Measuring the Unmeasurable: Ranking One’s Favorite Music, Part 1

I recently updated a data-based discussion of my cinematic “guilty pleasures,” adding a comparison of “most-acclaimed” and “my favorite” films from a given year or years. In so doing, though, I side-stepped the question of determining with something approaching academic rigor just what my favorite films are, relying solely on my gut to select a favorite film or films from each period.

Readers of this website know that I am fascinated by the art and science of measurement, be it the “noirness” of film festivals, Charlie Chan films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe or baseball player performance. Each of these prior analyses, however, is purely objective: all of the data I used are publicly-available, so the only “subjective” decisions I needed to make were selecting which data to compile and what statistical methods to use. And even when I was analyzing data for which I am the lone source – like this gorgeous distribution of iTunes tracks[1] by year and genre – the only decisions I made related to visualization, not personal preference.

Now, at last, I tackle the deceptively simple question of what music, movies, etc. I like most. More to the point, I address how I can most effectively and efficiently derive a “score” for each track or film, so that I can not only rank order them, but aggregate them into, say, albums, artists and genres, overall or by time period.

In the first installment of this series, we journey from my first-ever “mixtape” to my initial attempt to assign scores to my favorite music.

***********

While researching my book Interrogating Memory: Film Noir Spurs a Deep Dive Into My Family History…and My Own, I reread a hand-written “Journal” – really just a paper-clipped set of mid-sized lined pieces of paper ripped from a notebook – I began on May 29, 1981, as I was about to finish 9th grade at Harriton High School.

Buried within the June 5, 1981 entry is this:

Went to Ludington [Library in Bryn Mawr, PA]. … Then from there to Sam Goody’s for The Moody Blues Long Distance Voyager and Phil Collins Face Value. Good stuff. … Then it was Mad’s for Kraftwerk Autobahn.

At the time the two record stores sat a short walk from each other on E. Lancaster Avenue in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore. Four decades later, I still own these very albums.

A few months earlier, I had convinced my father – not exactly flush with cash much of the time – to buy three albums for me: The CarsThe Cars and Panorama, and, if memory serves, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America. I still have Panorama on vinyl, though I long since replaced the other two with CDs.

In the 12 months before that, meanwhile, I acquired Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, Peter Gabriel (III) and Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver. I still have Tusk and Arc on vinyl, with PGIII replaced by a CD. Finally, in late July or early August 1981, I acquired Foreigner 4…which I foolishly sold a few years later to buy a new issue of Billboard.

I played these 10 albums – and others I owned – on a turntable, complete with mid-sized brown wooden-cabinet speakers, my mother had bought just over four years earlier. Two moves later, it had migrated to my bedroom, where it sat on a low white wooden shelf with my record collection.

Exactly when I received my first Sony Walkman – and when I got the idea to record a set of tracks I like onto a Maxell cassette – I could not tell you. Nor could I tell you exactly what day in August 1981 – it was likely a Saturday, as I was a day camp junior counselor on weekdays – I placed one of the brown speakers on the floor next to my portable cassette recorder, cued up “Spanish Dancer” on Arc of a Diver, and hit Record. I sat in absolute silence as that track – followed by 13 others – recorded monaurally with zero Dolby noise reduction.

At least, I think it was these 14 tracks, in this order:

Side 1

Spanish Dancer                     Steve Winwood

Night Train                           Steve Winwood

Urgent                                    Foreigner

Juke Box Hero                       Foreigner

Moving in Stereo                  The Cars

All Mixed Up                        The Cars

Side 2

Touch and Go                       The Cars

Running to You                    The Cars

In the Air Tonight                Phil Collins

The Voice                              The Moody Blues

Gemini Dream                      The Moody Blues

Sisters of the Moon              Fleetwood Mac

Games Without Frontiers   Peter Gabriel

I Don’t Remember               Peter Gabriel

I have long since lost the cassette and lined insert card on which I wrote track titles and artists. A thorough search of the cardboard box on the floor to my left – containing dozens of mix cassettes and CDs – did not reveal it. It is purely memory that conjures up this list, though it is a very reasonable list.

My memory also says it was a 60-minute cassette, except this version of Side 1 is 32 minutes long, while Side 2 is 36 minutes long. So, unless I cut off two minutes of a track on Side 1 and have too many tracks on Side 2, this was more likely a 90-minute cassette, and I either ran out of tracks to record (VERY unlikely), or I am forgetting tracks.

Either way, as the cardboard box implies, what I creatively called My Stuff was only my first adventure in mix-making. Four months later I filled a 90-minute cassette with 22 tracks recorded from the radio; I called this cassette Stuff Vol. I. Over the next two years, I completed Stuff Vol. II through XI. With the exception of Side 1 of Stuff Vol. IV, a collection of late 60s/early 70s rock I recorded in June 1982,[2] these were “acquisition” mixes – mostly from the radio but sometimes from borrowed records. Indeed, only six of the 188 (or more, see below) unique tracks I recorded onto those mixes were recorded twice: “I Don’t Remember,” “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, and the four borrowed-record tracks: two by A Flock of Seagulls, “Kids in America” by Kim Wilde and “Escalator of Life” by Robert Hazard and the Heroes.

It is pretty clear where my musical tastes lay then – and now.

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I first wrote here about the 300+ mix cassettes, CDs and videocassettes I recorded between August 1981 and August 2016. These mixes contain at least 3,383 unique tracks.

  • Besides My Stuff, I no longer have Stuff Vol. V (from which I recall seven tracks) and one of the two mixes between Stuff Vol. VIII and Stuff Vol. XI. The other one is in a different plastic case with a sticker reading “I92–Stranglers/Fixx/Devo.” As I have no memory of the “missing” cassette – and I played the heck out of these mixes – it is very likely I simply misnumbered them.
  • When I first began to enter mix contents into a spreadsheet in December 1992, I equated studio and live versions of the same track (except when I didn’t), while including tracks from which I only recorded snippets, or which got cut off at the end.

I had actually been rank-ordering my favorite music for years – summoning from my gut then playing personal “top 25 songs” lists since 1980, if not earlier. In January 1990, meanwhile, I commemorated the end of the 1980s by determining – purely through thought and memory – my 40 favorite tracks of that decade; I mistakenly included “Prime Time” by The Tubes, even though Remote Control, its parent album, was released in 1979. “Promised You a Miracle” by Simple Minds was #1, beating out “All Roads Lead to Rome” by The Stranglers. In March, I purchased my first CD player, allowing me to record from CD to cassette, followed in April by my first PC. The former purchase triggered a wave of CD buying, mostly through buy 1, get 11 for one penny deals; I stocked up on “Best of” CDs. I also began prowling through used record, tape and CD stores. With a PC, meanwhile, I now had a spreadsheet program, though not Microsoft Excel.

By December 1992, I had created 88mixes – excluding the two Top 40 of the 1980s cassettes (10 tracks over four sides), a mix I created for my then-girlfriend in 1990 and a mix I created in the summer of 1992 for a woman in whom I was romantically interested. In the days before data compression and MP3s, constructing a mix required you to play every included track in its entirety. Plus, cassettes had only so much room and unless you bought them in bulk, blank ones were precious. Thus, you really had to like a track if you chose to record it onto a mix.

The brainstorm that I had in December 1992, then, was this: the universe of tracks included on my mixes roughly corresponded to my favorite tracks. And by tallying up what tracks appeared most often on a mix, I could both rank my favorite tracks and assign each one a numeric score. Then, by aggregating those scores, I could rank my favorite albums, artists and genres, both overall and by year.

Ranking hypothesis #1: I like every track I recorded onto a mix more than any track I have never recorded onto a mix.

Ranking hypothesis #2: The more mixes on which I have recorded a track, the more I like it.

This proved not to be as straightforward as I had hoped.

***********

In March 1984, I drove some classmates and myself to Washington DC for a Model UN gathering. Anticipating the long drive, I made my first proper mix tapes since My Stuff: Georgetown Survival Mix Vol. I and II. We did not actually stay in Georgetown – where a teenaged Nell (now my wife) then lived – but in a Marriott on Connecticut Avenue NW in Woodley Park. These 43 tracks summarized favored recent album purchases: ABC’s The Lexicon of Love and Spandau Ballet’s True, plus an assortment of records from Roxy Music, Alan Parsons Project, Talking Heads, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, A Flock of Seagulls, U2, Duran Duran, Squeeze, Icehouse, Re-Flex and Real Life. I still did not have a proper cassette recorder – nor could I play cassettes in the “Berger Bus,” my black 1979 Ford Fairmont. So, my tape recorder came along for the ride.

Similar two-cassette “constructed” mixes followed in July 1984, November 1984 and January to March 1985 – with another “acquisition mix” in June 1984. That summer, as I settled into my new room in my mother’s suburban Philadelphia apartment – she had rented my bedroom to a young woman – I was gifted an all-in-one turntable/cassette player/radio/cassette recorder. I spent much of that summer twirling radio dials, seeking tracks to record, creating Summer 1985, Vols. I to VIII.

At the start of my sophomore year at Yale, after 28 mixes and 487+ unique tracks, I constructed a mix – mostly from my record collection, but with some borrowed albums as well – called Stuff and Such Vol. I. I have no idea why I chose this playful title, but in so doing I created the mix-naming convention I would use for the next 16 years.

Well, it was the naming convention I used exclusively, excepting Pseudo Dance Music Vols. I and II in October 1989, beginning with my move to the Boston suburbs at the end of August 1989. In the previous four years, I intertwined first 12 Stuff and Such volumes with Stuff of 1985, Summer 86 Vols. I-III, Summer 1987 Vols. I-III, Stuff of 1987-88, Video Stuff Vols. I-IV, Summer 1988 Vol. I and Washington Vol. I-III. Broadly speaking, I constructed Stuff and Such mixes from my record collection – filling out sides with a few radio/borrowed tracks – and the other mixes from the radio and elsewhere – filling out sides with tracks from my record collection.

Basically, mixes served two purposes at this time:

  1. Acquisition: Though borrowing and recording from the radio and cable music channels new tracks became part of my collection.
  2. Portability: I could play tracks from newly-acquired albums on my Sony Walkman anywhere I wanted.

By the end of August 1989, I had created 52 cassette and four video mixes – averaging seven per year – comprising 919+ unique tracks spread over 1,118+ “slots.” A “slot” is anything recorded onto a mix, so if I record 25 tracks onto a cassette, that is 25 “slots.” During this eight-year period, 157 tracks (17.1%) were recorded twice, while 21 (2.3%) were recorded three times. A track appears multiple times either because I liked it so much, I wanted it to include it on subsequent mixes, or because I first recorded one version (perhaps a 12” remix) from the radio then found a different version – or the video on either MTV or VH1.

Updated Ranking Hypothesis #2: The number of mixes onto which I record a track is positively associated with how much I like that track.

Meanwhile, as I prepared to move to Somerville to enroll in the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences doctoral program in government, I knew I had a long solo drive to Boston ahead of me. To accompany me on this drive, and presuming I could play these cassettes on the sound system of the U-Haul I drove, I lovingly prepared the 136-track Boston Drive Vols. I-VI. Only nine tracks were being recorded for the first time, including the first two tracks on Side 1 of Boston Drive Vol. I: Overture and Heaven on Their Minds, which open the soundtrack to the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar; I played that soundtrack incessantly over the next few years. This is the first instance of what I later called the “anchor” track (in this case, tracks) – the very first track recorded on a mix or set of mixes, the one(s) I am the most excited to hear. This would later apply to a) the first track recorded on any mix within a set and b) the final track recorded on that set.

Ranking Hypothesis #3: The tracks I like the most on a mix or set of mixes are the first tracks I record on a cassette/CD – especially the anchor track – and the final track I record.

Ranking Hypothesis #3a: RH3 is not true before August 1989.

Ranking Hypothesis #3b: RH3 is sometimes true between September 1989 and February 1992.

Ranking Hypothesis #3c: RH3 is always true after February 1992.

In essence, the Boston Drive mixes were a compendium of those tracks I always fast-forwarded or rewound to hear over the previous eight years. And for the first time, I began to think about how I ordered tracks. Up until now I had either been at the whim of disc/video jockeys or had recorded artist “blocks” – a group of ABC tracks followed by a group of Spandau Ballet tracks followed by…you get the idea. There was no particular ordering of tracks within each artist – or really at all.

This began to change with Boston Drive, even my thought process was no more complicated than “put ‘rocking’ tracks on Side 1 and ‘mellow’ tracks on Side 2,” with “rocking” and “mellow” loosely defined. This was how I constructed Vols. I-III. Side 1 of Boston Drive Vol. IV contains 10 Genesis tracks, while Side 2 opens with “The Chamber of 32 Doors” followed by seven instrumental tracks. Boston Drive Vols. V and VI are essentially the leftovers, with the line between “rocking” and “mellow” nearly obliterated. The final track – still one of my 10 or 15 favorites – is “Darkness,” the last track on The Police’s Ghost In The Machine.

The Boston Drive mixes were such a revelation I returned to them repeatedly over the next few years. They also allowed me essentially to ignore the previous 52 cassette mixes, though I still watched the four video cassettes sometimes; what I do not remember is whether I had physically left them behind in my mother’s suburban Philadelphia apartment.

Meanwhile, shortly after moving to Somerville, I borrowed an apartment-mate’s CD of Camper Van Beethoven’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. I had fallen in love with “One of These Days” after hearing it played on WFNX in Washington, though I never got the chance to record it. That track – still one of my 100 favorites – not only opened Stuff and Such Vol. XIII, it signaled the end of the first wave of mix making. I have not recorded a single track from the radio since then, for example, though I did once fill an entire videocassette from VH1 Classic, retroactively designating a set of videos as Video Stuff 2002-03. Also, I now focused solely on constructing cassette mixes based on a mix of newly-acquired tracks – whether from CDs, vinyl albums or cassettes, or culled from other collections – and “repeat” tracks, the ones I wanted to hear again after recording them on an earlier mix. I still grouped tracks by artist – devoting two cassettes to Genesis and one to Roxy Music – and gave little thought to how one track flowed into the next, but the first faint glimmers of the strict mix-construction rules I later followed are there.

This demarcation of mixes into “before Boston Drive” and “Boston Drive and later,” however, meant that when I began to enter track name, artist and mix name into my PC spreadsheet I began with the Boston Drive mixes. I was daunted enough by the thought of entering data from 32 mixes – 36 counting the tangential 80s and romantic mixes; entering data from the previous 56 mixes went above and beyond.

Moreover, I was not satisfied with a simple tally of how many of the 749 slots each of the 512 tracks filled; two-thirds (341) occupied only one slot, while 39 occupied three slots, six occupied four slots and five – “Zamba” by Bryan Ferry, “Save Me (plus the unlisted reprise after “Fat Chance Hotel” that closes out Happy?) by Public Image Ltd, “Same Old Scene” by Roxy Music, “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n’ the Tears and “Cuad El Habib” by Yello – occupied five slots.

No, I began to “weight” appearances on some mixes more than others. Nearly 30 years and many iterations later, I can only guess at those first weights – but an appearance on the Boston Drive mixes equated to something like three slots, while appearing on the four “non-series” mixes something like two slots, as did appearance on particularly beloved mixes like Stuff and Such Vol. XXX, created in June 1992. It is possible appearance on “one-artist-only” mixes counted as <1 slots, but I doubt it – I had not yet reached that level of, umm, methodological sophistication.

Ranking Hypothesis #4: I like tracks included on designated mixes more than those only included on non-designated mixes.

Ranking Hypothesis #4a: How much more I like tracks included on designated mixes varies by designated mix.

At the time, ignoring 56.1% of the 1,166+ tracks I had recorded over the previous 11+ years made logistical sense. It also allowed me to ignore the distinction between “now/recently” and “of all time.” I continued to exclude them – with a partial exception I revisit in the next installment – for more than a decade.

It was thus a limited collection of 512 tracks from which I tabulated – using the “ranking hypotheses” listed above – the first installment of “The Berger 100;”[3] “The Berger 10” received its own page:

10. “Promised You a Miracle”

9. “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” Tubeway Army[4]

8. “The Evening’s Young” Yello

7. “New Toy” Lene Lovich[5]

6. “Stay Hungry” Talking Heads

5. “Cuad El Habib”

4. “Entangled” Genesis

3. “Right Down the Line” Gerry Rafferty

2. “Driver’s Seat”

1. “Save Me/Reprise”

“Zamba” was #12 and “Same Old Scene” was #19.

Based on what I remember of that time, the “ranking hypotheses” – the earliest incarnation of a score-computing algorithm – worked very well, at least in terms of what I most listened to in the early 1990s. From the song rankings, I generated “The Berger Album 50/10” and the “The Berger Artist 100/10.” At least, I think I did – I dated the track listings but not those for album and artist. Not that it mattered, as Ultravox’s Quartet and Genesis, respectively, topped those lists throughout the 1990s.

We return to that decade in the next installment, in which mix-making protocols emerge, mixes proliferate and technology flummoxes me…before it makes me rejoice.

Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.


[1] I prefer “track” to “song” because it encompasses the full range of “music-related things that can be recorded onto a mix” tape, CD or video.

[2] For the previous two years, an older Harritonite rode the same bus as me, and she regularly played a mix of 60s folk rock tunes. The side I recorded – Beatles, Rolling Stones, Chicago, Seals and Crofts, Moody Blues, David Bowie, John Lennon – was inspired by her mix.

[3] Brian Eno’s “Julie With” was #100.

[4] Incorrectly written as Are Friends Electric? Gary Numan

[5] Yes, that is Thomas Dolby in the video.

7 thoughts on “Measuring the Unmeasurable: Ranking One’s Favorite Music, Part 1

  1. I love that tape you made! If only my cassettes hadn’t been stolen in the 90’s, you could see the crazy amount of ones I made. To be honest, I took some of those songs you listed and added them to my Spotify playlist. I have 250 songs on my list cause I keep seeing and having people remind me of more great songs from back in the day.

    Liked by 1 person

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