June 20, 2011

Internet radio

There's something wrong about not having the radio on during the summer, but ever since new music became unlistenable around the mid-'90s (and it was only tolerable in the early '90s), I haven't bothered with it. But over the past week I've tried out internet radio again, having found it lacking before, and discovered a great station.

Radio cannot be replaced by listening to CDs or putzing around an mp3 playlist. An album allows you to sit back and enjoy music without having to plan what song will come next, but the variety is limited to the sound of that group or at most the range of groups already in your collection. An mp3 playlist opens up a wider variety of sounds to hear (though still limited to what you already have), but there is either too much planning involved as you choose one song after the next, or there is a lack of coherence due to the completely random way that the shuffle feature works.

Tuning into a good radio station frees you of decision-making, letting you more easily drift out of self-consciousness, while also taking you on a ride through a variety of soundscapes. The trend of technology that tries to help you find new things has been toward narrowing the range of what you're exposed to, so it's a real pleasure to have something like a radio station that puts more of the blind trial-and-error back into the cultural exploration experience.

My ideal radio station would play music from 1974 through 1990, across all genres except for country (although crossover acts like Emmylou Harris are fine -- especially in video when you get to see her face). However, that doesn't cohere enough for most listeners for there to be a station that does that. But the '80s themed stations are close enough, and they along with '80s nights at dance clubs are always happy to include songs that belong with the rest but technically lie outside of that decade, such as all of the hits from Depeche Mode's 1990 album Violator, "Heart of Glass," "Rock Lobster," and so on.

The major downside of internet radio is the sheer volume of stations to browse until you find a good one, but luckily I hit upon a great one early on -- Star 107.9 from Columbus, Ohio, where coincidentally I grew up from 1985 to 1992, which is nostalgic icing on the cake. First, they run very few ads and have good sound quality. And it's not like most of the others I found, which just replay the same 10 stereotypical "Best of the '80s" compilations over and over. It does play mega-hits, but is mostly focused on recreating the full spectrum of sounds. Hearing a few songs that you think are only OK heightens your appreciation when a great one comes on; they don't overdo this either, where it drags on and on until you find a fun song.

They cover the tail end of disco and the '70s hard rock sound from the early '80s, the New Wave heyday from '82 to '84, the softer rock middle years, and the return to a harder rock sound and heavily syncopated dance music by the end. There's less R&B, but it is also spread across the decade. The only music that they don't play as much of is the college rock, post-punk, and other less mainstream rock genres. I did find a good station at Live365 called "Alternative '80s" -- a misnomer, as alternative music is from the mid-'90s -- that played a lot of Camper Van Beethoven, Echo & The Bunnymen, etc., but it looks like you only get to listen to so many minutes before they make you register an account, sign in, bla bla bla. Their sound quality is noticeably worse, and they run frequent ads too, so I've junked that station.

I don't want to exaggerate the greatness of internet radio like some technophile spazz, as it is no improvement over what was widely available 20 years ago. But at least it can counteract the downward trend of pop music quality, the narrowness of what people are exposed to, and the need to plan out what you're going to listen to.

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