When I was a teenager, I listed all the tapes I owned and numbered all the tracks, from one to whatever thousand. I’d then roll a ten-sided die to generate random numbers in that range, and would use those numbers to make randomly shuffled mixtapes. I thought I might be driving a flying car by 2012, but it didn’t occur to me that I would one day own a computer that could hold all the music I own and play the songs in random order with no die-rolling required. Nor did I guess that my complete listening history would be tracked by a computer in Great Britain that would compile personal charts of my favorite artists, songs, and albums.
I joined Last.fm in early 2007, so I now have over five years of “scrobbles” saved: over 60,000 song plays, which averages to about 30 plays a day. Poring through my listening history for hours on end is just about the most self-absorbed thing I do—which is saying a lot. I love that when I’m asked what music I listen to, I can answer definitively: Bob Dylan, Tegan and Sara, and the Magnetic Fields top my list of most-listened artists. I can also cite conclusive evidence that my favorite song of the past five years has been Kate Nash’s “Do-Wah-Doo.”
Here are some other things I’ve learned over five years of scrobbling—not just about my own listening, but about music listening in the digital era.
Albums still matter. Many of my most-listened tracks are songs I don’t necessarily love individually, but that appear on albums I love. Having the ability to cherry-pick tracks and easily make playlists is one of the great gifts of the iTunes era, but there’s still a lot of satisfaction in listening to a sequence of songs made by an artist to be heard as a collection. My favorite album (607 plays) is the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, and though I find some of those 69 songs to be incredibly annoying, playlists of my favorite tracks from that album just aren’t the same. When you truly love an album, it’s like truly loving a person: you appreciate the imperfections as essential parts of the whole.
Comfort music gets a lot of play. I’ve gone through two very rough breakups since 2007, and many of my most-listened tracks are the ones that got me through those months. There were entire weeks when I just couldn’t listen to anything but Tegan and Sara, which is how The Con and So Jealous racked up about 40 plays each.
Consistently interesting careers are rare and impressive. Though Bob Dylan is my most-listened artist by a wide margin, my most-listened-tracks list doesn’t include a Dylan song until #30 (“Mississippi”). I listen to so much Dylan just because there’s so much Dylan worth listening to: dozens of worthwhile albums, and at least ten classics. Song for song, I listen to Lily Allen much more, but she seems to have burned out after just two albums. Listening charts have given me a new appreciation for artists—like R.E.M., the Old 97’s, and Bruce Springsteen—who have created large bodies of quality work.
The music that means the most to you is not necessarily the music you listen to most often. I’ve listened to Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die so many times that she landed among my top ten most-listened artists—but it’s not an album that means a lot to me emotionally, it’s just nice to listen to while I work. Some songs I treasure are among my most-listened—Tilly and the Wall’s “Rainbows in the Dark,” Jenny Lewis’s “You Are What You Love,” Frightened Rabbit’s “I Feel Better”—but others, like the recording of “Thunder Road” that opens Springsteen’s live box set, are tracks I come back to only occasionally, when I really need them. There are people in my life like that, too.