You are about to enter The 143.
Some history. In the first half of 2013, I decided to build a playlist for my iPod consisting of only the very best songs ever committed to vinyl, disc, tape or the ether. According to me. I made some rules first, because without rules, you have anarchy, and because I err towards the caricature of the male gender (with no disrespect for any of the genders or combinations thereof). Rule #1: no artist would be allowed more than one song, unless they recorded under another name, or with another artist (thus, the Supremes and solo Diana Ross are counted as two artists; likewise, Carter USM and the solo Jim Bob; and so on). This way, I would be forced to subjectively, personally select only the very pinnacle of any chosen artist’s repertoire to enter the hallowed halls of The 143.
I intended to create a playlist of 50. Bearing in mind I only had the 11,988 songs already uploaded to and stored in my digital library to choose from at that moment (it’s 17,697 today, inconveniently), I was still amazed how quickly I flew past the 50 mark, and then the 75 mark, and then the 100 mark. I stopped when I had gathered every vital song in my library, and I had 143. These were The 143. But it didn’t end there. I have been honing this playlist in my ears ever since, shuffling it randomly, and constantly updating it, so that if a song fails to match my memory or it, or falls behind in an afore-judged vitality, it is removed, and replaced. The 143 is fluid. Or at least, it is until I hit “publish” on an individual blog entry. Then it’s gospel. (As I type, I’m four songs away from the definitive list. Imagine that.)
This blog is my quest to cement that playlist in word and deed, and as I type, it remains a going concern. [I am up to 139, so there are only four places to play for.] Each entry will be logged here, and to varying degrees, described. I am a writer. I’ve been writing about music since the electric typewriter, sometimes for money, so it should not be beyond my descriptive powers. (That said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, so we’re all on a hiding to nothing before we start.)
In a perfect world, each entry will inspire rapture or enmity, and a dialogue will begin below the line, or on Twitter. These choices are by their nature personal. They are mine. I’m hoping our tastes will cross over more than once. There is no chiselling into tablets of stone here. If The 143 generates a few happy memories, and a couple of trips to Spotify, then none of the time and effort and love will have been wasted.
Here is a Half Time Report I wrote on the occasion of passing the halfway mark in The 143. I hope it offers some further insight into the selection process.
As a song yet to make The 143 goes: Woah-oh! We’re halfway there.
Though the final score is fixed – that is, a cosmic draw between 143 premier league songs – the songs themselves aren’t, as yet. At the time of writing this half-time report, I have entered 72 into the statute books. With only 71 left to enshrine on this blog, that’s as good as midway.
And as good a time as any to reflect on the process so far. To reiterate: in the first half of 2013, I decided to make a playlist to soundtrack my travels between A and B, consisting only of the very best songs ever committed to vinyl, disc, tape or the ether, according to me. These would by nature be personal, but in each entry I’ve attempted to contextualise the songs both historically and in first-person. Having effectively written 72 essays of around 500 words each, sometimes more, hardly ever less, I have to say I’m still thoroughly enjoying it. This needs stating for the record.
The random order in which the songs are formalised keeps me interested. I started with ABC because so does the alphabet, but I never know which song will be next. I shuffle The 143 playlist into my ears on a near-daily basis and often make a mental note (never a physical one) to enter that song next. At time of typing, I’ve been promising to write about Rockit by Herbie Hancock for a couple of weeks, but it’s been queue-jumped by Blondie and the Waterboys. Why? I don’t know. Maybe because I saw Blondie doing Sunday Girl on an old 1979 Top Of The Pops on BBC Four and their preeminence caught my imagination. I chanced upon The Best Of The Waterboys while actually rummaging in a box for Fuzzy Logic (which I couldn’t find). I uploaded it, and in doing so realised I’d made a howling omission from my playlist and into the collage went The Whole Of The Moon.
A new entry is always an interesting and challenging moment. If it strikes me that I’ve missed a song out and duly put it into the playlist – such as, in recent weeks, Up The Junction or Pinball Wizard – a song that’s already in there but not yet committed to the blog has to go. It can be ruthless. Since starting this in July 2013, I’ve let many, many songs originally long-listed go. It feels cruel to list them here but I’ve been that close to formalising Alien Sex Fiend, A Flock Of Seagulls and The Beach Boys, before seeing them edge off the plank when the ark took on a new passenger. [The Beach Boys subsequently edged back onboard.] Still, with 71 still to go, it ain’t over ’till it’s over, as a man once sang.
Before I enter my choice from an artist with a large repertoire – such as, recently, Echo & The Bunnymen or the Velvet Underground – I go into roadtest mode and take a joyous spin through their greatest hits. I spent two days listening to the Bunnymen, and The Killing Moon, my visceral first choice, proved unassailable, despite strong opposition from The Puppet and All My Colours. I did not, and do not, take these decisions lightly. This project sort of doesn’t matter but at the same really does.
I’m now mathematically aware of my own biases. Although I enter the songs in whatever order they occur to me, we’re already seeing a massive focus on the 1980s. Though there’s only one entry at this halfway mark from the 50s, Take Five – predictably, as it’s not my era – there are currently 26 from the 80s. This reflects both the richness and variety of dazzling music being made in the post-punk era and the fact that I began that decade aged 13 and ended it aged 22, formative years in excelsis. I have no way of guaranteeing that the 71 songs still to come will redress that epochal balance – there are a lot more from the 21st century in a holding pattern, I know that much, and I feel the 70s may yet expand – but it’s going to be fun seeing it unfold.
It would seem crude to divide The 143 into genres. Also, genres bleed into one another and are not scientific. I suppose somebody could turn it into a pie chart with segments for nationality, or skin colour, or gender, but I’m not sure such segregation will enlighten. I don’t look at the list and think, hmmm, needs a touch more soul. In any case, soul comes in many colours.
Observations: I find I’m struggling with newer songs going in. Has a song released in 2003 like Hey Ya! been around the block enough times to qualify for an “all-time” list? And if it has, what about Happy, which I heard for the first time in 2014 and instantly fell in love with? These are the issues that vex me, but we’ll work it out in the end. It’s amazing how many times I’ve considered jettisoning The Look by Metronomy in favour of something a little more established and then listened to it again and changed my mind.
There’s not much else to add at this arbitrary junction, other than: thanks for reading thus far. And to those who’ve plugged the blog – Pocket-Lint, Metafilter, Tom Robinson – it’s fully appreciated, as daily traffic is modest, and maybe that’s as should be. I love the Spotify playlists people are compiling, too, as it goes along – we all have Stef Galley to beat for completism.
As for the 73rd entry? Herbie Hancock is banging on the door. So are Pigbag, Bob Marley and Free. Not that any of these fine artists knows it.