Giving New Music a Try
Klezmer? World music? Whether it's new or just new to you, listening to different kinds of music can expand your listening horizon
A few years ago, I heard one of the edgier punk anthems of my youth.
At the grocery store. Since I was alone, there was time to register the layers of indignation, shock — how many years — and then a creeping bitterness when I realized that the chamber in my brain reserved for music had gradually been usurped by things like mortgage rates and how best to tackle bathroom mold.
Like most teens of the 1970s, I listened to radio constantly. Saturday mornings often involved a pilgrimage to the record store to buy a new LP and collect a (paper!) Top Thirty list provided by the store.
My friends at the time were cool, discriminating listeners — a bit arrogant — so we read liner notes carefully and discussed things like Kurt Weill's influence over David Bowie and Big Mama Thornton's version of 'Hound Dog." None of us owned a "greatest hits" album. Obviously.
We screamed with laughter, picturing our (old) future selves gathered around a piano, crooning some Led Zeppelin adjusted to a sleepy choir tempo.
One night while enjoying menthol cigarettes we heard the first few notes of "Roll Out the Barrel" drifting up from a parental "sing song" downstairs. We screamed with laughter, picturing our (old) future selves gathered around a piano, crooning some Led Zeppelin adjusted to a sleepy choir tempo: "Hey, hey momma, said the way you move? Gonna make you sweat. Gonna make you groove ..."
Let me tell you it's not nearly so funny now.
I was fortunate to work in the music department of a large public library for many years, so it was easy for me to stay current, longer than most without even trying — but having teenage sons definitely helped.
When they were still at home, music was a common meeting point. My banjo-playing, CCR (Creedence Clearwater Revival)-respecting eldest appreciated everything from Johnny Cash to Kendrick Lamar. I valued his willingness to also listen to my songs and offer suggestions in turn. I miss that everyday back-and-forth.
Paying Attention to New Music
One thing I remain disappointed with though was the way he and his friends were listening: the music often appeared via generated suggestions from his streaming service (and I have no quibble with this, it's a great tool) but when pressed for details, he often knew nothing more about the band or lyrics and was okay with that. And purity of sound seemed irrelevant. All this felt flat and disposable to me.
Instead of feeling the need to keep up with a swelling list of new artists, I would please myself, dip in and out of what interested me and discover what was appealing.
As time went on and my sons moved out, life remained busy, but I made a concerted effort to re-kindle attention to new music. (And to clarify, I mean music new to me — not always the Billboard Hot 100). For the first time though, I felt out of step: not sure where to begin and suddenly self-conscious and miserably intimidated about being an "older listener." What to do?
The solution turned out to be incredibly simple: turn off the imaginary judgements in my mind and reboot my curiosity. Instead of feeling the need to keep up with a swelling list of new artists, I would please myself, dip in and out of what interested me and discover what was appealing.
A close friend unknowingly jumpstarted this process when she had an extra concert ticket and invited me along. I did not know the artist, Mali guitarist/songwriter Habib Koité, but went along anyway. The intimate venue was unlike anything I'd experienced, as was the music: swirling, hypnotic and sensual. Like the best dinner parties with people you love, I could still feel a glow of well-being the next day when I woke up. I've since become a fan not only of Koité, but all kinds of world music.
Part of music's mysticism lies in its ability to make us feel something strongly, sometimes even against our will, as when a song comes on the radio and suddenly transports us back to a certain moment in time. I would never suggest that anyone abandon their favorites, but for me, it's so limiting to expect the same songs to inspire endlessly, for decades. Also, unlike my callow teenage self, I am open to anything.
"I'm careful what I listen to first thing in the morning because I know it sets me up for the rest of the day."
I sometimes tease my partner (who remains huffily defensive of his own playlists) that while "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas and the Papas is definitely a top song, he never seems particularly upbeat after listening to it and can easily descend into one of those "where have all the years gone?" things afterwards. But this never happens when I am blasting out some new-to-me Klezmer music while I make dinner. A sensitive friend once observed: "I'm careful what I listen to first thing in the morning because I know it sets me up for the rest of the day."
Trolling for new music can take time but shouldn't feel like a chore. I recently delighted in discovering the original and superior version of "River of Salt" by Ketty Lester, one of my all-time favorite songs. Other searches led me to the brilliant Brandi Carlile whose plaintive vocals on 'The Joke' evoke chills.
For me, the excitement of discovering a new song and still being able to feel it reach inside my heart and unfurl itself — that is the big reward.
6 Easy Ways to Explore New Music
- Borrow all kinds of music CDs from your local library. The Putumayo record label boasts a huge variety of blues, jazz and world music from many cultures and their website provides thoughtful playlists that are frequently updated (“Mali to Memphis” is a personal favorite).
- Local live music and festivals are a fun way to explore new music, particularly from other cultures. Also consider small opera companies or jazz trios in church halls. We attended a socially distanced “porch concert” during the pandemic featuring older neighbors capably belting out some Beatles’ tunes on ukuleles and I was moved to tears by this simple show of resilience.
- Drop by secondhand record stores. You needn’t be a collector of rare vinyl to just have a chat. Like the eccentric staff in the music store in the film "High Fidelity" with John Cusack, these people still consider music a vital force and certainly not less relevant as life goes on.
- Here’s a very good YouTube discussion of why so many (older) people think today’s music is awful — and why it isn’t.
- Prefer to read? Many familiar sources are now online including Spin, Paste, NME, Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.
- Discover Internet radio — limit your search to whatever genre/country you like and go around the world. Streaming services (such as Spotify, Apple Music and Idagio) also offer playlist suggestions — follow up and see if you like them!