As someone who listens to a lot of music, collects a lot of music, and plays a lot of music in various ways, I find myself constantly learning of artists, trying out new and old artists I have missed to date, and searching for the next artist I will enjoy. In a given year, I will listen to hundreds of records or artists that are new to me regardless of when they were released, and I have great fun doing so on a wide variety of formats. As I have noted on the blog before, one of my favorite things to do is go out searching for music.
Like everyone else I have come across to date, I have my favorites as well. While some people I have met have one favorite artist or record, others have 100 or more favorite artists or records. In fact, I have learned over the years that what constitutes a favorite (i.e., what it means to say this record or album is a or the favorite) varies dramatically individually and collectively. In some cases, people find favorites in the works that speak to their most cherished memories or hardest moments in life. In other cases, people find favorites in a specific sound or style. In still other cases, people find favorites because that voice or that lyrical structure is “just the best” however they define “just the best” consciously or otherwise. I could likely fill a book with similar rationales behind the development of favorites, but the point I have noticed is that variation is the rule if there is a rule, and favorites can come in a wide variety of types, styles, origins, and other facets for a given person or group.
In my own case, I am one of the people that has multiple favorites. While I have many favorite albums and songs, here I will focus on my favorite artists and the origins of these artists as my favorites. I do this both for simplicity (i.e., to pick a topic to focus this post) and because I am currently experiencing the next set of additions to my favorite artist list so the topic is on my mind and my stereo each day at present. I share these selections as an example of the development of favorites, and an opportunity for anyone to share their own favorites and definitions of what makes a favorite because in my experience these elements of musical (and other artistic) experience often speak to the person in very personal and important ways (I admit they do for me).
To this end, I should start with what “favorite artist” means to me. For me, this phrase means a couple things. First, a favorite for me – whether artist, song, album, genre, or other category of music or other forms of life – is something that speaks to me emotionally in a way that other things in this world do not. There are some things that – for lack of a better phrase – hit me or captivate me in ways that other things do not. Whether I’m thinking about the feeling of parmesan cheese on my tongue, the sense of comfort I get walking through any place that looks like a warehouse, or the desire to dance that comes over me when I hear Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (on my own long list of favorite songs), the entity in question facilitates an emotional reaction within me that other forms of – to use the above examples – food, architecture, or song do not. Emotionally, these things feel special to me.
Second, a favorite artist for me is someone (individual or collective) capable of regularly producing these special or different emotional reactions within me. They don’t do it with one song (Michael Jackson is an example of such a case for me) or with one record (Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” is an example of such a case for me) or with a couple songs (Reba McEntire is an example of such a case for me – about 18 songs) or with a couple of albums (Alanis Morrissette is an example of such a case for me – three albums) or with a specific selection of songs on a compilation (like a Greatest Hits list, Boyz II Men are an example of such a case for me with their Greatest Hits collection that I have). Rather, these are artists who hit me emotionally over and over again with every record and in some cases everything they release.
Put simply, my favorite artists are those who emotionally get a reaction out of me with a large amount of material (in some cases with every single thing they ever release). They are artists that I always look forward to MORE, and that have (to my mind) never released a single song that was not at least excellent and usually release only things that are far better than anything else I have ever heard in my own opinion and emotional reaction. I truly love hundreds of artists, and I truly like and enjoy thousands more artists, but my favorites stand head and shoulders above everything else I have ever encountered in music. As I noted in a previous post when discussing one of these artists, I generally feel like these artists are in some way specifically speaking to me, my life, my feelings, my desires, my hopes, my fears, and every other element of who I think I am overall throughout the many aspects of my life and experience. For me, they are rare, they are special, and they are important beyond any feeling I can put into words.
With all this in mind, I have noticed some interesting patterns in my life to date concerning favorite artists. First, they tend to be artists who straddle or cross genre boundaries in one way or another during their careers. Put simply, they rarely fit neatly into this or that genre especially when the entirety of their work is considered, and they often are the source of vigorous discussion and debate in commentaries, fan experiences, and even on the lists I mentioned in a recent entry. Considering that my own existence is rather complex and nuanced in relation to static or stable categorizations, my guess is that the variation in these artists’ endeavors speaks to me on some level that I cannot fully explain.
Second, my favorite artists tend to be known for and / or heavily dependent upon instrumental experimentation and variation. Stated another way, they are typically artists who utilize a wide variety of instrumental techniques, sounds, and influences in their work. They typically play multiple instruments (as a group or as an individual) and utilize different types of instrumentation at different times in their careers. In fact, they are typically artists that – if one looks back through their careers – have done a lot of performances and collaborations with artists in varied genres, artists from varied social backgrounds and identity categories, and artists from varied generations. They also tend to be artists who have done a lot of work covering the work of other artists from a wide variety of backgrounds and styles.
Third, my favorite artists have come to me over time while remaining relevant and personally significant throughout my life. In fact, thus far my life has provided me three new favorite artists each decade (to date) who I have continued to cherish and turn to more often than other artists throughout the passage of time. While many of them produced wonderful work before I learned about them, I sort them based on the decade when I discovered them because that is when they first began speaking to me. I find it fascinating that within a life characterized mostly be variation these artists have continued to speak to me in special ways no matter what else changed along the way. In the 1980’s, for example, it was Elton John, Prince, and Guns n Roses that set my desire for music on fire, and in many ways the rest of the favorites demonstrate and integrate elements of the work done by these artists in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The twinkling melodies of Elton John, the pure genius of experimentation and nuance embedded in Prince, and the raw emotional instrumentation and vocalization of pleasure, pain and all that lies between these poles offered by Guns n Roses show up throughout my favorites.
In terms of my favorites (beyond the three just noted), the 1990’s brought me into contact with the Counting Crows, Pearl Jam, and Garth Brooks. The 2000’s introduced me to Ryan Adams, Wilco (and especially Jeff Tweedy) and Neko Case. These experiences – especially as I sit in a home and a life surrounded by these 9 artists who dominate my music collection and listening in many ways even today – have been on my mind of late because in 2015 I finally stumbled across this decade’s “WOW I MUST HAVE ALL OF THIS AND LISTEN TO IT FOREVER ON REPEAT” in the forms of Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, and the Avett Brothers. If past experience is any clue, these three will continue to dominate my playlists, purchasing endeavors, and suggestions for others in the coming years the same way they have over the past few months and the same way the other 9 have for a long time now because once again I cannot put into words what their work makes me feel and once again I cannot find anything they have released that is not miles above anyone else out there for me (with the exception of the existing 9 favorites).
So those are the favorite artists that speak to me the most important ways. I would like to close this piece by asking readers to think about what are your favorite artists (or songs, albums, and other things) and why do you think that is. How do you define a favorite, and what does a favorite provide you that other options do not? I think these are fascinating questions that may both facilitate self reflection concerning how we see ourselves and our lives and provide opportunities for others to gain more of a picture of who we are, want to be, or feel like in relation to our lives and world.