Listener’s Arc: This Is Where I Belong | Varyer

This Is Where I Belong

Listener’s Arc

For the past five years, at the beginning of every December, Spotify has produced an applet called Wrapped, compiling and analyzing each user’s year in streaming, listing the person’s most-listened-to songs, artists, genres, and, more recently, podcasts. Each year, Wrapped gets a little more sophisticated as it tries to tell the story of an individual listener’s year. The latest iteration had slides that positioned the user as the main character in the movie of their life, with the songs they played providing the soundtrack. It tabulated total minutes of listening and told you where that total put you in relation to other Spotify users. You are encouraged to share all of this information on social media apps like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

I can’t bring myself to share my own charts publicly. I hate the idea of participating in coordinated advertising for a company and not getting paid anything for it. My results are usually weird and unrepresentative anyway: I mostly hear new music via promos on Apple Music and I listen to a whole lot of CDs and vinyl LPs. Also, I have to play tracks on Spotify for work, something you can see happening in my top five, which I share here:

My number-one song, well, you might recognize it from my last Listener’s Arc column, about Keith Jarrett. I was surprised to see the Olivia Rodrigo hit, but I reviewed Sour for the Wall Street Journal; since I couldn’t get a promo, I listened via Spotify, and I played “Driver’s License” another handful of times during the lead-up. But I haven’t put it on since filing my piece and, though I think it’s good, I may never listen to it again by choice. And then Wussy’s “Maglite” was the latest example, after “Runaway” and “Teenage Wasteland,” of me obsessively playing a single song by the Cincinnati-based band, even though I’ve never heard an album of theirs straight through.

A Spotify Top 5 graphic.

Spotify Wrapped is an attempt to make what is often a private activity into something public; the product of listening becomes a starting point for a conversation, and also a badge of identification. A shared Top 10 list on social media has its own resonance, but there’s no data to back it up, whereas Wrapped is designed to show the world what you really care about. The first time you look at it is exciting because you might have no idea what’ll end up on top. And that excitement and subsequent reveal are why sharing it with others is irresistible. You are purportedly learning something about your own preferences, and you want to make this knowledge available to others. Wrapped is a free marketing opportunity for the streaming giant, or for yourself — you’re sharing your most-listened-to music with others hoping they might think you have great taste. Viewed idealistically, Wrapped lets you form connections with others who obsess over some of the same music you do, feeling closer to people who share your favorites.

On one level, music fandom is a social practice: We see bands together and trade songs and share lists of what moves us; we gather in online hives; we show what we love with a T-shirt. This public-facing music experience is a huge part of what makes being a music fan fun. But this year I was obsessed with music that had no connection to the wider world; records that mean a great deal to me, but which have little-to-no presence in the streaming space.

In the early days of the Internet, it was virtually impossible to know the impact of most records — without numbers, relative import was hard to quantify. Sometimes an LP would dominate my listening and I naturally assumed that it did so for others, but I’d be very wrong. In 2003, when I was writing for Pitchfork, Dominique Leone, a fellow contributor, told me he thought I’d like an album called Bousha Blue Blazes by a duo called Alejandra and Aeron, born Alejandra Salinas and Aeron Bergman. In 2002, I’d favorably reviewed the album Thought for Food by another duo, the Books, and he heard a connection between the two records. I ordered a copy, and Dom was right: I fell for it immediately.

I like to look back on old year-end ballots. The one I submitted in 2003 had Bousha Blue Blazes at number seven, between the Manitoba (later Caribou) album Up in Flames and Califone’s Quicksand/Cradlesnakes. You still hear about Caribou and Califone; Alejandra and Aeron, not so much. Bousha Blue Blazes was an important record for me, and I’ve never stopped listening to it, but to the rest of the world, it seems as if it’s never mattered. Hearing it now, I’m tempted to think of it as a picture in a frame that only has value to me because of my relationship to it and its moment in time.

The album’s cover reinforces this feeling: a drawn portrait of a young woman from the 1940s; the Bousha of the title is the nickname of Elaine Ruth Pope, who’s Aeron’s grandmother. Alejandra and Aeron built the album around Pope’s voice and piano playing, but we mostly hear it in fragments, mixed with the other instruments credited to the duo (guitar, piano, computers, old vinyl). It has the faint sensation of Christmas music — the liner notes say it was recorded in December, and two track titles mention holidays — and it sounds especially good in the colder months, when one is spending life mostly inside and noticing the things that exist within their living space.

A simple illustration of a person.

Bousha Blue Blazes comes from a time when people were excited about the creative possibilities of the home computer. If someone attempted to make the same album a couple of decades earlier, they’d need a razor blade and an editing station for splicing tape. By 2003, you could digitally record everyday sounds in your home and upload them to your laptop or desktop and then arrange and edit them into music. As the Books and Alejandra and Aeron demonstrated, computer music could be folk music. On Bousha Blue Blazes, that means we get snippets of voice, the sound of paper being handled, a light knock on a door, a creaking chair. And threaded through these fragments is Bousha’s voice, sometimes manipulated to sound like a drone, and bits of plucked strings and piano.

Bousha isn’t on Spotify or Apple Music, but you can find it on Bandcamp. If I’m reading the site correctly, it appears in four user collections, which means that four people have paid money for it. Before appearing on Bandcamp, Bousha was only ever issued on CD, and Discogs lists 64 people who own the record. Counting me and Dom, I can find direct evidence that 70 people in the world have heard this album since it was released 18 years ago (when, I should add, it received an 8.5 on Pitchfork). Other than that AIM conversation back in early 2003, I can’t recall discussing the album with anyone. And yet for the past two decades it’s been an important work for me, one I still put on and lose myself in a few times a year. Bousha Blue Blazes is mine — or at least, it feels as though it belongs to me. When I listen to it, I’m reminded not of history or shared understanding, but my own memories and associations, how the record has traveled with me for almost two decades.

Looking at Spotify play counts, I find the Bousha Blue Blazes phenomenon — where an album that means so much to me has been little-heard and forgotten — is more common than I thought. I see examples of what were for me life-changing records that now have almost no profile at all. A pair of tracks from Japanese producer Nobukazu Takemura, the Steve Reich pastiche “Kepler” and the weird and wonderful near-pop song “Sign,” clock in at 20,000 and 9,000 plays, respectively. If I ever discussed this music with anyone, it was decades ago. Takemura has 16,000 monthly listeners for his entire catalog on Spotify, but I imagine each of those listeners taking in a track or two while alone in a room somewhere, headphones on head, communing with the sound and remembering a lost article from 20 years ago, maybe, that explained who Takemura was and how this music came to be.

I think of Seekers Who Are Lovers, a laptop dream-pop project from producer Ángel Sánchez, which so excited me when I first heard it in 2006, especially the long, drone-heavy version of Will Oldham’s “It’s a Hard Life” and the jittery and unclassifiable glitch-pop of “Modern Heirs.” Only two of the You Are the Pride of Your Street EP’s six songs have enough plays to have their tallies listed (the threshold is 1,000 streams) and the EP sits there, like a rusty and toppled road sign pointing to a byway no one has driven in years. I think of “Diminish Me NYC,” a track from Frankie Sparo on the Constellation label, which so enraptured me immediately after 9/11 as it described how the grandeur of the city’s tall buildings made you want to retreat into yourself. I think of my extensive project exploring versions of the folk song “I Bid You Goodnight” and stumbling upon an appealing reggae version by a singer named Lilly Welsh, playing it five times in a row, and seeing she had 22 monthly listeners.

Something weird happens when you spend time with records such as these, where you fall in love with them and listen to them and they become part of your life, but you never think to share them. You think of them only in terms of your own existence. You forget who made them. You almost feel like you made them yourself. And as this particular bond strengthens you grow protective of these recordings. Maybe it’s better if you don’t know what anyone else thinks; perhaps you’re afraid to learn why the world is not as attached to them as you are.

Two cards with red text.

But here I am doing just that: I’m bringing Bousha Blue Blazes to you by writing the second longer piece about it online, 18 years after the one Dominique Leone wrote. I’m trying to figure out how to translate nearly two decades of private thoughts about this record into a language you might understand, and it feels a little awkward. The album itself offers its own analogue to this state, of being immersed in loose and flowing sensations and then trying to turn them into something clear and legible.

Late in the LP, gloriously, Bousha gets a whole track to herself — no processing, no field recordings. Just her by herself at the piano. And she sings Perry Como’s “And I Love You So” (here titled “I Don’t Know”). After all the creaks and clanks, the notes stretched like taffy, this unadorned recording of a woman and her instrument is almost unbearably poignant. Her voice is beautiful, and her performance imparts that she feels this song deeply. She doesn’t sound professional, but she sings like she’s enjoying herself; she sounds open and vulnerable and the effect is almost voyeuristic, but her joy carries it through. She plays and sings alone, and for almost 20 years I’ve heard her while I’m alone, and now you’re here listening with me.