Lately I have been listening to artists' entire catalogs. So far I have done Bob Dylan (first), Madonna, Tom Waits, Aretha Franklin, Kanye West, John Coltrane, Bjork, Led Zeppelin, Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, Lil' Wayne, and Brian Eno... I think that's it. I'm doing Miles Davis now (see ya in 2013).
I listened to the tracks from A-Z. The logic was that I was curious to hear artists' peak and valley in different ways at different times. Each artist had their own "graph." If x=time and y="travis thinks you're killing it." Which is totally subjective of course. But I could definitely draw a line for all of them. I got a real sense of their musical lives.
...Except Coltrane. I listened to him in chronological order. That's a trip. Especially that he ends with "Interstellar Space." The all-time most abrupt discography end ever. It's like watching a movie that goes from rom-com to car-chase thriller to Stan Brakhage and then just becomes white noise for a minute and ends. I learned that I wasn't much for his bop material... well I love it but not as much as I loved the totally-out-there free stuff and the ballads. God he could play a slow one so sweet and warm. The Coltrane and Hartman record is amazing. And then he made "Ascension." I think you have to have that kind of heart to make the insane stuff. Otherwise it's just like someone arguing at you or trying to trick you. With Coltrane, when he made totally out music, I felt like he was just trying to make something that sounded like reality.
Besides Coltrane, who kind of transcends silly notions of good and bad, the only artist that just got better and better is probably Tom Waits. I didn't even think I liked him. I still don't dig the early stuff -- sounds silly and a little fake. But as he got weirder and weirder I started to dig it hard, up to the very last one. I loved virtually everything from "Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards" or whatever. "Fire Ants" actually made me laugh so hard I had to intentionally not pee my pants. Peeing my pants was on the table. "Altar Boy" is a stone classic, too.
Aretha was interesting in that every decade she blew the doors off with an album and then kinda seemed to lay back in the cut for ten years. 60s of course had "Never Loved A Man", 70s had "Young, Gifted and Black", "Who's Zoomin' Who?" is wonderful from the 80s and the Lauryn Hill record was really good too in the 90s.
My favorite Brian Eno album was "More Music For Films." I don't think it gets a lot of love. I'm not totally crazy about his vocal/rock records at all. Not even "Another Green World." I do like "Music For Airports" but it doesn't really do anything for me that a regular outdoor quiet place does. And it's mechanically repetitive -- over a long time period, granted, but still. I'd say the one group of albums I really loved were his soundtrack ones like "Music For Films" and "Apollo." "More Music For Films" was my favorite. It has a funky tension that he doesn't usually do. I later found out that this family of records was released as a box set... so someone heard what I heard.
'Lil Wayne was great. That was the big eye-opener of them all. The records are chock full of gems. They have more depth than the radio hits like "Lollipop." He's hilarious, and he has a big heart. I would say my favorite album was "Tha Carter II," but my favorite song is "Dr. Carter."
Bob Dylan's last few records are as amazing as everyone says. I love them just as much as anything he did in 63-66. A lot of good corny old-man jokes. "I sit on mah WATCH so I kin... be on TIIIME..." Awesome. He did have a long, long rut there in the middle, like 20 years, and in that rut, he wasn't funny. He was a funny young man and he is a funny old man and kind of a bitter guy in between. Wonder if that's not a common life arc, hmm. Note to self.
You get more than music insights out of this stuff, I gotta say. You do get to hear someone figure things out (probably different things) all through their lives by using the same artistic medium, and it's very insightful. After a while I start to get the sense of a person, a presence. Even in the non-vocal music. It usually happens about eight or 10 albums in. I can't explain it, but it's real. I feel like I'd never need to read their biography afterwards. I definitely feel like I have a bead on the personalities of, say, Madonna (generous, aggressive, very together, impatient with weakness or perversity) and Stevie Wonder (introverted, utterly brilliant, a childlike sense of justice, quietly arrogant). And now I really don't want to meet these people!
Who's next, after Miles? I'm thinking Neil Young.