Scott Miller Music: What Happened? (125 Books)

Listening to someone else’s favorite music is a series of chances to hear through another person’s ears. It’s a trick I’ve gotten far better at during the digital age than back when I was taping library LPs. A megaplaylist can give you a pretty definitive read on its compiler’s ideas about an era, a sound, or a treasure hunt. That’s what makes Scott Miller’s Music: What Happened? appealing despite its lulls—the book is basically 258 pages of his commentary on playlist after playlist. Part memoir, part deliberately amateur overview, it has a question mark in its title for a reason: it’s his attempt to get down to what precisely he was listening to during a given time, as well as what it meant, not only at that moment but in its own era.

Miller began this project in May 2008 at the website of San Francisco band the Loud Family, for which he’s the singer, guitarist, and songwriter; he wrapped up his online efforts in September 2009, and this winter 125 Records, the label that releases his music, published them in book form. For every year from 1957 onward, in an order requested by readers, Miller compiled a CD-length mix of his favorite songs and wrote a paragraph on each one—through 2009 that amounts to 1,014 songs, or an average of 19 or so per year. For obvious reasons—a combination of licensing difficulties and ethical standards—he’s never made his mixes available, either online or with the book. Nonetheless he’s scrupulous about keeping them to CD length, noting when he’s edited a track down for inclusion.

Each disc is a loosely ordered countdown, with the first song chosen to convey something general about the year musically and the last song his very favorite. The chapters from 2007 through 2009, as well as a brief interview with Miller at the beginning, are special to the print edition; otherwise, Music: What Happened? is the blog, more or less as it still exists online.

Unlike the blog, which hopped around in time as it unfolded, the book is chronological. This makes it easier to access and more fun to flip through. (Here’s my blurb: “Great for planes.”) That bittiness suits the project—Miller’s writing, as smart as it can be, often feels like an unfiltered and unedited collection of notes. His insights tend to come not in sustained blazes of analysis but in flashes and flickers—in his blurb for the Dismemberment Plan’s “You Are Invited” (1999), for instance, he observes that Pitchfork helped build a bridge from the indie audience to “a world of dance music that a world of musicians don’t get.”

Even if you acknowledge Miller’s essentially hobbyist approach going in, though, it has its distractions. He admits he used Wikipedia to learn that Sam Cooke changed the title of Howlin’ Wolf’s “The Red Rooster” to “Little Red Rooster,” so maybe he could’ve used Wikipedia to find out what former Prince bandmates Wendy & Lisa, aka Girl Bros.—creators his favorite song of 1998, “Reaching One”—have been up to since then, instead of just wondering in print. (For the record, they’ve busied themselves with soundtrack work, and in 2008 they self-released the album White Flags of Winter Chimneys.)

What makes Miller’s work different from your opinionated cousin’s LiveJournal is that he knows a lot about music—from the inside, as a player and writer. What Happened? is mostly about the act of listening, but a fair amount of musician talk comes into play, and Miller deploys it gracefully. For example, in his blurb on Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” he writes, “Like so many 1964 events, that guitar that just keeps climbing the ladder of thirds strikes me as vastly influential. My hands just want to do that when I play, and I think this song started the impulse.” As a nonplayer I don’t always get his more technical notes, but they’re never alienating.

More important is the way Miller makes end runs around canonical items—recasting them slightly to give hoary history new dimensions. Take this, from the first entry in the 1959 section, on Frank Sinatra’s “Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week)”:

The famous February plane crash in which Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper perished was Don McLean’s famous “day the music died”; a new, cooler musical vocabulary could be heard taking shape in 1959—this would be the native language of the creative explosion that occurred in the sixties—but for on-message pop, the year was bleak. Rock and roll must have seemed at risk of being over. Certainly times were never better for the ever-resurrecting Frank Sinatra, who followed the nuanced Sings For Only the Lonely with the smash hit cocktail party swing of Come Dance With Me!

Here, Miller offers a lot of information in a small space, without relinquishing the guy-telling-you-some-stuff voice he’s after. With the phrase “a new, cooler musical vocabulary” he’s referring to jazz: Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue came out in 1959. But he’s also hinting at the increasing sophistication and subtlety of the year’s R&B, such as Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say?” and the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You,” both of which the book includes, and the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby,” which it doesn’t. That’s a good, broad view. And rather than state flatly that rock ‘n’ roll was endangered, a la McLean’s “American Pie” and any number of rock histories, Miller’s “must have seemed” shifts the perspective slightly in a way that reanimates it. Today we take it for granted that Frank and Elvis shared a time if not an audience (not in 1959, anyway), but Miller gets at the taking-sides aspect of Sinatra’s antirock sneers, capturing something of how they would’ve felt to the era’s rock fans. It’s only in retrospect that rock ‘n’ roll has been reimagined as an unstoppable force—at the time there was no way to know that it wouldn’t vindicate such hostility by turning out to be a flash in the pan.

Miller was born in 1960, and it isn’t until around the time he’d have entered kindergarten that his wily, homemade book starts feeling like a passion project rather than a history lesson. You’d think the Beatles would’ve been all written out by now, but they occupy the center of Miller’s tastes and worldview, and he writes with real insight about “If I Fell” (which he identifies, correctly, as a lyric whose sophistication announced itself to even young listeners) and, triumphantly, “A Day in the Life,” explaining Sgt. Pepper’s as “a systematic breakdown of exclusionary principles” so revolutionary that “the old chemical litmus tests that use us-vs-them positioning don’t pick it up.” “‘Billy Shears’ is okay even though he ‘[goes] in and out of style,'” he writes. “The ‘Sergeant’ isn’t a reviled authority figure, he’s part of the sympathetic community with his lonely hearts club.”

Miller’s book itself comes out of a sympathetic community. Miller is writing it to his people, fans of the Loud Family and thereby fans of kinds of stuff you might like if you like the Loud Family. The blog has gotten a lot of traction outside those circles, of course, or else this book wouldn’t exist—everybody loves lists and countdowns, and it helps the appeal of Music: What Happened? that it’s so clearly a labor of love by a dedicated eccentric, not an effort to rack up pageviews or build a brand. (The economy of attention online is very different than in print: we want experts in our books, but on the Internet we just want somebody who honestly cares.) Miller’s tone isn’t exclusionary—this becomes particularly clear when his entries acknowledge friends or readers who’ve turned him on to things—and anyone who cares to listen in on the conversation can do so. But admiring Music: What Happened? isn’t necessarily the same thing as agreeing with it, and this is where matters of taste come in.

Miller is an unapologetic power-pop geek; my priorities lean more toward the groove- and production-based styles, like hip-hop and electronic dance, that he explicitly says he has little time for. I’m no more likely to reevaluate Jellyfish or Ben Folds or Guided by Voices on Miller’s say-so than he is to run out and download Foul Play’s entire output just because I think everybody should. It’s also true that his greatest loves are decades in the past: whenever he ventures into the aughts, his writing loses fire. His first 2007 entry, for In Rainbows‘ “Bodysnatchers,” begins, “Starting out with Radiohead sure screams ‘not that well-informed about this recent a year,’ doesn’t it?” Well, not necessarily, but if you want to put it that way . . .

Of course, Miller’s tastes and preferences aren’t the sum total of what he is. That’s what makes the book interesting. He arrives at many articulate ways to say that drum machines have cooties, that he just wasn’t made for these times, that music was better way back when. But he never comes right out and tells the kids to get the hell off his lawn—if someone might have the ears, he wants them to hear it his way. Though he sticks to his comfort zone, he’s open to a lot. And even with music he doesn’t know much about, he finds openings.

“I think of Moby and Eminem as being the last two significant groundswell American artists,” he writes in his entry on the former’s “We Are All Made of Stars.” “They had pretty different personalities and demographics: Moby was a humble, idealistic humanist, and Eminem was an egotistical, pragmatic populist.” On the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” which he calls “drill-team crisp,” he writes: “Past generations grew out of being a teen music audience and into being an adult music audience. This generation grew out of being a teen music audience and into being teen music impresarios—witness ‘American Idol.'” I’ll likely never let Miller’s canon displace mine, but he’s got interesting things to say about both, even if he does think “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” is Bruce Springsteen’s best song.    v

Care to comment? Find this review at