What do Drake and the Ramones have in common? Speaking broadly, it's true they each broke free of the confines of a middle-aged genre, pioneering new sounds that would be adapted by other artists, but are there any similarities in their compositions?
Take Furthest Thing and I Wanna Be Sedated – can we draw some thematic link between the structures of these two songs?
As it turns out, yes. Both tracks rely on a single, repeated note in key moments to convey their central emotions – on Sedated, it's Johnny Ramone's one-note guitar solo that embodies the song's numbed thoughtlessness, while on Furthest Thing, Drake's girl-fuelled exasperation is exacerbated as he wraps up the second verse without straying far from his chosen note: "You know I stay reminiscin' and makeup sex is tradition but you been missin' girl …"
Lumping Drake and the Ramones together is the kind of thing that gives hardcore single-genre fans an aneurysm, but these kinds of connections are the ones Ben Ratliff wants you to make.
Ratliff is many things. He's a veteran music critic at The New York Times; he's the calm voice usually steering that newspaper's Music Popcast; and he's an author of four books, including a biography of John Coltrane. In his latest, Every Song Ever, Ratliff makes a simple proposition: In the era of the cloud, when almost the entire history of recorded music is a few keyboard taps away, listeners need a new, more accessible set of tools to make sense of it all.
As much as it pains creators, songs are now eminently discardable. Without anchors to keep listeners coming back for more, they can easily vanish into the ear's ether without leaving a trace in the brain. This is where Ratliff's new tools come in. They're a series of connection points to draw between songs and bodies of work that don't rely on genre – itself a corporate construct, really, with geographic and socioeconomic implications – for their definitions. Drake and the Ramones emerged from very different cultures, but the listener's background – where they're from; who their friends are; what their parents listened to – is no longer a reliable predictor of taste.
Every Song Ever compels a very specific, almost distracted, kind of reading. It, too, is tailored to life in the stream. I found myself with headphones shoved in my ears, toggling to a new song on Spotify every few minutes. It was necessary to keep track of all the little moments Ratliff wants readers to connect. I think, and write, about streaming a lot. The technology has introduced me to hundreds of artists I'd have never encountered without it, all thanks to ease of access. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't usually rely on genre to guide me.
Ratliff, on the other hand, wants to tear down the barriers those kinds of constructs impose. So it's handy to have YouTube or Spotify or Tidal or Apple Music fired up as he draws you through dozens of fanatically detailed analyses of, and anecdotes about, songs, albums and artists to find mutual connections and new ways to enjoy them. Drake once suggested that nothing was the same; Ratliff is trying to say that in some way, everything is.
So he tries, across 20 chapters, to convince you how. Each offers a genreless way, a new tool, to hear commonalities across music. The showboating of Bud Powell's piano on Salt Peanuts harnesses speed to a different end than the blast beats of hardcore punk or the freneticism of Jerry Lee Lewis, for instance, but each harness speed nonetheless. Curtis Mayfield's vocal intonations in Mighty Mighty (Spade & Whitey) command an intimacy that bears commonalities with the experimental tape edits of Arthur Russell's World of Echo, from which Kanye West just borrowed a sample for The Life of Pablo. Metal may lean on myth-making, but it's got nothing on the myths that the blues are built on.
Some of Ratliff's new notions of listening are so complicated that they make a book built on finding relationships a little less relatable. What matters more, though, are the implications of adopting Every Song Ever's new listening lexicon.
Early on, Ratliff suggests the book could be a spiritual update to Aaron Copland's 1939 text What to Listen for in Music, which proposes that the ideal listening experience should be guided by what the composer would want. Instead, Ratliff believes, the listener should listen however they want, preferably guided by as much context as possible. This subtle moral mission, I realized as I read through, is analogous to another book I've been thumbing through recently: Robert S. Boynton's The New New Journalism.
On its surface, Boynton's book is a collection of interviews with contemporary literary journalists about their craft – a kind of follow-up to Tom Wolfe's 1973 anthology The New Journalism. It's a spiritual update, though, too. The second new is not meant to be an arbitrary qualifier. Boynton argues that Wolfe's ideal literary journalism was so focused on status that it "robs" stories of complexity and depth, and ignores explorations of race and class. The new iteration of New Journalism Boynton tries to champion is more broadly accessible, paying better heed to social context and the reasons society separates us versus them. At its best, it can be about anyone, for everyone. Every Song Ever is in many ways an extension of Boynton's mission in the music world.
After all, Ratliff says, music can be an entry point for "an encounter with civilizations other than your own" – constructs such as genre be damned. Kids who grew up in the small-town domain of classic-rock radio, or in communities dominated by hip hop, or whose parents foisted only jazz upon them, are now a click away from whole other worlds of music. They just need a reason to keep listening. How about 20?
Josh O'Kane is a Globe and Mail reporter and author of Nowhere With You, a book about musician Joel Plaskett, to be published by ECW Press in April.