My Favorite Covers

Everyone here at the Roundtable is playing the cover-songs game, and now it’s my turn to make like Michael Damian and rock on!


Elton John, “One Day (At A Time)”

Back in 1974, little seven-year old me acquired his first rock and roll 45: Elton John’s epic cover of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” I wore out that little piece of vinyl during my childhood, and I even occasionally flipped the 45 over to play the b-side. “One Day (At A Time)” was another Beatles-related song—it had first appeared on John Lennon’s so-so 1973 solo album Mind Games. Elton’s version squashes John’s original like a grape, but Lennon didn’t seem to mind—you can clearly hear him singing backup on the track.


Soundgarden, “Girl U Want”

This “Outshined” b-side might just be the perfect bridge between ’80s new wave and ’90s grunge. Soundgarden slows down Devo’s original and finds a colossal groove, but musically they’re almost identical in structure. Could “Smells Like Teen Spirit” actually have more in common with “The Safety Dance” than we ever possibly imagined?

This Mortal Coil, “Song to the Siren”

This beautiful Tim Buckley song has been covered by everyone from Pat Boone to Robert Plant, but no one will ever match the ethereal beauty of This Mortal Coil’s 1983 take. This version punches me in the stomach every single time I listen to it thanks to Elizabeth Fraser’s stunning vocal.


Lindsey Buckingham, “I Am Waiting”

As I write this, I am still seething over Fleetwood Mac’s decision to fire Lindsey Buckingham on the eve of their 2018 tour. The Mac are one of my all-time favorite bands, and I absolutely worship Neil Finn as a songwriter and performer, but I will not be attending any Fleetwood Mac shows this year. Instead, I’ll just stay home and dive into Lindsey’s stellar solo work—including this whispering take on a deep cut from the Rolling Stones’ 1966 classic Aftermath.

The Clash, “I Fought the Law”

The Clash’s searing version is actually a cover of a cover. The Bobby Fuller Four took “I Fought the Law” to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966, but the song was first recorded by songwriter Sonny Curtis and the Crickets after Curtis joined the band following Buddy Holly’s death in 1959.


Ian McCulloch, “Lover, Lover, Lover”

You can’t have a top covers list without a Leonard Cohen song—I think that’s an actual law. I will, however, defy the odds by not including one of the 73,459 covers of “Hallelujah” that have bombarded the musical landscape over the past 25 years. Instead, check out this sublime cover of “Lover, Lover, Lover” from Echo & The Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch. His 1992 solo album Mysterio was a bit of a letdown to longtime Bunnymen fans, but he absolutely nailed the Cohen vibe on this overlooked gem.


Harry Nilsson, “Without You”

This might just be my favorite cover song of all time. Badfinger’s 1970 original was a perfectly solid album track, but Harry Nilsson’s remake two years later completely redefined the concept of the rock ballad. I am still amazed that this song appears on the same album as “Coconut” and “Jump in the Fire.” Harry may have been all over the place stylistically, but the crazy bastard could SING.


Wilson Pickett, “Hey Jude”

When you have Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman, you don’t even need the na-na-na-na’s. Take a sad song and make it better.

Gary Maxwell

Gary Maxwell lives in Dallas with his wife, three cats, 6,000 LPs, and a vintage Atari 2600.
He once attended 218 consecutive Texas Longhorn football games over a span of 17 years,
yet he seems unable to commit to a particular brand of shampoo. His all-time favorite TV
show is Star Trek, except when it’s dark on Tuesday. When someone asks Gary if he prefers
the Beatles or the Stones, his answer is “The Who.”

Three Essential Vinyl Demos

I’ve been a vinylphile since I was a child, when 78 RPM records like Debbie Reynolds’ “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” and Spike Jones’ “Hawaiian War Chant” captivated my young ears on my grandmother’s Victrola.


Here are three of my favorite demo discs for audio system and component evaluation and listening pleasure. In fact, I’d say you could tell everything you need to know about what your system is doing or where it’s falling short with these three records.

Bill Berry and His Ellington All Stars, For Duke

M&K Realtime RT-101


This LP attained audiophile-pantheon status shortly after it came out in 1978, and for good reason. It remains one of the most astonishingly well-recorded vinyl LPs ever. Unlike many “audiophile” discs with exceptional sonics and forgettable music, the playing is wonderful, with a jazz combo having a ball playing Ellington’s greatest hits, including “Take the A Train,” “Satin Doll,” and “Mood Indigo.”


For Duke was recorded direct-to-disc—the performance was cut live directly to the master disc, a process that eliminates the sonic degradation and generation loss that comes with recording to analog tape and then cutting the disc from tape.


It shows. In particular, the dynamics are remarkable. A couple of minutes into “Take the A Train,” Berry takes a cornet solo that is literally startling—when he comes in, it’s all you can do not to flinch in surprise (as I did the first time I heard it). The drums are powerfully lifelike, as are all the instruments—Ray Brown’s bass is jaw dropping in its richness and presence. The recording is astoundingly pure and detailed. The tonal balance is near perfect.


We’ve all heard the cliché “It sounds like the musicians are in the room” to describe the sound of a good recording, but in this case, it really does sound like that. This record is hard to find and usually expensive, but hey, that’s part of the agony and the ecstasy of record collecting.

Fritz Reiner, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Scheherazade

Analogue Productions LSC-2446 re-issue of RCA “Living Stereo” original


While For Duke is renowned for its up-front perspective, Scheherazade puts the listener in an entirely different acoustic environment, with its realistic rendering of an orchestra in the concert hall. Recorded in 1960 by producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton and brilliantly performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by maestro Fritz Reiner, this Analogue Productions re-issue is nothing less than sensational.

vinyl demos

The tonal palette of the orchestra is beautifully conveyed, with sumptuous lows, a natural midrange, and the sweet, airy upper midrange and highs that let you know you’re hearing analog at its best. On a good system, you can clearly hear the character of the hall. The quiet parts are exquisite (Sidney Hart’s violin playing could not be more nuanced and expressive) and the fortes are thrilling.  My feeble words don’t begin to do this masterpiece justice.


For decades, the legendary original RCA Living Stereo recording was nearly impossible to find, with various vinyl re-issues ranging from mediocre to very good. No longer—this 2013 Analogue Productions re-issue is magnificent. In fact, while I don’t have an original pressing on hand for comparison (though I’ve heard it many times), no less an authority than Analog Planet’s Michael Fremer thinks this re-issue actually betters the storied original. I won’t argue.

New Order, “Blue Monday”

Factory Records Factus 10 (1983 US 12-inch single)


But want to know if your system can rock? All you need do is listen to the first Oberheim DMX drum-machine beats of New Order’s “Blue Monday,” the best-selling 12-inch single of all time (according to Wikipedia), and one of the most groundbreaking, genre-defining, walloping bowl-you-over dance-music singles ever. But don’t turn it up too loud or you might blow out your woofers.


“Blue Monday” is insanely powerful and dynamic, irresistibly catchy and moving. Back in the day, this would propel people to the dance floor with its mesmerizing mix of synth and Peter Hook’s unmistakable electric bass, its layered synthesizer washes and melodies, its pull-no-punches electronic drums, and Bernard Sumner’s dryly-delivered vocals. On a good audio system, it sounds massive.


My copy is an original 1983 US version with the die-cut cover (designed to resemble a floppy disc!) and silver inner sleeve, though not one of the first UK pressings with the “FAC 73” catalog number. There are literally more than 50 1983 vinyl US, UK, and international issues listed on Discogs (and there were also 1998 and 1995 remixes and numerous CD and digital versions), so I certainly can’t vouch for the sound quality of every one of them! But since the record sold so well, you shouldn’t have to do a Where’s Waldo to find a copy like mine. Put it on the turntable and stand back!

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Cover Me: Addendum

Propellerheads Star-Crossed Lovers
Propellerheads & Martha Wainwright, “Star-Crossed Lovers”

I knew this would happen. I wrote up my random list of covers and then told myself I was going to move on. But my brain just would not stop gnawing on that bone. So it guided me back to the Propellerheads “History Repeating” video. But, as I was watching it, I realized that wasn’t supposed to be my goal. This was:


I don’t want to be indulgent, continuing to pile tracks onto my list as they pop into my head. But it would be beyond remiss of me not to mention and praise this one. And the irony is that it’s off a tribute album.

Whatever works in this cover off the Duke Ellington tribute Red Hot + Indigo is irreducible—which means it can’t be bottled, which means it both expresses and reaches beyond its moment, which means whatever it is it does right only exists on this track and nowhere else. And pop music hates that, because it runs completely against the grain of its assembly-line, Thou Must Conform nature.




“Star-Crossed Lovers” is both hardcore and gorgeous, and you really can’t do any better than that.

Michael Gaughn


Red Hot + Indigo is available for streaming on YouTube, Google Play Music, and Deezer.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Cover Me

My turn.


There are so many songs I could have listed here—and so many I could have called out for trying to be covers and falling so far short. (Something Dennis and I pondered a couple days ago: The world is awash in tribute albums—so why don’t they ever produce good covers?)


If I really took the time to suss out all the best cover songs, I could probably come up with a scary long list. But since I’m without access to most of my music collection at the moment (Die Apple! Die!), I’m just going to pluck a few favorites almost at random out of the memory stream.



Cake, “I Will Survive”

Maybe the ballsiest cover ever, and the kind of radical reinterpretation that’s been missing from pop music for a long, long time. There’s no way Cake’s loud and proud middle finger could ever make its way into the mainstream in this far less tolerant time—which is one of the most damning things you can say about the way-too-easy-to-damn present.

Ben Folds, “Songs of Love”

Only two things are guaranteed to put me in a bulletproof good mood—’20s small-group jazz and Folds’ take on this song.


(But I’ve gotta give an Honorable Mention to “Bitches Ain’t Shit” off the same album.)

Tom Waits, “Somewhere”

The moment Waits’ voice tumbles in after the languid, soaring, wistful string intro couldn’t be more wrong, and couldn’t be more right—which I’m pretty sure is the working definition of sublime.



Propellerheads, “Goldfinger”

Can a remix be a cover? Does it matter?


As long as somebody reinterprets a song in a way that simultaneously takes you someplace totally new while keeping you firmly grounded in the original, it’s a cover, no matter how they get you there. To love this track, you sort of have to shove the steep, steep downside of Bond culture off to your peripheral vision and ride the wave of the track’s giddy emotion for all it’s worth.

The Avalanches, “Since I Left You”

This one really stretches the definition of a cover—but isn’t that the whole point? Isn’t that the adventure? At what point do the samples stop being independent tracks? When are they subsumed by the larger whole and become indistinguishable elements of the new song created out of their disparate parts? And, no matter how heavily manipulated, can you ever completely extinguish the spirit of the original? But those are all questions for Walter Benjamin, I guess.

Sid Vicious, “My Way”

I realize Vicious’ punk gutting of Sinatra’s creaky anthem is an obvious choice, but it’s a lot more than the one-note joke most people think it is. Just compare it to Gary Oldman’s tepid stab in Sid & Nancy and you’ll get the point. Everybody’s drooling over Oldman right now, but he didn’t even come close to capturing Vicious, the good or the bad. (That Hollywood had to give Oldman a bigger gun tells you everything you need to know about Sid & Nancy—and Hollywood.)


(Kubrick contemplated ending Full Metal Jacket with Vicious’ “My Way”—and he should have. It would have taken the film to a hell of a lot better place than the way too obvious “Paint It Black.”)

Zooey Deschanel, “Tonight You Belong to Me”

I’ve never been able to stomach Zooey Deschanel as an actor. Her tomboy to It Girl transformation always seemed a little too forced, and New Girl was one of the worst examples of shameless pandering I’ve ever been unlucky enough to encounter. But Zooey the media spectre and Zooey the would-be performer are two other animals completely. With She & Him, she’s somehow been able to rise above her obvious limitations as a singer/musician—and her both controlled and erratic cover of this guileless song drives that point home in spades. (And if you’ve never seen it before, check this one out too.)

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

My Favorite Cover Songs Are All By Ingrid Michaelson

The ball’s in my court, I suppose. A few weeks back, Ash shared some of her favorite cover songs and challenged the rest of the Roundtable to do the same. While I was hemming and hawing and trying to think of more than one cover that I truly loved, Adrienne beat me to the punch with a followup.


Why has it taken so long for me to do the same? Because I have rules for cover songs that are nearly impossible to abide by. For me, a good cover song absolutely must sound nothing like the original. It must force me to reinterpret my relationship with the original. It must be a product of its time, not just a nostalgic romp down memory lane. It must, in other words, be like Hendrix’s cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”


I realized a thing last night, though, as I put my iPhone on shuffle and let it play to drown out the memory of a pretty rough day. In constructing those rules, I forgot that my favorite cover songs absolutely violate them in the most blatant ways possible. But then again, in violating those rules, they uphold my Number One rule of music: Ingrid Michaelson can do no wrong.

Take Ingrid’s cover of “Skinny Love” by Bon Iver, for instance. She isn’t really doing anything inventive with the arrangement, aside from trading guitar for her trademark ukulele. She isn’t changing the intent of the song. She isn’t putting anything resembling her own spin on it. Instead, she’s holding church, worshiping a song she loves and asking the audience to worship along.


Much the same could be said of her take on “Over the Rainbow,” one of the most covered songs of all time. Yes, she plays with the tempo a little, as well as the cadence of the song. But if anything, Ingrid seems to be reacting to the numerous reinterpretations of the song throughout the decades. To me, she seems to be saying, Hey, cut the crap with your theatrics and your melismatic wankery. This is a song of mournful but hopeful longing, of being trapped in a dreary world and dreaming of a better place. It’s definitely the most vulnerable version of “Over the Rainbow” recorded since 1939, and that’s exactly as it should be.

You could argue the Ingrid’s riff on Radiohead’s “Creep” takes the song to new places, but with her quiet, stripped-down cover of the song, she gets right to the heart of the self-doubt and hesitation imbedded in its lyrics. There is, of course, the fact that having said lyrics delivered by a woman instead of a man drastically changes the gender-political implications of “Creep,” and yes, that does make it fascinating on one level. But I’m not sure that was the intent here. I get the sense that this is merely Ingrid’s honest and open interpretation of what the words mean to her and how she relates to them, gender be damned.


As for her cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” what can I say, really, that I haven’t said already? Before my momma died, she once opined that anyone with the temerity to cover Elvis should be beaten half to death with a wet piece of cardboard. I’d like this think this one would have changed her mind.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

My Favorite Cover Songs

OK, Ashley, you asked for it. In a recent post, you shared some of your favorite cover songs and asked the rest of us to do the same. Open the flood gates.


Like Ashley, I’m going to begin with a Tears for Fears cover. Michael Andrews and Gary Jules’s cover of “Mad World” might be my favorite cover song of all time, and that’s saying something. A stark and haunting combination of vocal and piano, their version drives home the song’s dark core for me in a way that the original’s ’80s synth-pop sound just can’t match.

I know some people will never forgive me for what I’m about to say, but I believe that Bob Dylan songs are always better when someone else sings them. Here are two examples from my own collection. First, I adore Cassandra Wilson’s version of “Shelter from the Storm,” one of my favorite Dylan tunes. If Wilson’s rich, silky alto doesn’t create a sense of shelter, I don’t know what will.


And then there’s this nice slow-jam cover of “Just Like a Woman” by Gov’t Mule, Gregg Allman & Friends. I could

listen to it all day. On a side note, I always thought the lyric was, “She tastes just like a woman” (hey, the next line is, “She makes love just like a woman,” so it made sense to me). Then I learned that the line is, “She takes just like a woman,” which changes the tone entirely. I sense a topic for a later post: Songs you loved until you learned the correct lyrics.

Next up is William Shatner’s cover of Pulp’s “Common People.” That’s right, I said William Shatner. You got a problem with that? Shatner’s 2004 album Has Been was produced by Ben Folds, and the best decision he made was to bring in Joe Jackson to provide the backing vocals on “Common People.” Jackson lends just the right amount of British contempt to complement Shatner’s American disdain. Pulp’s original song is really catchy and makes you want to bounce. Shatner’s version makes you want to punch someone in the face—but, you know, in a good way.

I know it’s April, but I can’t talk about my favorite covers without mentioning U2’s version of Greg Lakes’s “I Believe in Father Christmas,” which the band released a few years ago to raise money for RED. The original is surely a classic, but there’s something about the quieter U2 version—The Edge’s classic weeping guitar sound combined with Bono’s characteristic wail in the “I wish you a hopeful Christmas” line—that makes me weepy every time I hear it.

Speaking of getting all weepy, my last pick is Peter Gabriel’s remake of “The Book of Love” by The Magnetic Fields. It appeared in the remake of the film Shall We Dance?, and Scrubs fans will mostly certainly remember it from the finale. Gabriel’s vocals and orchestration give the song a sweetness and sentimentality that pulls at the heart strings, but the almost Bowie-esque quality of the original is fantastic, too.


I could name a bunch more, but I think it’s time for someone else to grab the ball and run with it.

—Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer
than she’s willing to admit. She is currently the managing editor and video specialist
at Adrienne lives in Colorado, where she spends far too
much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time being in them.

OK, iTunes: It’s Not Me, It’s You

I gotta say, I’m starting to feel a lot like that dude in the recent Samsung Galaxy commercial—the one who’s been an Apple fanboy from Day One yet finally decides to make the switch to a Galaxy smartphone. Only, in my case, I don’t necessarily want to break up with my iPhone—I just want to break up with iTunes.


Almost every computer I’ve owned over the past 20-plus years has been a Mac. I do own one Lenovo PC laptop that I only use when measuring/calibrating display devices and checking any PC-centric things that might pop up when conducting AV reviews. But for the vast majority of my computer operations, I use and love my MacBook Pro.


Since its release in 2001, iTunes has been my music-management software of choice. I’ve ripped a lot of CDs using that software program. (Of course, I can’t do that anymore unless I want to buy an external disc drive—my one beef with newer MacBooks.) I’ve also bought a lot of music through the iTunes Store and still own a lot older, copy-protected AAC files. And ever since the day I purchased my first iPhone (the only smartphone brand I’ve ever owned), I have synced all that iTunes music between phone and computer.


These days, my iPhone is my primary music source. I use it in my car. I use it on my walks. I use it at home, streaming music via AirPlay to my Onkyo AV receiver and, more frequently, to a couple of excellent Oppo Sonica tabletop speakers. (Farewell, Oppo—I’m gonna miss you!) And you know the one thing I demand from my primary music source? That it works the way it’s supposed to, without hassle or complication.


For years, as colleagues touted the benefits of other music-management software, I’ve remained loyal to iTunes. Maybe it’s laziness. Maybe it’s fear of change. Or maybe it’s because for so long the syncing process between my Mac and iPhone was too seamless for me to abandon it. I didn’t want to mess with a system that just worked.

Then Apple went and messed with it. Again . . . and again . . . and again. Each version seemingly getting worse than the one before it. I blame the Cloud. The woes all began with the arrival of iCloud and the music-matching nightmares that go along with it.


So many things I would have done, but clouds got in the way . . .


There was a time when I could add a song to a playlist on my iPhone, and, when I synced with iTunes, it would just add the song to the same playlist on my Mac. I know this happened. I remember. Now, when I do this, I end up with two versions of that playlist on my phone: One with the song and one without the song. 


Then there are the times when I’ve synced my phone and computer and, for no reason I can explain, several playlists are completely empty on both devices. Just . . . empty.  Songs are suddenly grayed out and need to be downloaded again from the cloud. I regularly have to tell the iPhone to “trust” my computer again, even though these two devices have known each other for years.


Always something breaking us in two . . .


I think my favorite is when, out of the blue, I start getting messages that I can’t sync my iPhone because there isn’t enough space. (I assure you, there’s enough space.) I try various suggested fixes and ultimately have to restore my phone—that’s right, completely wipe it and reboot—to get the two devices to sync.


Maybe there are simple explanations for these problems. Maybe there are quick fixes I haven’t been able to find. Maybe it really is me after all. Maybe my older operating system just ain’t compatible with the newest version of iTunes.


The fact remains that I’ve officially reached the end of a very long and generous rope. My frustration now outweighs my laziness and fear of change. It’s time to find myself a new music manager.


Been down one time, been down two times, I’m never going back again.


Suggestions are welcome.

Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer
than she’s willing to admit. She is currently the managing editor and video specialist
at Adrienne lives in Colorado, where she spends far too
much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time being in them.

Confessions of a Shameless Cover Songs Lover

There are few subjects I feel as strongly about in music as I feel about cover songs. You know, the age-old tradition of artists taking a timeless classic and making it their own, keeping the basic melody and words but adding their own flavor and tone. Or totally butchering it, killing the original song’s spirit and the spirits of any listener.


You could say I have a pretty hot and cold relationship with cover songs. I either love them or hate them—but a good cover? It’s almost as good as discovering the original—sometimes even better. Not only does it give you a totally different perspective on the lyrics but it can transform the meaning and the feel of the original. It can turn an upbeat song somber or a serious topic lighter.


One of the best parts of streaming-music platforms like Spotify is the ability to find lesser-known covers. But no matter how good I am at finding killer cover songs from my favorite and lesser-known artists, I know there are many I’m missing.


How about I share my top list and you share yours?


Let’s start with an ‘80s classic that definitely played in your dentist-office waiting room on repeat. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” was among Tears for Fears biggest hits (along with “Shout,” their dark rebellion anthem) and tackles similar themes of searching for power and the struggle it creates.

A trio of sisters from Portland who call themselves Joseph decided to tackle the TFF beat on their 2017 album Stay Awake, and it’s perfect in every way. Joseph is a folk band, so the tune is decidedly more mellow than the synth-pop original, but the cover’s quieter tone forces the lyrics forward, creating an tune that feels as relevant as ever.


(And if you like it, you’ll love all of their work. Thank me later.) 

There are several covers of the Leonard Cohen’s gorgeous, gutting “Hallelujah,” and it’s honestly hard to choose which one I love the most. Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright (the piano in his version is to die for)—they are all beautiful in their own way. But in 2010, k.d. lang took the stage at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony and belted out what is to this date the most beautiful rendition of any live song I’ve heard, anywhere.

There’s nothing more to say that will do it justice—but it’s worth a listen if you happen to be unfamiliar and it’s important (I think) to watch her sing it live:


This might be an unpopular opinion but I love Walk the Moon. They are a newer, pop rock band and they’ve had a few radio hits. I’m not generally one to fawn over pop music, but their music just makes me want to dance. I can’t help it. And their live shows are so much fun. In a world where everything feels so damn heavy all of the time, they are my escape. Some people have trashy TV—I have Walk the Moon.

Their last hit, “Shut Up and Dance” was overplayed on the radio, almost ruining its perfection as a great gym workout song. (I still love it.)

And it’s hard to see how it could feel like a ballad—and yet. Kina Grannis. A lovely human with an incredible voice and a penchant for turning popular tunes into art.


You can see where this is going. Her version of “Shut Up and Dance” stopped me in my tracks. “Felt it in my chest as she looked at me, ooh, we were born to be together” and you forget you’re listening to a song that made it to a 2015 Kidz Bop album. That is not a typo.

I could go on and on with cover recommendations—perhaps this deserves a Part 2? But it’s your turn: What’s on your top cover songs playlist and why? I’m itching to add some new tunes into rotation.

Ashley Daigneault

Ashley Daigneault knew she was a writer before she left kindergarten and has a particular
love for writing about tech, literature, music, and politics. She is currently the VP at Caster
, a full-service tech PR and social-media firm, and works with B2B and
B2C tech brands. She lives in New England with her family, which includes kids and dogs
who think they are kids.

What Streaming Music Algorithms Really Measure

streaming music algorithms

photo by Kaboompics / Karolina from Pexels

It’s no secret that streaming music services are collecting data about us and using it to serve up other music we might like. I’m a diehard Spotify user, and they offer this feature in a few ways—there’s the Release Radar playlist, which curates new releases from artists you listen to often or might like, and Discover Weekly, which pulls in artists you may or may not know but are similar to ones in your universe. Then there’s the “radio station” option, originally pioneered by Pandora.


I left Pandora a long, long time ago because I found its suggestions vapid, poorly curated, and lazy. But there’s an even bigger debate happening among music lovers about the validity and quality of algorithms in any service and their ability to truly pinpoint our musical tastes.


A recent (informal) survey of several friends who are avid users of streaming services all pointed to a similar sentiment: Algorithms are crap. As one friend described, “It wants to pigeonhole me as either a get-off-my-lawn Freedom Rocker or a 19-year-old young woman.” The problem with algorithms is the same problem with generalizations—even 19-year-old women don’t all listen to the same kind of thing. And yet nuance is hard for a machine to learn.


My experience is similar to theirs—out of every curated playlist I pour over, there are maybe two or three songs that resonate. But I keep going back to those playlists because it’s kind of like eating trail mix that has dark chocolate bits inside. Sure, most handfuls are going to deliver raisins and sunflower seeds and little chunks of dried fruit—but once in a while, you’re going to find a few pieces of delicious, creamy chocolate. So you keep plunging your hand in the bag.

streaming-music algorithms

Streaming-music platforms may give us access to a plethora of choices and options in mere seconds, but why is it so hard to pinpoint our musical tastes? I went back and listened to my Discover Weekly playlist and tried to analyze each piece. They were all mostly about being strong and overcoming hard things—probably because I’ve been listening to a lot of what some might call motivational material lately, trying to psych myself into being strong enough to deal with a big life event that’s in the works.


And then it hit me. Algorithms aren’t measuring our musical likes and dislikes so much as they are mapping our emotional states at any given point. They’re trying to capture the mood, melody, tone, and overall feel of each piece we listen to and then spit similar songs back at us, mirroring what they think we’re feeling.


The problem with this is that we’re humans. Our moods change, all the damn time. Most of us have very diversified music tastes, and we listen based on how we feel. On a foggy early-spring New England day, I have a strong penchant for Andrew Bird. But don’t play me a song off Noble Beast on a hot July day for the love of god.


With all the buzz about robots and their impending takeover of all the jobs, we can rest assured that predicting human moods and therefore musical tastes is probably best left to us humans. Machine-generated melodies just don’t quite get it right.

—Ashley Daigneault

Ashley Daigneault knew she was a writer before she left kindergarten and has a particular
love for writing about tech, literature, music, and politics. She is currently the VP at Caster
, a full-service tech PR and social-media firm, and works with B2B and
B2C tech brands. She lives in New England with her family, which includes kids and dogs
who think they are kids.

The Kids’ Tunes Are Alright

new music

I’ve been playing a metric crap-ton of the new Harmonix/Hasbro musical card game DropMix recently, which has had the unexpected effect of starting more conversations about music than I can remember having in a long, long time. And a lot of them have been great discussions about key and tempo and genre and the common threads that wind through the totality of popular music. Far too many of these conversations, though, have boiled down to one curmudgeonly premise: That no good music has been made since X, with X being the year of the curmudgeon in question’s birth plus 25 years (give or take half a decade).


Look, I get it. I do. Much as I love Andrew Bird and Sarah Jarosz and Bleachers and all manner of modern musical artists, they don’t have quite the same emotional impact on me as do Nirvana and 10,000 Maniacs and Guns N’ Roses. And the reason they don’t mostly boils down to one major difference: I wasn’t listening to The Mysterious Production of Eggs when I did my first load of laundry in my own apartment, or Song Up in Her Head the first time I got laid, or Don’t Take the Money when I was learning how to drive.


The thing is, these curmudgeons know deep down that they’re full of it. Because every time I come back with, “But have you even heard the new Sleater-Kinney album? Or Mates of State’s new jam?” they invariably roll their eyes at me, as if to say, yeah, look, I realize there’s some good music these days, but most of it sucks.

Here’s my reply to that: Most music has always sucked. Want to play a fun game? Think of your favorite year for new music. 1968 just happens to be mine, despite the fact that I wasn’t born yet. It’s the year that gave us Electric Ladyland and “Mrs. Robinson.” It’s the year of The White Album and Waiting for the Sun and CCR’s eponymous first effort. In ’68, we got Music from Big Pink and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Janis Joplin belted out “Piece of My Heart” and Cream burned down the house with “White Room.” The No. 1 song of the year was “Hey Jude,” for goodness’ sake.


You know what No. 2 was? “Love Is Blue” by Paul Mauriat. Yeah, no, I don’t have a clue, either. Venture out of the safe territory of the Top 25 tracks for 1968 and most of it’s just utter garbage, aside from a handful of gems like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Magic Carpet Ride.” And again, this is the year I uphold as the single finest in pop-music history. Fast-forward to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—my formative years—and the situation is far direr.


The thing is, we don’t remember the stinkers, do we? We put the best of our youth up on a pedestal and imagine them to be representative of the music we grew up with. And here’s the thing: Your kids and grandkids will do the same. If you think a bunch of old folks are going to be sitting around their retirement communities in the year 2073, rocking their walkers to “24K Magic” by Bruno Mars, I want some of whatever it is you’re smoking.

You want to discover the music being made today that’s really worth listening to? Grab your twentysomething son or daughter or niece or grandkid, go on a road trip, and take turns picking the tunes. You’ll quickly learn what they dig, and you’ll be able to share music from your youth that resonates with them. And they’ll return the favor.

Road trips with my daughter have turned me onto some righteously awesome new tunes and artists, running the gamut from Alexi Murdoch to Rae Morris to Little Jackie to the Lumineers. And spending that time with her listening to all of that music rewired my brain in the same way the best music of my youth did. To the same degree? Of course not. Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. But ask me again in another twenty years, and I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say that Alexi Murdoch’s “Orange Sky” is going to resonate with me just as much as the Breeders’ “Cannonball” does now.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.