On Taste (part 1): Why we like what we like

Arriving to the party as I typically do with a tardiness way beyond fashionable, last summer I signed up to Last FM after lobbying from impassioned Last FM advocate Adam John Miller. When I signed up, as Last FM does, it collected, counted and ordered the plays that had accumulated in my Windows Media Player (yes, I still use it). When scanning my most listened-to artists it presented me with few surprises. I didn’t remember listening to Damien Jurado anything like that much, but you can’t argue with the stats. And what surprised me least were my top two artists: Guided by Voices, then the Mountain Goats.

I suspected I was not alone, and checked Last FM to confirm – yep, both Adam and John’s top played artists were also Guided by Voices, then the Mountain Goats (okay, so John actually had the Wednesday Club at #2, but a lot of those plays were strictly business, right?).

Knowing Adam and John well enough this was not in the least surprising. But it struck me to be shown in stark, undeniable statistics just how closely our listening habits, and therefore tastes, coincided. For three people to not only have the top artist in common but the second as well must be quite rare. Thereafter our top artists diverged somewhat, but there were plenty of other shared names high up the list: The Magnetic Fields, Pavement, Built to Spill, Galaxie 500…er, Robert Pollard – and, yes, The Wednesday Club.

For sure, the three of us have been close friends for a while now and there were a couple of years in particular when we spent an unhealthy amount of time together. So naturally we shared between us the records and bands we most liked which meant we would have listened to a lot of the same music. In addition, we would have had numerous shared listening experiences – putting a record on whilst the three of us played Sensible Soccer, for instance. Singing along to a record while hanging out with your friends provides a kind of collective affirmation which is surely only going to reinforce the attachment you have to it. And finally, of course, we were in a band together, where you would expect shared musical tastes to be a given.

And yet I refused to dismiss this congruence of tastes as a banal or somehow inevitable consequence of our friendship.

Last year I read Carl Wilson’s excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series of books which interrogates the Celine Dion album Let’s Talk About Love. It is essentially an enquiry into the nature of taste and aesthetic judgment which has apparently even found its way onto reading lists of some degree courses on aesthetics. At the very least it’s led me to think a lot about why we like the things we do.

Wilson considers the idea (by no means his own – I think he credits it to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) that our tastes reflect values which we have or would like to see ourselves as having. Our taste judgments are acts of social positioning, a way of orienting and demarcating our social status. They are not disinterested but aspirational; they embody how we choose to present our social status to the world and are thus indicators of class. At this juncture I can’t help but think of Johnson, the unflappable and unabashed yuppie from Peep Show who blared ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ by Toploader from his BMW.

I was initially sceptical, but the thesis, when explained by Wilson, becomes quite persuasive. If true, it would make the congruence of the individual Wednesday Club members’ musical tastes even more remarkable. For if our tastes are meant to represent a set of values or principles which we chose to project, what values were Guided by Voices or the Mountain Goats meant to embody that evidently resonated so strongly with us? In the case of Guided by Voices perhaps it’s slapdash recording techniques, poor quality control and drinking heavily – those are core Wednesday Club values, after all.

Less facetiously, of course you would expect to share with your closest friends a clutch of values, some presumably fairly important, others less so. But couldn’t there be another band who reflects those same values just as well who I didn’t like half as much? Or didn’t like at all? But maybe I’m being too specific, and what we are talking about here is a shared love of indie rock generally, and perhaps the specific representative bands aren’t important.

The ‘social positioning’ hypothesis appears to apply more successfully to some types of taste better than others. It might perhaps explain why different people might choose to wear Nike trainers, Doc Martens or Jimmy Choo shoes, for instance. The example of fashion is instructive. For someone dressed in a flashy Armani suit, is taste signifying social status, or is social status determining taste? Not everyone can afford expensive clothes, whereas musical taste is arguably more democratic. It doesn’t really cost any more or less to like reggae than hip hop. For sure, watching a small local band may cost less than going to the opera, which may cost less than going to a Madonna concert. But special packaging aside, most records cost about the same, and anyone with internet access can listen to whatever music they like through Youtube, Spotify, etc.

My main beef with the ‘social positioning’ hypothesis is that it doesn’t seem to explain the personal, physical experience of enjoying music – it fails to do justice to the fist-pumping joy I feel when belting out the chorus of ‘Tractor Rape Chain’. It’s hard to believe that the visceral experience of listening, enjoying and being moved by music is due to its creators representing some values which you choose to confer your social status. I’d like to think that I prefer GBV to, say, The Who because they move, entertain and excite me more, not because they more accurately fulfil the aesthetic criteria that my social class values.

The hypothesis seems less adept at explaining how we experience our musical preferences than how we present them to others (Last FM is, after all, nothing if not a tool for presenting our musical taste). The two aspects need not coincide, and this distinction seems to be highlighted by ‘guilty pleasures’, those songs we would rather not admit to liking, which rather defy the ‘social positioning’ hypothesis. In these instances, clearly, musical taste as we experience it very deliberately does not map onto taste as we present it to others.

Given the similarity of our tastes it also struck me the extent to which Adam, John and I could still argue about music. There was plenty within our shared ‘taste pool’ which we could disagree on. To pick a nerdy example, I would strongly dispute Adam and John’s assertion that The Sunset Tree is the best Mountain Goats record, and to me this was as clear and self-evident (as opinions always seem to be to their holders) as my belief that Guided by Voices are a better band than The Who.

Similarly, I got quite irritated – to an extent which itself irritated me – by a recent Drowned in Sound edition of the ubiquitous ‘best album ever’ poll. The list was topped by a slightly unusual but not altogether shocking choice: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, a record I love but would not personally put towards the very top of the pile. Further down, the list featured a lot of familiar and predictable entries and, at the same time, a number of my favourites, some with a much higher ranking than they normally get in these polls (Illinois or In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, to pick two). In short, I would probably conclude that it was very broadly a reasonable enough approximation of my musical taste.

But one thing still rankled. And that thing was bloody Interpol. The DiS ‘community’ had named Turn On The Bright Lights their fourth favourite album. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a solid enough album. A bit derivative, naturally, and it slumps heavily in the second half if you ask me, but a good debut. Fourth, though? Interpol had even managed to leave off the album my favourite song of theirs, ‘The Specialist’.

In the countless best album polls there are always going to be entries you personally disagree with. But here was a list complied by individuals who clearly had tastes similar to me and whose values supposedly chimed uncommonly well with mine. How, I thought, could these people collectively get it so wrong? And why did it annoy me so much?

But ultimately, I have to resort to that most facile truism that it would be a dull world if all our tastes were the same. I guess musical preferences are just not all that rational, predictable or explainable. As they say, there’s no accounting for taste.


Adam’s Music Mountain

In response to my Music Mountain, the enigmatic Adam John Miller has done his first piece for the ‘Club site.

He says

“So, this is my “Music Mountain”  The idea: Pick your favourite band that has released 1 album, 2 albums, 3 albums etc. I got to 18. I tried to ignore Live albums and Compilations and stick to Original Studio Albums. Make your own!”

1 album    –   The Unicorns
2 albums   –   Neutral Milk Hotel
3 albums   –  Galaxie 500
4 albums   –  The Velvet Underground
5 albums   –  Pavement
6 albums   –  Tortoise
7 albums   –  Mercury Rev
8 albums  –   Built To Spill
9 albums   –  The Sea and Cake
10 albums –  The Magnetic Fields
11 albums  –  Elf Power
12 albums  –  Yo La Tengo
13 albums  –  The Flaming Lips
14 albums  –  The Mountain Goats
15 albums  –  Pere Ubu
16 albums  –  Kevin Ayers
17 albums  –  Guided By Voices
18 albums  –  Julian Cope

John’s Music Mountain

According to some anthropologists, it is our ability to group things that makes us human.  We can differentiate and distinguish things not only by a single feature (“a cat”, say) but by many. We can even group disparate things. Both a bear and a chocolate bar are brown; a steak and a chocolate bar are both foods. Apparently this gives us a massive evolutionary advantage over the other animals, the poor saps, as we can then use this information to make well informed decisions.

With this in mind I am exercising my humanity by pointlessly cataloguing bands I like! Woo!

I’ve made a “Music Mountain” (patent pending).. – where I’ve put my favourite band who’ve made one album* on the top, favourite band who made 2 albums second and so on.

I did nine bands originally and then I thought, “that’s not enough, there’s barely even insane.” So I upped it to 17. And yes there are some shitty albums in there. Out of the 153 albums….

*by album I mean studio or all live album with previously unrecorded music on it.

The bands in order are:

1 album     – Young Marble Giants

2 albums   – Neutral Milk Hotel

3 albums   – Boards Of Canada

4 albums   – The Smiths

5 albums   – Pavement

6 albums   – Red House Painters

7 albums   – Husker Du

8 albums   – Radiohead

9 albums   – Dinosaur Jr.

10 albums – The Magnetic Fields

11 albums  – The Beatles

12 albums –  Captain Beefheart

13 albums – The Flaming Lips

14 albums – The Mountain Goats

15 albums – R.E.M.

16 albums – Sonic Youth

17 albums – Guided By Voices


The Mountain Goats

The Mountain Goats are a heartfelt, super literate (kind-of) band.  If you don’t know them, they are John Darnielle’s project running from the early 90s up until the moment you’re reading this, starting as a super-lofi, cassette only, cult band, and turning into a lusher, hifi 4AD/Merge band. For my money, John Darnielle writes some of the most affecting, appeal-to-the-senses lyrics you’ll ever find, hitting you in the gut on a huge variety of subjects from monsters to bible stories, to his own past to the Chicago Cubs – usually written from the view of a person who has reached a crux point in their life.

Untitled Birthday cake song.. the Ur Text for mountain goats songs.

And while I admit their songs aren’t going to be to everyone’s taste, not being hypermelodic or danceable, there is a huge variety of subject matter covered, even if it at times you’d swear he’s writing the same song again and again (N.B I write this as a super fanboy nerd)…

So I thought, who better to do a reductive “rank the albums” style thing on?

1. The Sunset Tree (2005)

The third of the post lofi albums. I originally wrote it off as a substandard rewrite of his previous material. Shows what I know, and also calls into question somewhat the veracity of this list. As time went on I began to appreciate this autobiographical album, a prequel of sorts to “We Shall All Be Healed”, as the masterpiece it is. Telling the story of JD’s life with his abusive stepfather, these are a gorgeously realised set of jaw-dropping songs, comparing the horror that existed in Danrielle’s young life with the beauty and escapes that could be found there too. Has exhilarating songs like “This Year” – “I’m going to make it through this year if it kills me” – and eulogic  beauty in the tender “Pale Green Things”. Essential.

2. The Coroner’s Gambit (2000)

The first album I heard by the MGs so it’s bound to have a place in my heart. I couldn’t believe the intensity of songs such as “Family Happiness ” – “You can arm me to the teeth, you can’t make me go to war” – or the perfect descriptions of infatuation “baseballs fly faster when you watch them fly”. I’m really sorry to write this, but I felt as if my head had been blown open. Finally, after years of dross, poetry I could like.

3. All Hail West Texas (2002)

JD’s kiss off to the lofi genre, recorded solely on his trusty boombox, and different in tone to the Coroner’s Gambit. There’s a lovely lightness to some of the narrative based tales here, starting with two of JD’s most beloved songs “Fall Of The Star High School Running Back”  and “The Best Heavy Metal Band Out Of Denton”, the latter of which is a perfect summation of teenage dreams and the consequences of quashing them (later expanded in the excellent 33 1 3 book “Master Of Reality”). This album also contains the lines “hi diddle dee dee,a  pirate’s life for me”. What’s not to like?

4. Tallahasse (2002)

The first super duper hi fi album and, not coincidentally, their first release on 4AD. With help from his friend Frank(lin) Bruno of the great Nothing Painted Blue and featuring the Adam-John-Miller-influencin’ bass playing of Mr. Peter Hughes for the first time. This tells the story of the much tortured Alpha Couple (the pair John Darnielle had been torturing in song for ten years)  and features songs and lyrics that will resonate with anybody who’s been in a slightly tortured relationship (e.g. everyone). Something for everyone to like then but it helps if you wear glasses and like to wear thick jumpers. Contains their biggest “hit”, and best anti-love song ever, “No Children”.

5. Sweden (1995)

The second “proper” MGs album. May or may not be a concept album. Contains the backing vocals of female bassist Rachel Ware, as do most very early albums. Contains gems such as “Some Swedish Trees” and “The Recognition Scene”. The album isn’t actually about Sweden but I hear if you squint at the cover for long enough the album’s connection to Sweden will be revealed, along with some dark, dark secrets. Enjoy the flubby bass.

6. Full Force Galesburg (1997)

Holds a whole mountain of appeal-to-the-senses, naturey type writing even for JD. And mentions of animals. Contains several outstanding songs including Masher, possibly my favourite Mountain Goats song, which puts it close for all time. Similar in tone to albums like Nine Black Poppies and Zopilote Machine but the superior songs make it stand out. Sorry I’m losing control of the language again.

7. Heretic Pride (2008)

Monsters was the starting theme for this album. But not all of it’s about monsters. I don’t think. “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” kicks all kinds of ass, as do a whole bunch of these songs. Nice video here for Sax Rohmer #1 as well.  Probably could have done with out the Bob-Dylan-reggae of New Zion, but whaddaiknow?

8., 9. and 10. Bitter Melon Farm, Ghana, and Protein Source of the Future, Now! (2002)

Three CDs of John Darnielle’s early tape songs. Pulls you into an alternative universe of swapping tapes and John Darnielle’s kitchen and boots and dreams and town and… Contains gems such as “Billy the Kid’s Dream of The Magic Shoes ?”, “Golden Boy Peanuts” and a cover of Ace Of Base’s “The Sign” – what a tune! Not a place to start but a wonderful place to get lost in.

11. Get Lonely (2006)

A break up album that lays open pure devastation in a literal, non abstract, narrativily way. Nails the feeling of disorientation, pointlessness and sadness this all entails. JD told an interviewer you had to have experienced a bad, bad break up to appreciate it. I can see that. Subdued, small and succesful,  just not an album I turn to as often as some others.

12. Nine Black Poppies (1995)

A reviewer somewhere, once (how’s that for referencing?) said they couldn’t imagine The MGs topping Cubs in Five when they first heard it (but now realise the hifi stuff’s great too). I see what they mean: “The stars willl spell out the answers to tomorrow’s crossword and I will love you again.”  Contains the most out of time literally-phoned-in performance I’ve ever heard on the last track, “Lonesome Surprise.” This is global!

13. We Shall All Be Healed (2004)

A fine collection of songs telling the story of JD’s young adult years that only suffers from not being as great as the albums (Tallahassee and The Sunset Tree) that sandwich it. Pretty damn dark subject and lyrics hidden in some pretty poppy songs (for The Mountain Goats that is). Put me off heroin for life.

14. The Life Of The World To Come (2009)

All based on Biblical verses, but not being a biblical scholar of any kind I couldn’t tell you anything of their provenance. Has a lot brilliant understated songs on it and some of JD’s trademark fist-to-foolish-heart lyricism  – “I will do what you ask me to do, because of what I feel of about you”. Doesn’t quite coalesce for me but a fine album nonetheless. Listen to 1 Samule 15:23 for a delicate, non-judgemental song about a faith healer. Go down to the nether worl, plant grapes.

15. Nothing For Juice (1996)

An early lofi album, with a bit of varied instrumentation. The lyrics are there but the melodies aren’t quite. An enjoyable listen and similar in tone to Sweden and Full Force Galesburg with some songs giving early(ish) signs of the type of song Darneille would master on The Coroner’s Gambiut. Contains an almost unrecognisable cover of Robert Johnson’s timeless “Hellhound On My Trail” and 4 “Going To” songs for fans of the “Going To” series.

16. All Eternals Deck (2011)

The lastest offering. Not bad, just not great. “God Damn These Vampires” is a highlight and some of these tracks were recorded with a death metal producer, which gives these tracks an breathing-on-your-neck-intimate feel rather than the brutality you might expect.  High Hawk Season, a choral all vocal song, in particular feels like a failure to me. An album that never really clicked with me, but pretty much all MGs stuff is slow burning for me so I may like it more in the future.

17. Zopilote Machine (1995)

No idea what a Zopilote is (checks google) ah, it’s Spanish for Buzzard, naturally. Great word. This is The Mountain Goats album debut. Contains all the elements that would be in their music for the next 7 years but isn’t quite as compelling as the later releases.”We Have Seen The Enemy” is lovely in a dark way.

18. Beautiful Rat Sunset (1996)

A good example of early MGs and technically an EP rather than a full blown album. A dark, slightly off, mood prevails and a keen ear is needed to take in the information.  A pleasant listen but not as incendiary as his other works.

Not included

The Extra Glens – Martial Arts Weekend (2000) and The Extra Lens – Undercard (2010)

John Darnielle writes and Franklin Bruno does the music. They’re not called the Mountain Goats so… but if you want my opinion “Martial Arts Weekend”  is great, “Malevolent Seascape X” soundtracking me puking from smoking too many cigarettes at the age of 27, “Undercard” is not quite as good but has gorgeous songs such as the accordion driven “In Germany Before The War”.

Come, Come To The The Sunset Tree (2004)

…If The Sunset Tree had been All Hail West Texas. Vinyl only release of boombox demos of Sunset Tree songs. Nice to hear but I prefer the fleshed out versions. Max Broady prefers this.

Hail and Farewell Gothenburg (Never Released)

This was leaked and John Darnielle didn’t ever want it releasing. So I won’t review it.

Also not included: loads of 7 inches, bsides and that. Including a song written from the point of view of Toad from Mario.

Disagree? Think I’m an idiot? Please let me know, I love The Mountain Goats and am happy to chat about them!

John, October 11