The Joys of Discovering Music Back Asswards

by Sean McCarthy

19 February 2010

Sure, the best way to discover an artist is to buy their most-revered works, but there's something to be said for going after the not-so-great releases first.

A fellow music geek from another music review website gave a favorable review to Pearl Jam’s Backspacer and named it one of the best albums of last year. This isn’t particularly news—Backspacer may not have wooed critics, but it received mostly positive reviews. What was news, at least to me, was that this was the first Pearl Jam album this guy had listened to from start to finish. This may have been one reason why he gave Backspacer such a glowing review.

A lot of critics (myself included), judged Backspacer in the lexicon of Pearl Jam albums. The general consensus was the album had a solid bunch of rockers. Not much risk-taking, but no out-and-out failures. Pretty much what the band has been doing since its post-Yield output. A Pearl Jam album. While this may be true, like many other artists that opt to continue doing what they do best, this can prevent people from judging an album on its own merits and not as part of an artist’s legacy.
That’s why it’s fascinating to read reviews and hear people’s first experiences with an artist’s work when that work is far from their greatest achievement. General consensus says that if you want to discover an artist, first hit the “Greatest Hits” or their widely-regarded masterpieces. If you only have $50 or so to spend on the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, you’re told to pick up Revolver or Exile on Main St.. Then, if you like what you hear, start working your way down the ladder. Go for their Magic Mystery Tour or their Some Girls. Finally, if you still can’t get enough, eventually complete your collection with Let It Be or Steel Wheels. While there’s nothing wrong with that approach, it can rob you of finding your own path in discovering an artist.

I keep thinking of how this critic chose Backspacer and how I discovered Bob Dylan. One lazy Sunday afternoon, still recovering from the night before, I fished through my roommate’s CD collection for some decent hangover music. The only Dylan he had was Desire, hardly a blemish in his discography, but in most circles this is probably the tenth or eleventh Dylan to purchase. It was one of those albums that I heard at the perfect time and in perfect circumstances, and it eventually became a sentimental favorite. Would I still love Dylan if I listened to Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61 Revisited first? Absolutely. But Desire more than likely shaped my opinion of Dylan’s work more than any other album because it was the first Dylan album I listened to.

There is obviously no wrong way to discover an artist, and picking up an artist’s best works is usually the safest route, but I do have to envy those folks who chose any of Prince’s late-‘90s albums as opposed to Purple Rain or Neil Young’s Sleeps with Angels over After the Goldrush as their first full-album listening experience. Arguably, it’s these listeners who are most able to judge these so-called “tossed off” albums for what they are, and not in the shadow of these artists’ masterpieces.

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