A friend of mine asked an interesting series of questions on Facebook about music, noting that certain albums had the ability to bring people back to a certain time and place. I think this is common experience that traverses cultures and age groups — e.g., the first time you heard Miles Davis or the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers album. He then asked, what about playlists, such as those that might be found on Spotify or Apple Music or some other service?
I started making playlists on iTunes in late 2004, so I could have music to listen to on my iPod as I walked to the bus stop to go to Harvard, where I worked. Looking through the songs definitely brings back memories of that winter walk, especially on cold winter mornings when the temperature was below 20 degrees and the wind was whipping up the street into my face. Later on I set up playlists to keep me going late into the night as I worked on my graduate thesis for the Harvard Extension School.
The mixtapes I made or were given to me from about the early 80s to the mid 1990s also take me back to specific times and places, including other countries where I lived. The ones shared with me also remind me of people who gave them, and where they were in their lives.
I remember one called “Sherman’s Heroes.” A guy named Neil Sherman who I met in a hostel in Taipei gave it to me in early 1993. It consisted of American and British bands that would now be called Shoegaze, such as Love Battery and Ride. Listening to those songs now takes me back to the hot, humid summer, when I was just getting established in Taiwan.
Around the same time, another friend sent me a tape of rap and another one of rock which also takes me back, and reminds me of him.
But maybe all of these examples are special because I or a friend curated the playlists, and knew my tastes and therefore had a better chance of making that emotional connection.
I haven’t had much of an experience with curated playlists. The ones on Amazon Music are generally quite poor — one that springs to mine is the “Classical Guitar Chillout” which contains a small assortment of songs and performances by the greats of the genre (Segovia, Diaz, etc.) but whose marketing copy was clearly made by someone who knows next to nothing of classical guitar (see screenshot, below). The Apple Playlists are really interesting, but because I never got a subscription I have to manually recreate them on Amazon which is a pain (readers, please let me know if there is a way to easily do this by using the comment form below!)