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Feed your natural hunger for new music

3/31/2009

Many of our fellow humans believe that people decide relatively early in their lives what kind of music they like. They pick a genre and their tastes narrow like a busy highway with the left lane closed. My girlfriend is one of those people, which has provided us with no fewer than six extra chances to argue. Obviously, I disagree with her stance, or we would have had 678 arguments (instead of 684), and I wouldn't have had a not-so-clever hook to start this article.

My girlfriend is right when she says my sense of style is limited, if it exists at all. She's right when she tells me that I need to eat more. And she's right when she makes fun of the U.S. health care system. But I don't think she's right to say that one's spectrum of music taste should get smaller with time. I think the opposite is true -- with time, we should all be listening to more and more music. Later in this very article, I'm going to show you how. I'll switch into my overly positive, cheerleader-writing voice and will try to convince you not to give in to the pessimism of people like my girlfriend.

There are some hurdles to continual refreshment of one's music catalog. Pesky life events like marriages, births and new jobs get in the way. I've avoided the first two like they were strains of iocane powder, and my versions of the last one haven't exactly taken up all my time, so I can't claim to fully understand life's full catastrophe. But, because of the time I've had and, more importantly, because of my music addiction, I can speak to the normal growth rate of one's musical leanings.

If we were to draw a map of tastes, mine would not look like a funnel. Instead, it would be a tree, similar to the family tree my father has worked so diligently to perfect. On my normal family tree, two 19th century immigrants met in Tennessee, leading to multiple offspring and an eventual migration to Kansas. On my musical family tree, Eddie Vedder and Jeff Ament met in Seattle and led me to Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and, eventually, Band of Horses.

I don't list those bands in an attempt to impress. Nor do I write them to glorify early 1990s grunge. I make note of Pearl Jam because I can remember when I had eight CDs and "Ten" was one of them. That one album could very well be responsible for 80 bands I like -- not because any of them sound like Pearl Jam, but because one led to the next, which led to the next, and so on. It's possible listening to "Ten" led to liking Sigur Ros.

It's OK if you don't like Pearl Jam or Sigur Ros. And it's OK if you've never heard of Pearl Jam or Sigur Ros. Your familiarity, or lack thereof, with either band doesn't make or break your ability to judge music. What does is your openness to trying new things. Liking, say, 3 Doors Down doesn't mean a person has bad taste in music ... as long as he has tried something else.

I write all that because I don't want you to get overwhelmed by obscure band names, close Firefox, and swear off my opinions all together. It's fine to do that if you don't like my sense of humor, or if you don't think I have a sense of humor, or if you're not interested in senses of humor in the first place. Just don't do it because you think you'll never catch up to the music train I'm driving.

Finding new music isn't as hard as people think. Just like sex, there are many ways to do it, but the outcome is usually about the same.

I'm going to show you how. The music-finding, that is. As my girlfriend will attest, I'm no expert in the other thing. Which isn't to say that I'm an expert in finding new music, but I do my best, and I've been pretty happy with the results.

Method 1 -- Live Music

Before you skip ahead, hear me out. I know, your job at the bank is killing you. Your kids are 2 and 4. Your wife (husband) doesn't even like going to concerts. You think you don't have time for live music.

You probably don't. Go anyway.

There's a reason people have been listening to live music for thousands of years. That reason being sheer, undiluted fun. In this day and age, organizing to go to a concert is a daunting task: Tickets have to be bought, baby sitters have to be found, pre-show beers have to be drunk. But, just like hosting a party or cooking a dinner yourself, the results are worth it.

But while live music is great on its own, the subject here isn't only the majesty of R.E.M. on a cool spring night. We're talking about discovering new stuff, which is why you have to go to the show early enough to watch the opening act. There's usually a reason artists are paired together. Take advantage of that pairing. Again, I understand it is daunting to watch some band you've never heard of. If it helps, think of it as a way to get more out of your ticket price.

A few years ago, my brothers and I went to a tiny bar in Kansas City called the Hurricane to watch The Killers play. They were on their way to popularity, but they hadn't yet hit the proverbial big time. They were decidedly average in person, but that was OK because the opener, a band called Ratatat, made my eyes go wide and my hips go crazy. I was spellbound. I've seen them only once since, but I've bought all three of their albums and would count them among my favorite bands. I've bought all The Killers albums too, but when I think of that show, I think of Ratatat.

Method 2 -- The Radio

Sure, radio is bad, but they still use it to play music. Even in Kansas City -- no musical mecca -- we have a perfectly serviceable radio station at 96.5 on the FM dial and it does an admirable job of introducing people to new music. For example, I heard a song by The Airborne Toxic Event on 96.5 last fall and thought, "This is wonderful, I wish I knew who it was." Not three minutes later, the DJ did his job and told me. Bump, set, spike.

Method 3 -- Don't Be Scared

I realized, as I wrote "The Airborne Toxic Event," anyone not familiar with that band could think, upon reading it, that they would never listen to a band with such a scary name. Do not fear. The Airborne Toxic Event is about as "hard" as are The Beatles. Coldplay probably rocks harder than they do. A common misconception is that new music, especially of the alternative/rock variety, is too "hard" or "heavy." It's not. A current darling of the rock scene, Death Cab for Cutie, is about as heavy as Amy Grant.

Case in point for leaving your inner scaredy-cat at the door: my mother. My parents raised four tall, handsome (it's my column -- I get to judge) young men. The youngest left the familiar confines of Detlor Acres last fall, leaving Mr. and Mrs. Shirley to figure out what to do with all the time that was previously sucked away by basketball games and Boy Scout meetings.

Mom is taking advantage -- she listens to great music now. She has satellite radio in her car and actually pays attention when my brothers and I tell her about the new Rogue Wave album. This from a woman who, while I was growing up, owned three CDs that did not directly involve Phil Collins.

So don't be scared of new music. If my mom can handle it, you can too.

Method 4 -- The Internet (Or rather, amazon.com)

Many people swear by the Web site Pandora.com. There, a person can enter a favorite band and have the site choose music it thinks the listener will like. I've tried Pandora but have always been frustrated by the program's tendency to return to whatever I entered in the first place. I think the site has gotten better but I'm rarely at my computer when I'm listening to music. I'd rather have it on my iPod for in-car consumption or for easy access when I'm, say, putting away dishes.

Which is why I've always liked the artificial intelligence deployed by amazon.com. I'm not sure which of the Shirley brothers discovered this, but I'm glad he did. Type in a band's name on amazon.com and the site will recommend similar artists. I've found the process to be remarkably accurate. One summer evening a few years ago, I had it work on Tool. I was led to a band called Failure, a group fronted by a man named Ken Andrews and which had been influential in the alternative rock scene in the early and mid-'90s (unbeknownst to me). I downloaded a few songs and liked them. I bought two Failure records. Later, I found out that Andrews had side projects, one called ON, the other called Year of the Rabbit. I bought albums by both. I liked both.

In the end, a few taps on the keyboard led me to four records I would never have discovered otherwise. And I didn't even need to buy anything from Amazon directly. I only needed to abuse their algorithms for my own benefit.

Method 5 -- Magazines

Every year, Q, which is a British music magazine, puts out an issue with its top 50 albums of the year. Rolling Stone does the same, but they usually feel compelled to include the most recent Bob Dylan album, regardless of how good it is. As you might have divined, I find this annoying, and so I stick with Q, which is where I found, for example, The Charlatans, a great British group that has stayed under the radar here in the U.S. The Charlatans led to Blur and Supergrass, who then got me into Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and ... well, you get the idea.

Method 6 -- Other Humans

I know more about music than most of my friends, but I have a few who know way more than I do. My friend Geoff, for example, is several months ahead of everyone else when it comes to the newest great bands. Every so often, I ask him who will be the next big thing; his taste is impeccable.

I have other friends for other genres -- my brother used to be my go-to for the harder stuff. Now, he's transitioning to the world of electronica-influenced rock, such as Santogold and The Presets. A girl I know introduced me to Mudvayne. Don't laugh -- there's a right time and place for Mudvayne.

All I have to do is open up to their influences. I have to admit I need a little help. Don't be afraid to do the same. Most music dorks -- myself included -- would love to burn for you an extensive best-of-the-recent-year's CD. Take advantage of people with more time than you.

There are, of course, other ways to find great music. Ask a record store employee, go to a music festival, write down who is on the colorful posters at the nearest concert venue -- it doesn't matter. The undercurrent linking all of these methods is curiosity. Ask questions.

Most of all, don't give up. No matter how old you are, you might be tempted to think like my girlfriend does -- that you already know what you like and there's nothing left for you to discover.

That simply isn't true. Too much good music is in the world, and it's getting easier and easier to find it. It might take a little time, a little money, and an Internet connection, but it will be worth it in the end, if only because you'll feel that much better when, someday, your friends are asking you for recommendations.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. He can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley and at mysocalledcareer@gmail.com. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is now available in paperback -- can be found here. With his brother, he co-hosts an online radio show, "Off Topic with Matt and Paul Shirley."