The Richmond Anthology Of Music is a project I’ve been working on for roughly 17 years, but I’ve never had an easy time explaining what it is. (I didn’t even decide to title it the Richmond Anthology Of Music until this year; before that I was calling it “The Ultimate Playlist.”) At various times I’ve described it to bemused friends and family as:
- A comprehensive list of the greatest songs of all time.
- A comprehensive list of my favorite songs of all time.
- A series of yearbooks, documenting the most important songs from every year of recorded music.
- A grand unified narrative of music history.
- The “perfect playlist.”
- A complete pocket music education, where each song could serve as a gateway into a different scene or genre.
- The 3,000 songs (give or take) I would bring with me if trapped on a desert island for the rest of my life.
- The 3,000 songs (give or take) I would put on a USB drive and shoot into space if the Earth was doomed, to represent our collective musical achievement.
I finally settled on “Anthology” as the best word to define the project, because it implies both completeness and curation. This anthology is meant to stake out the middle ground between Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music
, a highly personal, singularly designed collection, and the foolishly exhaustive, endless canon of “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.”
I designed the Anthology to feel as much like an object of art as the music it spotlights, while also suggesting a challenge, a task you’ll be compelled to complete.
Publisher’s Weekly, in a review of “1001 Albums…”, called it “about as comprehensive a 'best-of' as any sane person could want.” I call it “a decent starting point.” If you’re prepared to really and truly stretch your musical horizons, you’ve come to the right place.
The origin story of the Anthology begins in December 2003, when I was a bored college freshman home on winter break. Already a full-bore music obsessive, I decided to spend a good chunk of that break making a mix CD (the media du jour) to close out 2003. All the songs included in the mix were from 2003, but they weren’t meant to be strictly my favorite songs, or the most popular songs. It was a ‘yearbook’ mix, collecting the popular songs, the biggest music trends, any song that felt ‘important,’ and a few tracks I simply loved. I listened and relistened to over a hundred songs for it, slowly whittling it down, until I was left with 18 impeccable gems that summed up the year.
It was a good mix! And really, deeply satisfying to make. So satisfying, in fact, that I did it again in 2004, and 2005, and 2006. Each December, I’d devour “best of” lists, and scroll through Wikipedia, Billboard and Allmusic trying to find anything I’d missed. Around then I started to feel confined by the 80 minute limit of a mix CD, so I doubled back and expanded the old yearbook mixes into 36-song iTunes playlists.
In 2009, I spent a giddy summer making my 2000, 2001 and 2002 yearbook playlists, so at the end of that year I could have a 360-song 00s megamix. Finishing that mix in December 09 felt amazing: I spent hours listening to it on shuffle, delighting at the leaps between genres, the unexpected similarities between Missy Elliott and The Postal Service, and the sense I had, over seven years of work, captured the musical zeitgeist of the decade. Finally, I was done.
Except of course I was not done. As the 10s proceeded, my 00s mix felt increasingly incomplete. In 2011 I finally gave in to a nagging urge, and made a 1999 yearbook list. (In retrospect, this was a dangerous step.) Working backwards over spare evenings, I knocked off the rest of the 90s until I had my 90s megamix. That felt incredible, and satiated at last, I put the project on hold...for about a year, until the urge returned, too strong to ignore.
In 2013 I began work on my 80s playlist...but by that point, I understood that even when the 80s list was done, I would not be. This was bigger than years or decades. I would have to cover everything. Heavy with the burden I knew was mine alone to bear, over the following years I completed the 80s playlist, and the 70s, and the 60s. Then, knowing that the musical pickings would get slimmer the further back in time I went, until I was looking at years with a handful of wax cylinder recordings, I devised a logarithmic rolloff for my pre-1960 mix. This final mix contained 180 songs from the 50s, 90 songs from the 40s, 45 songs from the 30s, and 45 songs from the 20s, 10s and earlier, into the classical music era and beyond. Finally, with the entirely of music history covered, I was done.
Except of course I was not done. I looked over these mighty works, and they seemed woefully unfinished, and hopelessly biased. Entire major genres were barely represented. And with years of hindsight, some of those 2003 picks were ridiculous. (I included an Audioslave song but not “Crazy In Love”? What was I thinking??). I started diving into my musical blindspots, making special supplement playlists for country, showtunes and reggae. I pored over old music magazines and best of lists, listening to hours and hours of chaff to find the wheat. I revised my early-music formula to expand my pre-40s collection significantly. In 2018 I finally tackled the list's weakest section, world music, and spent entire weekends checking out local scenes and microgenres from Bolivia to Belarus. (International music is still the most incomplete section of the Anthology, but I've now got a decent sampler of great stuff from every major world region.)
Finally, in 2019, with another decade’s end approaching, I determined it was time to once and for all get this monkey off my back and finish the damn thing. I organized all the playlists and megamixes into a spreadsheet and started making some hard choices; which song from Forever Changes am I sure
deserves to be here? Which song from Pearl Jam’s Ten? Can I shave a K-pop song here to make room for a bossa nova song there? I sorted everything by genre, to make sure the ratios of rock to pop to hip-hop were appropriate. I listened to even more songs from random music-nerd websites and Spotify playlists just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. (By my estimate, I’ve listened to about 60,000 songs total for this project.)
The last step was figuring out how to get this into the world. The idea for ‘chapters’ came quite late, as I realized someone who hasn’t lived with this giant list for 17 years might be intimidated, and unsure where to start. By splitting the songs into much shorter lists, I could make it easier to digest. So I divided 3,010 songs into 301 10-song playlists, and added a little curator’s commentary for each one, which I didn’t understand meant writing over 30,000 words until it was too late to turn back. All while teaching myself web-design skills on the side to publish it, since no Squarespace template fit the Anthology quite right. Finally, though, I was ready to publish this and wipe my hands of it. At last, I was done.
Except of course it’s not done. It will never be done. None of this backstory has answered the fundamental question of “why?”, and that’s because I can’t answer it. I’m not sure why I made this. I feel a little like Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind,” unable to stop sculpting mountains out of mashed potatoes. The Anthology is my potato mountain. I can’t crack open my subconscious and unravel why the things that drive me drive me. I only know that nothing I’ve ever worked on has felt more satisfying or correct, like I was put on Earth to create this. There’s no obvious practical purpose or monetary value to it. It’s simply something I was meant to do. So I did it.
And now I hope, if nothing else, you will enjoy it, this first edition of the Richmond Anthology, spanning the beginning of music through 2019. Future editions will include 2020 and beyond, as well as flesh out some of the less-covered genres like reggaeton or post-8-bit video game music. There will be fancier websites and alternate ways to listen. Maybe it will become a podcast. Like Sarah Winchester’s mystery house, I’ll keep building out new wings and staircases to nowhere until I die, probably.
Nonetheless, I consider this edition authoritative and unimpeachable. Minor flaws are part of the package; this isn’t some Pitchfork list mixing the brains of 50 writers together, they’re the choices of one person. I want the final product to feel homemade, even though it was produced with tools from Google, Spotify, Adobe & Twitter. I sculpted this Anthology from bits and bytes with my own two hands. (Though I have plenty of sources to cite and people to thank in the Appendices
section, not least all the artists who created the songs on this list.)
Have I hyped this up enough? It’s time for you to enjoy the Anthology! See the complete list
at a glance with all the metadata goodies by pulling up the Google sheet. When you’re ready to take a quick dip, I recommend putting the full (slightly abridged) Spotify playlist on random. This playlist was designed for shuffle, finely calibrated to give you an exciting, highly listenable mix of hits and obscurities, easy listening and prog odysseys, hopping across every era and genre - the celestial jukebox defined.
When you’re done with that and prepared to commit, however, you’re ready to start the chaptered experience.
This puts the entire Anthology in order, starting from the very origins of music and proceeding to the present day in fits and starts, with little detours along the way. Every ten song section is organized around a different theme. Skip to the chapter of your choice, or subscribe to the Richmond Anthology Twitter feed, because I’ll be posting a chapter playlist a day, every day, for 301 consecutive days. Get a little taste of the Anthology daily right in your feed. Make this the year you don’t just say “I listen to a little bit of everything,” and actually listen to a little bit of everything
Every one of these songs is amazing. If you disagree with a selection or think I left something major out - you’re wrong, but also, I want to hear from you! Tweet @RAMAnthology
(yes I know the A also stands for anthology, I was working with limited characters) or email richmondanthology @ gmail.com. I’m not an expert, just a very obsessive amateur, and there’s no doubt I bring my own biases and blindspots. Your suggestions and arguments for your faves could help shape the next edition. (But also, this list is correct and you’re wrong.)
You surely have more questions - head to the F.A.Q.
page for more answers (and some nifty stats ‘n graphs). But you don’t need more preamble from me. I present to you, this unaccountable thing that I made...the Richmond Anthology Of Music.