ever made.”

Most wouldn’t connect “Party in the U.S.A.” with a jump-blues track from sixty years earlier, but several chapters later, Ratliff introduces another song about community, exclusivity, and the labor of finding one’s self around and through music. “Being lost is not an absolute condition,” Ratliff contends, “it only means that you haven’t received enough cultural information yet.” This notion links Cyrus and Luke’s smash hit to Louis Jordan’s “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” discussed 100 pages later. Where Cyrus’s character locates herself within the friendly sonic confines of a massive pop song, Jordan’s narrator offers a tour of young black music culture in and around New Orleans’s Rampart Street in the late 1940s. The music is jump-based blues, and the perspective is ethnographic—an outsider searching for good food talks his way into a fish fry, and experiences a scene that turns from jubilance to panic when a police raid dumps him into jail. It was worth it though, both from the narrator’s perspective, and, zooming outward a few levels, for the listener. I don’t know if Ratliff hid such Easter eggs in subsequent chapters to make readers feel as if they were making connections on their own, or if theoretical music concepts are inherently going to overlap. Either way, they’re there, and they trigger a desire to re-read Every Song Ever to seek other correlations. 

None of these correlations can be turned into reliable data, but Ratliff’s point isn’t to position himself as a qualitative alternative to the data engines powering pop’s future. There’s no way to turn a lovely phrase like “a door-to-door sales call that becomes a psychological exam” (about Coleman Hawkins’s “Body and Soul”) into a reliable mathematic procedure, or to operationalize a description of pianist Hildegard Kleeb playing notes “as an eater, holding a fork, breaks the surface of a buttery cake.” Oddly enough, though, Ratliff’s informed, idiosyncratic direction does illuminate an odd parallel between streaming music audiences and critics: they’re both individuals. To digital music programmers, the perceived preferences of the singular listener/consumer has replaced the broad demographic segment as the preferred marketing category. The lone listener in this composite is mirrored by the independent music critic, deploying taste and training to guide listeners through the same vast, easily accessible library of recordings. 

In this light, Ratliff’s clear affinity for what he hears as unmediated musical contact between listeners and performers registers deeply. It’s evident in his fondness for “Julia” and “The Morning After,” but also the “radical intimacy” of bossa nova star Joao Gilberto’s 1973 LP, recorded quietly in his sister’s bathroom, as well as in a quick note on virtuosity: “The moment that swagger begins to feel mechanical—which is to say mediated or perfunctory or nonpersonal—I can feel I’m being condescended to.”

Throughout the book, Ratliff returns to this theme. He writes lovingly of musicians who “best realize their music live, unmediated by the popular music business … playing for small groups without interference.” This framework is perhaps the best way to understand Every Song Ever: an appeal to individual listeners to seek real musical intimacy between themselves and the music they listen to—whatever that may be—while marketing machines are showering them with ersatz self-reflections drawn from commercial categories. It’s less a goal than a belief system, and one that draws on criticism’s own Enlightenment roots: The individual’s rational judgment and self-direction should override the received wisdom handed down to them from on high.