“It’s like having your best friend make you a personalized mixtape every single week.” – Spotify
Spotify definitely isn’t taking a wait-and-see attitude with Apple Music. They punched back at Apple’s curated playlists this week with Discover Weekly, a unique two hour playlist of tunes crafted specifically for each user based on listening history and that of similar listeners. Updated every Monday, this “mixtape of fresh music” is a fascinating look at how a machine takes user data and predicts what I will like.
I couldn’t wait to see what my playlist had in store for me for several reasons.
First of all, I am more than a music fan. I long ago sprinted past music music nerd and rocketed beyond straight into music obsessive territory. As a kid the local record store was my favorite hangout. When other kids collected baseball cards, I spent my money on Beatles and Rolling Stones records. I was a DJ for years at various college stations. My library is somewhere around 1500 vinyl albums, 600 singles, 3000 CDs, 400 cassettes and about 8 months worth of digitized music. Yep, I have more music than I can ever really consume.
Second, I’ve made dozens and dozens of mixtapes over the years and the idea of someone (or a machine) I don’t know creating a playlist for me is interesting and a challenge. Rarely listening to the same thing twice, I jump from decade to decade, genre to genre pretty quickly. Rooted in classic rock, soul, funk, punk and new wave, my tastes run from classic country and blues through hip-hop, post-punk into lo-fi, indie, electronic, ambient and beyond. They’ve got two hours and thirty songs to make an impact.
Third, I am still debating between Spotify and Apple Music. Who will win my monthly fee? I am a longtime Spotify user and Apple Music will have to work damn hard to win me over. I’ve all but abandoned most physical formats so my final pick needs to give me everything, make it convenient and surprise me with great music and features.
So let’s get to the music!
This first week’s playlist is actually pretty strong. Heavy on sixties and seventies rock with a few tracks from the eighties thrown in, the list misses about 70% of what I like and listen to on a regular basis. Every song is at least three decades old and most of what I’ve been streaming lately has been relatively new. However, the list is pretty solid and a rewarding listen with a mix of hits, obvious album tracks, wonderful surprises and a few things I’ve never heard. While a real mixtape has some flow and a sense of theme or narrative, this mix is wonderfully random and enjoyable.
Opening nicely with former Byrd Gene Clark’s “Strength of Strings” from 1974’s underrated and masterful No Other, the playlist rambles and stumbles through obvious choices from Nick Lowe, John Cale and Neil Young before the first surprise. Scott Walker’s (of Walker Brothers fame) baroque pop treasure “30 Century Man” from 1969’s Scott 3.
As if to apologize for getting somewhat obscure, the list reverts to the hits and “So You Want To Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star,” one of the Byrd’s last Top 40 hits. Then it meanders (in a good way) through The Rutles, Talking Heads, Todd Rundgren and Traffic before landing on the always stunning “Hallogallo,” the lead song from Neu!’s 1972 debut.
Then there is a real surprise. Up until now I’ve been familiar with everything. Twelve tracks in, they knock me out with a delightfully obscure choice. Not only do I not know the song or the group, the track is great. From the late 60s Canterbury scene, psychedelic band Arzachel kills it with the sprawling instrumental “Queen St. Gang.” I dig into their biography and discover it was Steve Hillage of Gong fame and players who went on to become Egg of Canterbury prog-rock notoriety.
The middle of the playlist gets progressively odder and more interesting. Can’s “Moonshake,” Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” with its appropriation of a Liverpool choir singing Rogers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” Roxy Music’s “Both Ends Burning,” “Cowboy Movie” from David Crosby’s mind blowing If Only I Could Remember My Name and Little Feat’s “Trouble” all lead into two “wow, I’ve never heard this” tracks.
Patto’s “The Man” is a heavy jazz-rock track from their 1970 debut album. My favorite trivia bit about this band is drummer John Halsey portrayed drummer Barrington Womble in The Rutles.
Then, we’ve got Manfred Mann Chapter 3, the little known missing link between Manfred Mann and Manfred Mann’s Earth band. Another heavy jazz-rock number, “One Way Glass” has a deep throbbing beat and kick ass horn section. This one is definitely a keeper.
After a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Yuung song we get Mick Ronson’s “Only After Dark,” “Lorelei” from the Tom Tom Club, Spirit’s kick ass “Fresh Garbage,” Beach Boy Dennis Wilson’s “River Song,” and XTC’s alter ego The Dukes of Stratosphear’s rollicking “25 O’Clock.”
The 4th “never heard it” is Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera’s 801 project “TNK (Tomorrow Never Knows)” from 1976’s 801 Live. This is one of my sacred Beatles songs. I’ve heard several covers (The Chameleons, Danielle Dax, The Mission, and Phil Collins) and this one is particularly special. Brian Eno sings and Manzanera’s guitar playing is spectacular.
The playlist comes toward the end and swings back to the more recognizable. There is Klaatu’s ” Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” (later covered by The Carpenters), CSN’s “Dark Star,” ELO’s “Boy Blue” and the final stomper, “No Quarter,” from Led Zeppelin.
There it is, two hours of music that Spotify picked just for me. Overall, I was very impressed and enjoyed the playlist from start to finish. It definitely focused on a very narrow sliver of the music I like. However, good choices, fun surprises and enough music I’ve never heard before captured and kept my attention. I can’t wait to see what they serve up this coming Monday.
What do you think of Discover Weekly? I’d love to hear your thoughts.