What I’m Listening To, and When, and Why

People often ask me — honestly, they actually do — how I decide what music to listen to at any given moment, considering that I have a large collection. (At present my vinyl LP collection is approaching 5000, and my CD/CDR collection is well past that number.) The answer depends largely on what I’m trying to accomplish at any given moment.

As I often mention, my in-box stays pretty full. At any time I have at least a dozen — and usually many more — CDs in the queue to be reviewed. And in the “consider for review” pile, that many again. Don’t get me started on the “rejected for review” stack. It’s huge. So when I am in review-mode, those are naturally my choices. Usually — but not always — I spin a disc several times before writing a review. The more I like it, the more listens it gets prior to review.

In the office doing regular work (writing or my other career, web design and marketing consulting), I play whatever suits my mood. There I have access to my CDs, so choices are very wide, though they skew toward music from the last couple of decades, plus all of the new (or reissued) material. As often as not, I choose progressive rock, space-rock or powerpop styles. Those seem to aid me in my work. I don’t always have music playing while I work, but when I do, it’s loud. Recent albums that have gotten more plays than average include Spock’s Beard‘s latest, the highly tuneful X and The Orange Peels2020 from late last year.

Up at the house I have my vinyl, and one of those 300 CD changers that I picked up at a garage sale. The complete catalogs of the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crowded House, Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree are in the changer, along with comps and box sets. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of early Porcupine Tree.

When I play vinyl – -which is often — it’s anybody’s guess. The other day I spun Leonard Bernstein conducting Gershwin‘s “An American in Paris” and “Rhapsody in Blue” and then put on Frank Zappa‘s Orchestral Favorites. Then — ostensibly as research for the Ginger Baker’s Airforce DVD I reviewed, but really just because I dig it — I played the first Airforce album.

Two months ago, during a routine doctor’s visit, my physician spelled it out for me in stark and straightforward terms: “You will have a heart attack or stroke,” he told me. Unless I lowered my blood pressure, which was dangerously elevated. He told me to start a regimen of three to four days a week of cardio workout, 30 minutes each time. He also told me to make some dietary modifications.

Well, I will admit that scared the hell out of me. I don’t smoke and never have, and I don’t consume large amounts of red meat. I already swam twice a week (usually a mile each time), and wasn’t morbidly obese or anything. But I took the doctor’s warning to heart (yeah, pun intended) and decided to go ahead and work out daily.So beginning September 27 I did in fact go to the gym every single day. Thirty minutes on the treadmill, or a mile of swimming, every day. Today was Day 67; I skipped only three days, one of which was Thanksgiving).

My blood pressure came down from “extremely dangerous and likely fatal” to only “very, very bad” in those weeks. As an added — but originally unintended — benefit, I’ve lost between 20 and 25 pounds. I feel the best I’ve felt in many years.

So why even mention any of this? Well, because (a) I hate to exercise, (b) I don’t like to sweat and (c) I find time spent at the gym to be both unproductive and crushingly boring. To mitigate that — well to mitigate “c” anyway — I started using my Zune. I got the thing several years ago when I reviewed it for a print magazine I edited. But since I don’t spend a lot of time out and about, I hadn’t used it much. (My son used to borrow it when he cut the lawn.) But since I would be spending 30 minutes several days a week on a treadmill, and had no interest in watching friggin’ ESPN or interminable Guthy-Renker skin care infomercials (and thank goodness I live in a progressive city where there’s little demand for Fox News; that would not help my blood pressure) — out came the Zune.

Some music works better than others, I’ll tell ya. I love the high energy of the progressive rock that Mangrove turns out, and the jazzy folkrockpsych of Dungen. But the odd time signatures can cause me to trip on the machine. And while I enjoy making people laugh with a good joke now and then, a Three’s Company style pratfall is not my idea of a good time.

I really enjoy the neosoul crooning of Mayer Hawthorne, but it’s too cool and laid-back for the gym. So lately I spin the amazing It’s Happening compilations from Shindig! Magazine (disclosure: I write for them), lots and lots of Paul Revere and the Raiders (but mostly a selection of the more upbeat tracks), and high quality pop stuff like Pugwash, The Twilight Hours, Jamie and Steve and thenewno2, all favorites from 2009, as it happens. Occasionally I’ll opt for the space rock and jam out to what is now one of my all-time favorite pieces of music, “Arriving Somewhere But Not Here” from Porcupine Tree’s near-flawless 2005 album Deadwing. I’ve tried Radiohead‘s OK Computer — a longtime favorite — but somehow it doesn’t lend itself to a workout. Soaring, upbeat material like New Radicals‘ “You Get What You Give” are ideal but need to go into a mix, since there’s a lot of stuff on Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too that wouldn’t suit my treadmill time.

My Zune isn’t waterproof, so on days when I swim I just think about all this stuff.

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