Sometimes, to escape the predictive listening algorithms of Spotify and Pandora, you have to listen to terrible music on purpose.
By Gwynn Lyons, Stanford University
In the age of YouTube and Spotify, it’s easy to customize your playlists to play only songs that you already know and love.
I personally admit to doing this: Sometimes I’ll put on a “Best Hits” album of one of my favorite groups and jam out to it for hours, knowing that I’ll like what I hear.
But sticking with music you already like keeps you from discovering new music that you might like even more. And what’s more, because so much music is available, creating an overwhelming amount of choice, people feel the need to judge music within the first five seconds of hearing it, in order to determine whether it is the “best” music for their mood. This means that music that doesn’t immediately present a catchy hook gets skipped.
What I’ve found is that some of my favorite music today includes songs that I accidentally listened to twice, or that my friends recommended after I had listened to them once. When I listened a second—and third, fourth and fifth—time, I realized that these songs possessed something special that didn’t come out in the first listen. By sharing these songs, I hope I can convince at least one person to revisit a song that they didn’t like the first time and find a hidden gem.
1. “Grace” by Jeff Buckley
If you’ve heard of Jeff Buckley, you probably know him for his popular cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” But in my view, his original song “Grace” is richer and ultimately more satisfying. When I first listened to “Grace,” I was disoriented by the jagged opening guitar rhythm, occasional screamy sections and cryptic lyrics. When I returned to it, the rhythm I had first experienced as disorienting I now found grounding; the screamy sections became tasteful; the mysteriousness of the lyrics fit the wandering-in-a-mist-in-the-woods mood that the rest of the song evoked.
The second listen allowed me to focus on the forest rather than the trees, to see how the effect of the track as a whole exceeded the effects of its parts. The extra effort I put in to appreciate the music led to me liking it much more than I could have expected from first exposure.
2. “October Song” by Amy Winehouse
Everyone knows Amy Winehouse. But I’d wager few have heard of a little song that Amy wrote for her bird, Ava, that begins “Today my bird flew away/ gone to find her big blue jay.”
The ballad is called “October Song,” and it’s on Amy’s first album, “Frank.” I thought nothing of it the first time I heard the album; I only realized how good it was when I heard a live version. The song’s funkiness, which is muted in the studio recording, speaks in a big band setting. When I listened to the original track again, I was blown away by how much more groove and style the live version had; it was almost a completely different song.
Hearing “October Song” showed me the world of difference that instrumentation and setting can make in one’s experience of music. Because of my positive second listen, I decided to seek out live recordings of my favorite songs and was able to hear them in new, fresh ways.
3. “No. 1 Party Anthem” by the Arctic Monkeys
“No. 1 Party Anthem” doesn’t strike you as a hit the first time you listen to it. The tempo is plodding; the chord structure is formulaic; it’s not an anthem you would play at a party. That’s why it wasn’t until my friend lauded its lyrics that I decided to give it a second chance.
When I paid attention to the words, the true message of the song came through. “No. 1 Party Anthem” is not a celebration of alcohol-induced sociability, but a sad description of a partygoer desperately trying to get the attention of a girl. It’s incredibly evocative—you can imagine the poser dressed in “leather jacket collar popped like antenna” and “sunglasses indoors” giving “a Gallic shrug.”
Although I usually prefer songs with creative melodies and harmonies, here the wordsmithing is what draws me in. Listening for different aspects of a song in different rounds can show you that while a work might be meh in one department, it may be stellar in another.
4. “National Anthem” by Lana Del Rey
For me, all of Lana Del Rey’s music is a hidden gem. When I first heard “Summertime Sadness,” I thought it was unoriginal and, frankly, boring. But when one of my friends described her music as something that you “hate that you love,” I began to see its allure.
I listened to her songs’ lyrics and I found intriguing references: the title of the song “Body Electric” is a quote from a Walt Whitman poem; the lyric “life imitates art,” which appears in “Gods and Monsters,” expresses Oscar Wilde’s anti-mimetic philosophy.
In “National Anthem,” I love Lana Del Rey’s sarcastic praise of American capitalism: (“Money is the reason we exist/ Everyone knows it, it’s a fact kiss kiss”). Taken at face value, the lyrics are kind of sickening. But when read ironically, they are right on point. Lana Del Rey’s songs require some context and interpretive license to really appreciate, so considering her music with an open mind will help listeners access the inner gem.
Here are some runner-ups for my hidden gems: “LDN” and other songs by Lily Allen; “River Lea” by Adele; any and all demos of songs on “Songs About Jane” by Maroon 5. Happy exploring, and please let me know if you come across any more gems!