Playlists are a fundamental way of listening to music in the streaming-dominated era. Every time you hop on Spotify or Apple Music, there are stacks of recommended lists waiting for you. These range from generic offerings like ‘Sounds of Summer’ or ‘Alternative ‘90s’ to playlists specifically tailored to your tastes.
While some human intervention goes into the production of these lists, more often than not an algorithm cooks them up. This is particularly true when it comes to functions like YouTube’s autoplay and Spotify’s song radio.
Call me a prude, but taking recommendations from an algorithm feels a bit gross. You’ll still discover great tracks in an automatically generated list, but it lacks the romance of recommendations coming from a radio DJ or Rage’s Saturday night guest programmer.
That said, the streaming services do offer a wealth of artist playlists. Look up any of your favourite artists on Spotify or Apple Music and chances are they’ll have created a bunch of playlists featuring their favourite songs or adhering to a theme. Here are a few corkers worth checking out.
Earlier this month Nick Cave named his 10 Hiding Songs via his wonderful one-to-one correspondence website, The Red Hand Files. The expression ‘hiding songs’ first appeared in Cave’s 2015 extended poem, The Sick Bag Song, in a passage about his childhood discovery of Leonard Cohen. The Red Hand Files post elaborates on its meaning:
“My ‘hiding songs’ serve as a form of refuge for me and have done so for years. They are songs that I can pull over myself, like a child might pull the bed covers over their head, when the blaze of the world becomes too intense.”
The list includes Cohen’s ‘Avalanche’ (which the Bad Seeds covered on 1984’s From Her to Eternity), as well as songs by Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and John Lee Hooker. It also contains a few surprises in the form of Brian Eno’s ‘Becalmed’, Big Star’s ‘Holocaust’ and Bill Callahan’s 2011 epic, ‘One Fine Morning’.
UK producer Four Tet (aka Kieran Hebden) is a massive music nerd. That’s the only way to explain his continually expanding, 89-hour Spotify playlist. Hebden created the list in late-2016 and has been adding new tracks ever since.
Getting stuck into a playlist that consists of more than 1000 songs sounds a bit intimidating, but there are plenty of ways to approach it. It’s sequenced so the latest additions show up first, allowing you to get a feel for what’s on Hebden’s turntable. Lately it’s been rapper Earl Sweatshirt, ambient duo Stars of the Lid, experimental composer Laurie Spiegel and German dub-techno act Monolake.
Conversely, you can flip the order of the tracks and experience the list’s chronological evolution by clicking the icon at the top of the date column. And of course you can’t go wrong by simply putting the whole thing on shuffle.
Hebden’s list is phenomenally far-reaching and there’s no guarantee you’ll dig everything, but therein lies its beauty. There’s always a surprise in store each time you chuck it on. It’s what led me to the ‘60s Kenyan taarab artist Mac & Party, ‘70s jazz/psych-rock band Stark Reality, and the Soundway Records compilation Sound of Siam - Leftfield Luk Thung, Jazz & Molam in Thailand 1964-1975.
Hebden also isn’t averse to including mainstream artists like Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez and Young Thug alongside the IDM of Autechre and the experimental jazz of Sun Ra.
There are currently ten playlists on PJ Harvey’s Spotify page, which provide insight into the UK songwriter’s record collection. Harvey has one themed playlist, the Brexit Blues, which appeared following the UK’s disastrous EU Referendum in 2016 and features songs like ‘The Age of Self’ by Robert Wyatt, ‘So Sad’ by Vincent Gallo and ‘No Comprende’ by Low.
Otherwise, Harvey shares songs from The Beatles, Pixies, The Fall, Patti Smith and Ennio Morricone as well as contemporary acts Micachu and the Shapes, Angel Olsen, Weyes Blood and Aldous Harding. Plus, along with a few Nick Cave tracks, Australian acts Adalita and Lost Animal get a nod.
In 2014 UK folk singer and activist Billy Bragg used Spotify to launch a radio show. Inspired by his own appreciation of artist playlists on Spotify, Bragg wanted to enhance the experience by including audio explanations of his choices and providing context on certain selections. So, you know, like a radio show.
It ended up running for just ten episodes, but the show’s playlists live on. Along with tracks by The Wailers, Sam & Dave, Johnny Cash and Karen Dalton, you can hear why Bragg’s favourite period of Blondie was “before the disco and the rap kicks in, when they’re sounding like a punk Shangri-Las,” learn that The Pogues ‘The Broad Majestic Shannon’ refers to Ireland’s longest river, and hear Bragg praise Janelle Monae’s Glastonbury performance, which had “the intensity of a James Brown revue.”
Bragg also made a playlist of his favourite travel songs to coincide with the 2016 Joe Henry collaboration, Shine A Light: Field Recordings From the Great American Railroad, and compiled a list of the first singles he ever bought: Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, Paul Simon and more.
Early last year Canadian bizzaro pop artist Grimes created a playlist aimed at assisting players of the PS4 game Bloodborne. Featuring Burial, M.I.A., Azealia Banks and loads of Enya, she describes it as music for “high concentration task”.
Grimes’ Spotify page also features the Musiq 4 Drawing playlist, which she says is also “nice for gaming and general relaxation.” It’s heavy on Aphex Twin, plus a few Lana Del Ray cuts and songs from Smashing Pumpkins, SZA and Yo La Tengo.
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