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Every Song Ever

Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty

Ben Ratliff


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ISBN10: 1250117992
ISBN13: 9781250117991

Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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Today, new technologies make it possible to roam instantly and experimentally across musical languages and generations, from Detroit techno to jam bands to baroque opera—or to dive deeper into the set of tastes that we already have. We can listen to nearly anything, at any time. The possibilities in this new age of listening overturn old assumptions about what it means to properly appreciate music—to be an “educated” listener.

In Every Song Ever, veteran New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff reimagines the very idea of music appreciation for our times. As familiar subdivisions like “rock” and “jazz” matter less and music’s accessible past becomes longer and broader, listeners can put aside the intentions of composers and musicians and engage music afresh, on their own terms. Ratliff isolates signal musical traits—such as repetition, speed, and virtuosity—and traces them across wildly diverse recordings to reveal unexpected connections. When we listen for slowness, for instance, we may detect surprising affinities between the drone metal of Sunn O))), the mixtape manipulations of DJ Screw, Sarah Vaughan singing “Lover Man,” and the final works of Shostakovich. And if we listen for closeness, we might notice how the tight harmonies of bluegrass vocals illuminate the virtuosic synchrony of John Coltrane’s quartet. Ratliff also goes in search of “the perfect moment”; considers what it means to hear emotion by sampling the complex sadness that powers the music of Nick Drake and Slayer; and examines the meaning of certain common behaviors, such as the impulse to document and possess the entire performance history of the Grateful Dead.

Encompassing the sounds of five continents and several centuries, Ratliff’s book is a work of criticism and a lesson in open-mindedness. It is a definitive field guide to our radically altered musical habitat.


Praise for Every Song Ever

"Every Song Ever jumps into the grand adventure of losing yourself in music, at a time when the technology boundaries have blown wide open. Ben Ratliff brilliantly makes connections between the arcane and the everyday, pointing to sounds you’ve never heard—as well as finding new pleasures in music you thought you’d already used up."—Rob Sheffield, author of Love Is a Mix Tape and Turn Around Bright Eyes

"Everyone knows we live in an age when most people can listen to anything, anytime, anywhere. Whether that’s depressing or mind-expanding depends ultimately on what kind of attention we pay. Ben Ratliff has the gifts to help us surf this wave of sonic information, not stand there mumbling at it in a grumpy-grampy way. After all, it’s presumably not going to end until the electrical grid does."—John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead

"This is a book about one exemplary listener’s love for how many ways music can mean, set in sentences as forceful and subtle as Elvin Jones’s drumming. Slayer and Shostakovich, Ali Akbar Khan and the Allman Brothers—none of them are the same once Ben Ratliff’s ears get through with them. And your ears won’t be the same once you get through Every Song Ever."—Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator and The Second Sex

"[Ratliff] has a knack for articulating how a song works . . . [He is] like a learned record-store sage, at once a ranter and a crowd-pleaser . . . It's to his credit that he asks so many questions, offering a model of music appreciation that feels engaged and expansive. But perhaps the most galvanizing aspect of his project is that it leaves room for the DIY spirit to reemerge . . . [Every Song Ever] reignites our sense of longing for connection, allowing us to roam more consciously through the infinite channels online."—David O’Neill,Bookforum

"Ratliff breaks down the act of listening to music into 20 distinct chapters, making perceptive connections between artists ranging from Shotakovich to Ali Akbar Khan to the Jackson 5 . . . [Every Song Ever] is filled with bold statements, close listenings, and playlists, and will be immensely rewarding for those who stick with it."—Ben Segedin, Booklist

"In this insightful guide to contemporary music appreciation, genre limitations are off the table . . . Ratliff’s scholarship shines; there’s a lot to be said for a book on music appreciation that can draw apt parallels between DJ Screw and Bernstein’s rendition of Mahler’s ninth symphony."Publishers Weekly

"It’s fascinating how Ratliff can bring a fresh ear to such familiar music . . . [he] makes unlikely connections that will encourage music fans to listen beyond categorical distinctions and comfort zones."Kirkus Reviews

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


We are listening in the time of the cloud. First there was a person making up a song, as ritual or warning or memorial. Then there was a person singing an old song that someone had made up. Then there was music...

About the author

Ben Ratliff

Ben Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic for The New York Times since 1996. He has written three books: The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music (2008); Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (2007, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award); and Jazz: A Critic's Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings (2002). He lives with his wife and two sons in the Bronx.

Kate Fox Reynolds

Ben Ratliff

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Ben Ratliff on the New York Times