Tips from the Blog I

What is the best music to listen to while writing a manuscript or grant proposal? OK, I know that some people prefer silence and certainly most people hate radio chatter while trying to concentrate. However, if you like listening to music, setting an iPod on shuffle is no good since a track by Napalm Death can jump from the speakers and affect your concentration. Here is a strategy for a randomised music stream of the right mood and with no repetition, using iTunes.

For this you need:
A reasonably large and varied iTunes library that is properly tagged*.

1. Setup the first smart playlist to select all songs in your library that you like to listen to while writing. I do this by selecting genres that I find conducive to writing.
Conditions are:
-Match any of the following rules
-Genre contains jazz
-add as many genres as you like, e.g. shoegaze, space rock, dream pop etc.
-Don’t limit and do check live updating
I call this list Writing

2. Setup a second smart playlist that makes a randomised novel list from the first playlist
Conditions are:
-Match all of the following rules
-Playlist is Writing   //or whatever you called the 1st playlist
-Last played is not in the last 14 days    //this means once the track is played it disappears, i.e. refreshes constantly
-Limit to 50 items selected by random
-Check Live updating
I call this list Writing List

That’s it! Now play from Writing List while you write. The same strategy works for other moods, e.g. for making figures I like to listen to different music and so I have another pair for that.

After a while, the tracks that you’ve skipped (for whatever reason) clog up the playlist. Just select all and delete from the smart playlist, this refreshes the list and you can go again with a fresh set.

* If your library has only a few tracks, or has plenty of tracks but they are all of a similar genre, this tip is not for you.

Very Best Years

What was the best year in music?

OK, I have to be upfront and say that I thought the answer to this would be 1991. Why? Just a hunch. Nevermind, Loveless, Spiderland, Laughing Stock… it was a pretty good year. I thought it would be fun to find out if there really was a golden year in music. It turns out that it wasn’t 1991.

There are many ways to look at this question, but I figured that a good place to start was to find what year had the highest density of great LPs. But how do we define a great LP? Music critics are notorious for getting it wrong and so I’m a big fan of (RYM) which democratises the grading process for music by crowdsourcing opinion. It allows people to rate LPs in their collection and these ratings are aggregated via a slightly opaque system and the albums are ranked into charts. I scraped the data for the Top 1000 LPs of All-Time*. Crunching the numbers was straightforward. So what did it show?

Looking at the Top 1000, 1971 and 1972 are two years with the highest representation. Looking at the Top 500 LPs, 1971 is the year with most records. Looking at the Top 100, the late 60s features highly.

To look at this in detail, I plotted the rank versus year. This showed that there was a gap in the early 80s where not many Top 1000 LPs were released. This could be seen in the other plots but, it’s clearer on the bubble plot. Also the cluster of high ranking LPs released in the 1960s is obvious.

The plot is colour-coded to show the rank, while the size of the bubbles indicates the rating. Note that rating doesn’t correlate with rank (RYM also factors in number of ratings and user loyalty, to determine this). To take the ranking into account, I calculated the “integrated score” for all albums released in a given year. The score is 1001-rank, and the summation of all of these scores for albums released in a given year gives the integrated score.

This is shown on a background of scores for each decade. Again, 1970s rule and 1971 is the peak. The shape of this profile will not surprise music fans. The first bump in the late 50s coincides with rock n roll, influential jazz records and the birth of the LP as a serious format. The 60s sees a rapid increase in density of great albums per year, hitting a peak in 1971. The decline that follows is halted by a spike in 1977: punk. There’s a relative dearth of highly rated LPs in the early 80s and things really tail off in the early 2000s. The lack of highly rated LPs in these later years is probably best explained by few ratings, due to young age of these LPs. Also diversification of music styles, tastes and the way that music is consumed is likely to play a role. The highest ranked LP on the list is Radiohead’s OK Computer (1997) which was released in a non-peak year. Note that 1991 does not stand out particularly. In fact, in the 1990s, 1994 stands out as the best year for music.

Finally, RYM has a nice classification system for music so I calculated the integrated score for these genres and sub-genres (cowpunk, anyone?). Rock (my definition) is by far the highest scoring and Singer-Songwriter is the highest scoring genre/sub-genre.

So there you have it. 1971 was the best year in music according to this analysis. Now… where’s my copy of Tago Mago.


* I did this mid-April. I doubt it’s changed much. This was an exercise to learn how to scrape and I also don’t think I broke the terms of service of RYM. If I did, I’ll take this post down.

The title of this post comes from ‘Very Best Years’ by The Grays from their LP ‘Ro Sham Bo’. It was released in 1994…