Mailbag: How Do I Listen to Everything?

Mailbag: How Do I Listen to Everything?

This is a free newsletter post; paid subscribers also receive a weekly Baker's Dozen playlist on Fridays along with some music criticism around it. All newsletter revenue is currently being donated to the National Network of Abortion Funds; subscribers have donated $2,743.86 so far.

I'd said for a while that I was going to try out a Mailbag segment here based on interest, and sure enough I did receive a query worth answering. If you'd like this to become a recurring segment, you can send your own questions to, and I'll be in touch if I plan on answering them here.

All that being said, let's kick things off here...

You're always talking about how you listen to everything, and it really seems like you do! I'm always curious as to what your music listening/discovery technique looks like. Would LOVE a thorough walkthrough as to how you determine which music you need to listen to, what your music listening routines are (if you have any), etc. — Jason

A friend was telling me last month about how she's realized that, at this point, she prefers living alone—citing the irritation of having someone else in her personal space as a potential con to cohabitation. I said to her, "Yeah, with the shit I'm listening to in the apartment, it must be a nightmare living with me." She readily concurred as I told her about how my wife asked on a recent morning, both curious and bemused, what it is I was playing on the soundbar.

As I recounted to my friend the answer—specifically, an album of classic soul covers courtesy of KISS member Paul Stanley—she started shouting over the phone, "Why do you have to do this?" I explained my general mindset when it comes to consuming all kinds of art: If I don't, who will? So, in effect, I have to. She had the same reaction my friends recently did when I said that I planned to see Blonde in theaters: "You DON'T have to!" Right, but...I feel like I do.

Later that night, I was recounting the conversation to my wife, who responded by telling me that the way I listen to music when she's around—indiscriminately, constantly—has actually made her hate music sometimes, even as music is something we both bonded over when we first met nearly 15 years ago. (We were both Sun Kil Moon fans and talked about our love of Ghosts of the Great Highway, do with that what you will.) Anyway, oops. I apologized and we established some ground rules (headphones if she's around and awake, no music in the morning while getting ready for work unless we both agree on it) and I'm pretty sure she likes music again now.

All of this is to say that my methodology of listening to music is potentially annoying to others and the juice that keeps me going; it also regularly changes depending on my work situation. Any time I've worked at music publications, I've kept a queue of advance promos ordered by time of receipt, so I'm not simply gravitating towards stuff I have name-recognition status with; when I worked at VICE on largely TV and movies coverage, I more or less checked out of regularly keeping up with new releases entirely, which means I've played a bit of catchup over the last few years regarding non-marquee music from 2016-2018.

My most recent rituals have been in place since, let's say mid-summer of 2020, when I launched this newsletter and needed a way to ensure that I'd continually generate Baker's Dozen playlists of music that I could write about for paid subscribers. So here's my best attempt at explaining what I do with my free time when it comes to listening:

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— I have several gargantuan playlists entirely of music I've never listened to before that are for background/semi-passive/quasi-active music listening during the day while I'm working, doing chores, playing video games, etc. They're sorted by year back to 2019 (for now), and I'm sporadically adding more to the playlists from new release calendars and trusted-source music websites when I have non-work downtime. For several years, I have several playlists because I've exceeded the 10,000 song limit on any one playlist; so, right now, I have three playlists for 2021, and two for 2022.

— As I hear releases that I like, I'll drop them into less gargantuan (but still quite sizable) "Music I Like From" playlists according to the year. Maybe I'll only throw a few songs from an album or EP on to one of these playlists, if I've been fortunate enough to have enough brain bandwidth to cull down the tracks a little. Maybe I only like one song, in which case that song goes directly into a future Baker's Dozen playlist.

— I keep track mentally of which playlist I'm listening to every day. While writing this, I'm listening to the first of two 2022 playlists; tomorrow, I'll listen to the other playlist. Unless! I don't hear anything today that I liked (in this case, I already did), in which I stick with whichever 2022 playlist I'm on for another day until I find something to love and can move on.

— The main priority, when it comes to listening and generating playlists, is always whatever year it currently is. This is mostly to keep myself up on what is going on at any given time, since it's far too easy to fall behind on the perpetual deluge of new releases. (I'm still always too behind, but not as much as I would be without this insane level of order I've applied to everything.)

— Since 2021 is not a priority right now, I only allot one day to whichever 2021 playlist is at bat before moving on to 2019, and then back to 2022. (I somehow cleared out my 2020 playlist earlier this year, more on that in a second.) If 2021 or 2019 don't yield any potential playlist fodder, I skip them in the next rotation to get to 2022 releases quicker.

— I also have a quarterly "speedrun" playlist specifically for marquee releases that takes priority over any other playlist when it has stuff in it. I had to institute this policy this year after having to apply for a job last year (I didn't get it) and make a best-of-the-year-so-far list while realizing that, shit, I have not heard, like, Faye Webster yet (I ended up loving it), and submitting a few metalcore and techno records as part of a job application isn't really a way to "score the gig" so to speak. I don't necessarily enjoy this part of my process, but it does keep me current with the only 15 records that most music writers write about and talk about every year, so it's a tradeoff.

— OK, so: When I'm on long walks, in transit to do something, or just running errands, I am rotating through the "Music I Like From" playlists to cull down Baker's Dozen selections. I have an extremely ridiculous way I crawl through these playlists that, in the interest of your time and mine, I will refrain from explaining—but, it does mean I spend more time with even the slightest of albums as a result, and I think the process has deepened my own abilities as a critical listener. Or not. Who knows.

— After I publish a Baker's Dozen, I'll file the tracks from that playlist into genre-specific playlists sorted by year. This is mostly for lifestyle utility purposes, like programming car-ride playlists or soundtracking psychedelic experiences. It also helps me pull something up quickly if someone asks me for something to recommend and I have a decent idea of what their taste profile is.

— One more thing: I mentioned the 2020 playlist being wiped out before. So, the plan is that once I make my way to the end of the "Music I Like From" playlist from that year, I'm going to combine all the 2020 tracks into one master playlist and figure out my 100 Best Songs of 2020 list for this newsletter. And then I'll publish that! It'll probably be, like, early winter 2023 at this point. Maybe.

So, there you have it, perhaps this was confusing and annoying, but either way it's the conclusion of the maiden installment of the Mailbag segment. If you want more, I need your questions, so, again, send anything you want to be answered to and I'll see what I can do.

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Jamie Larson