In the era of microwave journalism, hot takes and fire tweets there’s been a lot of talk about the way we listen to albums. Much of that talk focuses on the wrong way to listen, but really, is there a right way? Do we all need a pair of studio headphones to listen? A car? A club? If you don’t have it on vinyl, did you hear it at all? Do we have to listen "cover to cover"?
Music is a deeply personal experience, so it’s only natural the way we listen to it is also personal.
For me, when an album drops I have a set process. First I complain that the album is only on Apple Music, Spotify or TIDAL, and then I consider downloading it illegally but get too scared of viruses. So I buy it. I listen to the body of work cover-to-cover one time (maybe do a 1 Listen review if needed), select a favorite few jams and spin the ever-loving fuck out of those few songs, then move on to the rest of the album. It’s all about breaking off little chunks. I’ll spend days or weekends listening to only three or four songs sequences until I really know the album.
The most important aspect of the Lucas Garrison Method of Album Listening is bringing that album into the outside world. There’s something to be said for listening with my fancy headphones smoking a spliff, but I never feel like I fully know an album if I only listen to it at home. I need to hear it everywhere. If an album can turn a Metro ride or traffic jam into a dance party (a la Chance’s "Angels") it’s worth something. I know a song's a hit if I hear it in the bar, and then again when some drunk girl is singing it in line waiting for a jumbo slice. Albums become favorites because you build them into memories and it's hard to make memories sitting on my bed.
Listening to new albums in that way felt as natural as breathing, but I didn’t realize how idiosyncratic my listening process was until I talked to somebody who was just like me, but someone outside of the DJBooth bubble. Someone who, between his dope photography and outstanding writing, has also dedicated his life and career to hip-hop—Andres Tardio.
"It’s just a part of my life" - Andres Tardio
Talking to Andres really helped me look at myself. We are both critics in that we get paid to have an opinion but we each take a very different approach. Andres stressed that he listens for lyrics first, I’m definitely more beat-oriented. Living in California, where everyone has to drive everywhere, listening in the car is more important to Andres than to me because I have the luxury of vibing out on the Metro. Perhaps the biggest difference between us is that while I listen to an album in sections, endless replays of three or four track batches, the album for him is a cover to cover experience. “Most of the albums I really love, I'll play it front to back. I listen to the whole thing whenever I pull the album out," he said. "A lot of the albums I like work well that way, because each track kind of builds on the other and creates an experience you can't get from that one song.”
While our approaches and listening tactics are different, our brains ran in a similarly obsessed fashion. Andres and I might take differing paths but we ended at the same conclusion. In speaking with someone else who listens to music for a living it really helped me to see how rare we really are. As Andres put it, “It’s like asking me to tell you my breathing techniques...I don't ever think about that... it’s just a part of my life.”
While I wanted to get Andres involved in this piece because his work brims with passion, it's that same passion that makes music professionals listen so closely and as a result become ill-equipped to understand the average fan experience. The simple fact is we’re rare. The hip-hop head bubble is small and the critic bubble is even smaller. Most music fans don’t get paid to write about music, they can afford to spend their days rewinding an album. So if I really wanted to get a complete picture of how regular people listen to albums, I had to get the perspective of someone not involved in music at all.
So I interviewed Eli.
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Eli is a teacher, one of D.C.’s finest shaper of young minds. He’s also one of my few good friends I consider a real music fan. I’ll always try to put him onto a new artist or album because I know he’ll appreciate it (although he often forgets to listen and I go crazy). I wanted to get his opinion because most of our readers are more like Eli than myself or Andres. Microwave journalism, hot takes and think pieces simply aren’t part of his world, but the music very much is.
Again, there were some similarities between us. We both love to listen to music while we cook and clean, and like Andres, Eli is all about listening to an album from start to finish, but the biggest, most eye-opening difference was when he said, “If I'm gonna listen to an album all the way through it's on the weekends. It's a block of time that's gonna be uninterrupted.” I can't imagine having to schedule time for music and I’m sure Andres would agree.
When Eli said that it really hit me. For Andres and I listening is just part of a normal work day, but for Eli, it’s an escape. If this wasn't my job, I wonder how much time I would have for music. Between dealing with students, planning lessons, playing rec league basketball and general weekend fuckery, Eli still finds an album listening experience important enough to dedicate a swath of his weekend to it. That's commitment.
I've told myself repeatedly that there’s no wrong way to listen to music, but both Andres, a fellow journalist, and Eli, a fellow music lover, always listen cover-to-cover. I don’t. Am I doing it wrong? Was my insistence on taking the music outside a weakness I wasn't aware of? I started to freak out until I dialed up Strange Music’s own Wrekonize.
"My favorite environment is the car. I love to drive, from my house to the studio, back home late at night after a session. When a new album comes out I like that vibe to listen to it in, that’s my favorite environment to listen in." - Wrekonize
Wrek was a natural interview choice for this article because everyone on Strange Music is ridiculously passionate about music. I wanted to learn how being a creator of music affects how one digests it. Turns out, not very much. I found out Wrek and I are very similar. He emphasized how important the car is; I can relate. Though the cover-to-cover experience is important to him, he also sees the value in listening to an album in chunks. “You can learn it better by repetition. You master it song by song instead of going cover to cover, because some albums, depending, you can’t get from start to finish in one drive.” He concluded with, "If you put two people next to each other, the person who repeats the tracks over will learn the album faster than the person who always listens from start to finish.”
Articles that open by asking a question but don't answer it generally aren’t great articles. I’d like to buck the trend. I spent about 180 minutes and 1,500 words trying to find out how we listen to albums, searching for a "right" way, but the only thing I learned is there isn't one. Someone who doesn’t have their driver’s license can love and appreciate an album just as much as an Uber driver. A teacher can enjoy a cover to cover experience as much as one of the best music critics on the web. A professional recording artist and someone whose only musical skill is Hot Cross Buns on the recorder can both bond over the joy of driving with the volume cranked to 11.
Your way is the right way if it works for you. The only requirement is something that you, Eli, Wrek, and Andres and I all share; a love for music. As long as you have that, you can never listen wrong.
Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth. His favorite album is College Dropout but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.
Photo Credit: Tumblr