Writer's Block: My Music

Back in September, after most of The Chronicle's staff had been working at home for several months and we had no idea when we'd be going back to the office, I decided, to help pass the time toiling away in my basement office, that I would listen to all of the songs in my digital music library. From start to finish.

And so, beginning with “A Gospel” by the Style Council at 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 29, I began listening to the songs in alphabetical order. As of this writing, I'm halfway through the alphabet, having only just started the letter M. “The Mayor of Simpleton” by XTC is playing right now.

It's been an interesting 10 months. I've learned a lot about my musical taste and how it's changed over the years, heard songs I hadn't listened to in years, others I'd forgotten about and some I didn't even know I had.

When I decided to take this on, I set myself some rules to streamline things a bit. I was allowed to skip duplicate songs, including live versions (I found myself, however, not only listening to studio and live versions of some songs, but sometimes several different live cuts of the same tune; in some cases, that demonstrated how a band or musician changed over the years or had different approaches in different settings [electric vs. acoustic, for example]). I could skip any audio-only tracks as well as extended classical pieces, although since I was making up the rules, I could also listen to those if I was in the mood.

It may seem like 10 months should be plenty of time to listen to one's entire music collection, but it's not as if I was listening from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday. I obviously didn't listen while on the phone or watching or participating in virtual meetings. There were also times when music was just too distracting.

Another reason it's taken this long could be the sheer volume of songs I've got filed away. According to the Apple Music program I use to listen, there are 16,492 songs on this laptop. If I listened from start to finish straight, the program tells me, it would take 44.3 days. That's 1,063.2 hours (“Medicine Jar” by Wings is playing right now, the live version from “Wings Over America,” one of my favorite LPs when I was a teen).

Here are some things I've learned about my music collection halfway through this process. The band with the highest number of songs is The Beatles. That's because I've got several versions of most of their albums, including things like the Anthologies CDs. And when cover versions by other bands are thrown in, Beatles songs are by far the most numerous. That's how I ended up with seven versions of “Across the Universe,” for instance. The second most songs come from The Mekons and its constituent members, just due to the sheer number of albums and tracks they've put out over the years.

I have 109 songs whose titles begin with “Love” (three just called “Love Song” by Elton John, The Cure and Syd Barrett. Thirty-eight that begin with “Man.” Five versions of Billy Bragg's “Accident Waiting to Happen” and three of Elvis Costello's “Accidents Will Happen.” Seven medleys by the likes of Ian Hunter, Joe Jackson, George Harrison and Debbie Gibson (where that came from I do not know). Eleven songs with “Magic” in the title. Seven versions of “Candle in the Wind” by various artists. Forty-nine songs that begin with “King” (including “King Tut” by Steve Martin). Seventeen that start with “Kill” (including “Kilimanjaro” by Juluka). Songs that start with some version of “John” (“Johnny,” “Johnson”): 39. Sixty-eight that begin “If.” In fact, the letter “I” gets the award for the most sings that start with it as a single letter, if you include numbers like “I'm a Believer” and “I'll Be Coming Around.” That's a total of 667. That took a while to get through.

Along the way I've rediscovered – or in some cases, discovered – nuggets buried within all that digital music, some that I haven't heard in years, some that I've never even listened to. Apple Music notes how many times a song has been played, and there are a lot more “1's” in that column now. Songs like “Channel Swimmer” by one of my favorite bands, 10cc. “Cowboy Song” by Thin Lizzy. Graham Parker's great cover of the Jackson Five hit “I Want You Back.” “Man in a Suitcase” by the Police. “Donna” by Too Much Joy. You get the picture.

Lest anyone think my voluminous music collection is stuck between 1960 and 1990, there are contemporary songs residing among the classics. It's just that most of them are by relatively obscure musicians who have never come within shouting distance of either the Top 40 or any other chart for that matter (at least in this country), like the aforementioned Mekons, or The Men They Couldn't Hang, or Neko Case, or the sadly broken up Bottle Rockets. Steve Earle and Elvis Costello are a bit better known, and I keep up with their releases, and I'll occasionally pick up new releases of old material, such as The Beatles' 50th anniversary “Abbey Road” set. But you won't find songs by Ed Sheeran, Ariana Grande, Adele, or Olivio Rodrigo on my computer.

It's pretty remarkable, really, that all of the CDs I've ripped, all of the vinyl records I've digitized, all of the MP3 albums and tracks I've downloaded are ready to play anytime. Thanks to the cloud, I can even access them on my phone (though I mostly use that to listen to podcasts – but that's another column). Audiophiles would sniff at this, and sure, the quality of digital music isn't great. But I've got high-quality speakers hooked up to an amplifier that connects to my computer, so the sound is good enough, even better through a good set of headphones. Technology has its downsides, but it also has its benefits.

Now that we're returning to the office a few days a week, it's likely to take longer than 10 more months to finish the remainder of my songs. The program tells me there are 7,637 more to go, less than half, which would take 20.7 days to listen to straight through (right now “Melt Show” by the Old 97s is playing). Check back with me next May to find out if I've made it through yet.