Today’s Top 5: Of Algorithms, Machine Learning & Music Discovery

From what I gather, aside from Pandora’s all-algorithmic approach, the streaming platforms rely on a mix of machine learning and human touch to “curate” their playlists, which – to an extent – replicate the radio experience. Unlike radio, however, one can skip songs and essentially see into the future, as all picks are visible. There’s also, obviously, no deejay sharing tidbits about the artists or local happenings. If one likes a specific track, a click leads to the artist’s individual page, where individual songs, albums and “essential” playlists can be had.

That’s likely not news to anyone but me, mind you. Although I’ve subscribed to Apple Music for a few years now, and checked out Spotify from time to time before that, the notion of automated music discovery leaves me cold; and my few experiments with it haven’t changed my opinion. Last year, for instance, I played around with Pandora for a spell and found its output lacking. It didn’t ring my bell. Likewise, YouTube’s stack of related content based on the video being watched often misses the mark.

As a result, I generally listen to songs and albums that I’ve added to either my Apple Music library or, using the Vox app, the folder that holds my CD-quality and high-resolution files, which are a mix of CD rips and digital downloads. The music itself is discovered the old-fashioned way: from reviews, articles and fellow music fans. This morning, though, out of curiosity I clicked on Apple Music’s “For You” page for the first time and listened to my personalized “New Music Mix.”

The 25 songs ranged from the old school (David Gilmour, whose new song “Yes, I Have Ghosts” is quite compelling)…

…to a lot of Americana and folk. Some songs, such as “Some Do” by Deau Eyes and “Two Characters in Search of a Country Song” by the Country Westerns, connected. Most did not.

Deau Eyes, as I soon discovered, is the stage name for Ali Thibodeau, a Richmond-based singer-songwriter who has apparently worked every odd job under the sun (and then some); her nine-song album, Let It Leave, features high-energy rockers, moody delights and an acoustic gem, “Parallel Time.”

The Country Westerns, on the other hand, echo the Long Ryders, Bottle Rockets and Replacements, among others. I cranked their self-titled debut album earlier this afternoon. It’s raw and ragged, a raucous cacophony. (Which is to say, as Diane chimed in, “they’re really good.”)

Listening to both albums back-to-back, however, made me yearn for the streaming services to up their game. In the not-so-distant past, after we brought home an album or CD, we dropped it onto the turntable or into the CD tray, and then drifted away on the melodies that spilled from the speakers. We’d glance at the album jacket a time or two, flip through the CD booklet, checking out the lyrics and production credits, and then look things over again and again…

As a result, we knew who wrote what, who played on what, etc. Why can’t the same be true today? Couldn’t there be a pop-up window that features the album jacket (front and back), and enables us to check out the inner sleeve or booklet? Although I (obviously) still buy albums on vinyl and CD, my hunch is that most – especially younger – folks do not. Why not give them a chance to experience, albeit in virtual form, what was, is and should always be a part of music discovery?

And speaking of discovery… here’s a track that wasn’t on my “New Music Mix” but should have been: “Can’t Fight” by Lianne La Havas. It’s the latest single from what’s sure to be one of the year’s top albums, which is due out July 17th. (Her last album, Blood, was one of the runners-up in 2015 for my much-ballyhooed – by me, at any rate – Album of the Year award.)

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