The album exchange – a tale of lockdown, friendship, and 700 albums

When the UK first went into lockdown in March 2020, I had just finished my first two terms at university. Having gone from being surrounded by people to seeing only my family everyday, I found lockdown much more lonely than I had anticipated. My friends were similarly listless. With nothing better to do, we all ended up relying on music to keep us sane, channelling our pent-up energy into making über-specific playlists and sharing albums with each other.

Out of these strange circumstances, I came up with the idea of creating an album exchange, in which I would pair up strangers with similar music tastes who would bond by trading album recommendations. It would be a way to make friends and discover new music – all I would ask of anyone participating would be to submit an album and to accept a recommendation from a stranger in return.

The first exchange I put on, in April, roped in 70 people, mostly from Durham, and mostly my friends. I hand-matched every pair in about a week, and encouraged everyone participating in the exchange to talk to the person I’d matched them with. I didn’t expect anything to happen after that – getting 70 people to listen to a new album seemed a feat in itself! However, I eventually decided to stage another one. I was eager to make this second exchange bigger than the first. However, despite my best efforts to promote it, only 50 people signed up initially. Even the incoming Durham first-years I advertised to paid me dust (a particularly humbling experience).

After a pep talk from my good friend Jacob, I decided to promote the exchange more intensively. I posted about it on every music-related subreddit I could find, to the point that I was accused of being a spambot, which resulted in 200 more people signing up. I then decided to post about the exchange on every Facebook university confessions page I could find. Hundreds of entries began to pour in from Bristol, Lancaster, UEA, Newcastle and Oxford, and I closed the exchange with more than 700 entries. I was, above all, elated, thinking little of the task ahead. “How hard can it be,” I naively thought, “to match 700 albums into pairs?”

I, of course, paid the price for my hubris. Despite assembling a lovely group of volunteers (thanks to Adam, Alaric, Amie, Caleb, Charlie, Emilia, Henry, James, Jo, Joshua, Ishaan, Kat, Livi, Loti, Luka, Mae, Martin, Matthew, Rory, Ryan and Sophie, and, most of all, to Martin, for being an absolute rock), I soon realised that I would have to listen to all the albums that had been submitted if I wanted to make every match as good as it could be – so that’s what I did. For three weeks, I skimmed through all 700 albums, categorising them into micro-genres ranging from “screamy metal” to “British indie” to “Pitchfork-core”. Then I matched every album with another, trying to take into consideration what people had asked for.

Sometimes I matched by vibe (Heaven or Las Vegas by the Cocteau Twins with In Rainbows by Radiohead). Sometimes I matched by sonic similarity, such as when I matched Written In Blood by The Casualties with A Sickness Of The Mind by The Restarts (coincidentally matching an actual couple!). Sometimes I came across head-scratchers (Connie Converse? Susuma Yokota? Death Grips?) but, like a good matchmaker, I managed to find matches for everyone (Joanna Newsom! Boards of Canada! Dalek!).

Often I had to act as an armchair psychologist. Would someone who suggested ___ turn their nose up at ___? Would they be open-minded enough to like ____? Making sweeping assumptions about what people will like based on what they suggested was, of course, not always accurate. However, I had limited information to go off of, and some educated guesses were necessary.

The fact that matches had to be compatible both ways was also challenging. These considerations were ultimately secondary to the task of getting the matches done – for instance, the sheer number of Pink Floyd albums suggested meant that nearly every intra-prog-rock match, even if most progressive rock fans have likely heard Pink Floyd already. However, in spite of occasional compromises, I tried very hard to make the overall utility of the matches as high as it could be, even if not every match was perfect.

Did the process drive me insane? A little. Was it also really fun? Somehow, it was – I must be a secret masochist. Even if listening to so many albums was sometimes mind-numbingly dull, and I had to listen to some artists a dozen times before I knew how to match them, it was a thrill to find the perfect partner for every album using only “Ctrl+F”, a Word document and my memory. If you’d like to see the whole list of matches, you can over here!

In terms of what I got out of the experience, it thoroughly reaffirmed my faith in humanity to sort through people’s requests for albums. People asked for albums that were danceable, sad, dreamy, wholesome, heartbreaking, nocturnal, summery, lyrical, instrumental, coherent, incoherent, political, romantic, raw and cosmic. Some requests were for incredibly specific sub-genres; others took the form of long, beautiful descriptive paragraphs. While not everything was as I expected – the sheer amount of people who asked for a “reflective” album was exhausting to say the least – I loved it all. I initiated the exchange misguidedly believing I knew a fair bit about music. Discovering how much amazing stuff is out there that I had absolutely no idea about was a humbling and heartening experience.

The exchange ended up being pivotal not only for me but for the people who took part in it. While not every match was successful, a handful had long-lasting consequences. Strangers emailed me, from around the world, to tell me that the exchange had brightened their lockdown, that they had made a friend, or that they had discovered a new favourite album. Two of my friends are now a couple because they met on that very first exchange. I saw them recently for a meal and it blew me away to think that their paths would never have crossed had it not been for an Excel spreadsheet I made, out of boredom, in my sixth-form bedroom.

When I created this blog almost five years ago, in that same bedroom (it predates the album exchange) I had the intention of it becoming a music blog. I only ever wrote one post, but that post, on why my favourite music means so much to me, expresses the same ideals that the exchange was motivated by:

  • that music’s value is in its personal appeal, and that it gains instead of loses power when we acknowledge that subjectivity;
  • that the Internet should be a place where people around the globe can find shared communion in their favourite songs, though they might only meet in YouTube comments sections (or, in the case of this album exchange, in email inboxes);
  • that albums can function not only as pieces of entertainment, but as the sacred texts with which we navigate our own lives, and that paying focused attention to music in a world of fragmented attention spans is always worthwhile;
  • that sharing what touches us makes us better, more connected, more empathetic people’
  • and that people and art are just really cool.

Since 2020, a handful of people more talented than I am have been working on turning the exchange into a fully-fledged website. Even if that doesn’t pan out, the exchange really did change my life – in the wake of an international pandemic, it reaffirmed to me the power of friendship and music, even if listening to 700 albums in a month and writing half as many emails decidedly burnt me out! The 16-year old who named his music blog “parallel peaks” did so in homage to three of his favourite things: the shape that musical sine waves make; a lyric from Frank Ocean’s “Rushes”, “twin peaking, highs and lows”; and the idea that listening to the same album can cause two people to have simultaneous “peaks” in emotion, even though they may never meet. Apologies, 16-year-old me, that I never wrote a second blog post – I hope you like what I’ve done with the place.

I’d like to finish this write-up with a list of albums I discovered over the course of my matching that I’d like other people to hear. My tastes are limited and this list should not be taken as an attempt to pick “the best” albums suggested – I only wanted to compile my personal favourite matches. A complete, much longer list of matches can be found over here.

My list includes avant-garde singing (Sings by Patty Waters), South Korean folk jazz (Karma by Black String), lost 60s should-have-been-classics (Now That Everything’s Been Said by the City), Zimbabwean pop (Friends on the Road by Bhundu Boys), and an amazing Japanese house album (Fruits of the Room by Susuma Yokota). I personally can’t get enough of variety, and these albums were amongst my favourites because they brought some novelty to my listening. Hope you enjoy!

Old favourites (albums I already love that I was very excited to see pop up)

An Awesome Wave by Alt-J with I See You by the xx

Antidotes by Foals with Get To Heaven by Everything Everything

Channel Orange by Frank Ocean with Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill by Lauryn Hill

Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix with The Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd

Fetch The Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple with Horses by Patti Smith

Grace by Jeff Buckley with The Bends by Radiohead

In Rainbows by Radiohead with Heaven Or Las Vegas by The Cocteau Twins

Is This It by The Strokes with Hot Fuss by the Killers

Kid A by Radiohead with Turn On The Bright Lights by Interpol

Leak 04-13 (Bait Ones) by Jai Paul with Paul’s Boutique by The Beastie Boys

Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness by The Smashing Pumpkins with Spiderland by Slint

To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar with Blonde by Frank Ocean

New favourites (matches where I had not previously heard one or both of the albums)

A Toda Cuba Le Gusta by Afro-Cuban Allstars with Friends On The Road by Bhundu Boys

American Boyfriend by Kevin Abstract with Blonde by Frank Ocean

Antiphon by Alfa Mist with Ardour by Teebs

Baduizm by Erykah Badu with Heavn by Jamila Woods

Bareback by Hank Dogs with Five Leaves Left by Nick Drake

Beyond Words by Bobby Mcferrin with Tassili by Tinariwen

Blood Orange by Negro Swan with Safe In The Hands Of Love by Yves Tumor

Blue;s by Mamamoo with Another by Kim Jaehwan

Calling Out Of Context by Arthur Russell with Fever Ray by Fever Ray

Crush by Lettuce with We Like It Here by Snarky Puppy

Didn’t It Rain by Songs:Ohia with Stratosphere by Duster

Esperanza by Esperanza Spalding with Getz/Gilberto by Getz And Gilberto

Goo by Sonic Youth with The Killer Was In Government Blankets by Yaphet Kotto

I Let It In And It Took Everything by Loathe with Bergtatt by Ulver

Invisible Touch by Genesis with The Turn Of A Friendly Card by The Alan Parsons Project

It’s A Wonderful Life by Sparklehorse with The Glow Pt. 2 by The Microphones

Kalk Samen Kuri No Hana by Sheena Ringo with 1000 Gecs by 100 Gecs

Karma by Black String with Majid Bekkas by Magic Spirit Quartet

Luz Nacarina by Javier Hernando with The Disintegration Loops by William Basinski

Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness by The Smashing Pumpkins with California by Mr Bungle

Melodrama by Lorde with I’m All Ears by Let’s Eat Grandma

Mother Earth’s Plantasia by Mort Garson with Another Green World by Brian Eno

Music Has The Right To Children by Boards Of Canada with Fruits Of The Room by Stevia (Susuma Yokota)

Negro Swan by Blood Orange with Heaven To A Tortured Mind by Yves Tumor

Now That Everything’s Been Said by The City with Let’s Stay Together by Al Green

Odessey And Oracle by The Zombies with The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks

Oh No by Jessy Lanza with Black Lights by Samaris

Overcast! by Atmosphere with Guru’s Jazzmattazz Vol 1 by Guru

Sables by De.Ville with X100PRE by Bad Bunny

Sings by Patty Waters with The Marble Index by Nico

Strawberry Jam by Animal Collective with Long Season by Fishmans

Ten by Pearl Jam with Soda Stereo by Canción Animal

The June Frost by Mournful Congregation with F♯ A♯ ∞ by Godspeed You! Black Emperor

The Lemon Of Pink by The Books with Radio Highlife by Aunite Flo

The Milk Eyed Mender by Joanna Newsom with How Sad How Lovely by Connie Converse

The Velvet Underground And Nico by The Velvet Underground with Station To Station by David Bowie

Travelling Without Moving by Jamiroquai with Nuova Napoli by Nu Guinea with Late Night Tales: Music For Pleasure by Groove Armada

Ultraviolence by Lana Del Rey with Cigarettes After Sex by Cigarettes After Sex

Parallel peaks

Music infiltrates every part of our lives. In homes, arenas, clubs, churches, bars, and bedrooms, music is there to tend our emotions, feed our thoughts, and express the parts of ourselves we can’t, and some of my dearest albums have become a central tenet of my identity.

Music wasn’t a huge part of my childhood (the songs I liked in primary school were a jumble of TV themes and Top 40 hits I was never too fond of) but getting a Spotify account in year 9 and being able to listen to entire albums for free allowed me to immerse myself in melody in a way I couldn’t before. I was 13 and bored when, surfing YouTube, I rediscovered a track I recognised from my childhood, as a song that had been blasting from my sister’s bedroom since time immemorial, or at least since 2010; the track was “Mr. Brightside” and the album it came from, “Hot Fuss”, was the first I ever listened to and the first I ever loved. I don’t listen to the Killers often, but I still remember staring at my laptop as I listened to the final notes of “Everything Will Be Alright” and feeling a dreamlike sense of calm I hadn’t known in months.

Over the next few years my taste would spiral out from my friends’ recommendations and my older sister’s favourites to albums from every genre and every decade. In my head are mental mixtapes for every occasion: happy (“Dancing Queen”), angry (“The Rat”), nostalgic (“One Eleven”), and every emotion in between. At the end of bad days, hearing “Take Care” or “Float On” gave me the reassurance I needed; in the weeks I felt most stressed, I had“Sugar for the Pill”, “The Fall”, and “Girl” to calm me down; and some songs have been evergreen, offering constant comfort irrespective of my mood (“Nikes”).

But my best-loved songs have always been the ballads. The way Lou Reed whimpers “help me in my weakness, cause I’ve fallen out of place” on “Jesus” makes him seem like the most vulnerable man in the world; and on “Memrise”, a two minute track dropped in the four year interim between “Channel Orange” and “Endless/Blonde”, Frank Ocean’s falsetto pleas to a lover to stay true to himself are so tender as to be painful. Both have soundtracked me crying alone in bed, and while I’ve not listened to either in a while, the way those voices make me feel is still lucid in my memory.

And while the music in “Dance Yrself Clean” is dazzling, it’s the lyrics that made listening to it for the first time so monumental. “Killing it with close inspection” was about my overthinking, “sometimes friends are mean” my feelings of isolation, and the beat drop my adolescent baptism, the pure catharsis of shedding away everything I disliked about myself, of dancing myself clean. Maybe I shouldn’t have sympathised as much as I did with a 40-year-old man from New Jersey, but LCD Soundsystem were to me not only danceable but acutely relatable.

Like poetry and microscopes, music takes the small things we see every day (love, hate, happiness, sadness) and magnifies them for close inspection. People often associate their favourite songs with when they were young, and maybe it’s because it’s in the years when our emotions are most vivid and our identities most in flux that we most need songs to make sense of ourselves.

Alone in my bedroom, listening to my most treasured albums, the tunes gain importance from how they touch my soul, but listening to music with others creates a different kind of buzz. At concerts, discos and weddings, where all are equal on the dance floor, one nation under a groove, music unites people from all walks of life, and that’s not to be taken lightly – liking the same song or album as someone else is seeing into their soul a little, inspiring empathy between people with little in common and highlighting the humanity we share. Even trading playlists with a friend has a magic all of its own. The best tracks don’t just make me feel, they draw meaning from the memories I make while listening to them, striking right at the border between individual and communal experience.

Not only has the Internet made finding new music easier, it’s also made it so these communal experiences can span the globe. The YouTube comments sections of my favourite tracks are littered with stories of music changing lives: the newly single listening to Frank or Adele and finding solace after heartbreak, or hearing “Float On” and finding the will to live another day. As for me, these last few years have been confusing, but the albums closest to my heart have been like roadmaps, directing, motivating and teaching me things about myself I never would have realised alone. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of music in widening my worldview, connecting me with people I never would have talked to otherwise, and giving me the courage to be myself; and from the stories I hear, both online and offline, I know I’m not alone.

Music really did change my life, and given that I’ve always loved writing, I’ve thought of starting a music blog before. That said, the thought of trying to be objective always put me off; I was sure that good music reviews were meant to inform, not to be informal, and yet talking about albums without mentioning the personal stories behind them seemed dull if not impossible, so in the end I didn’t write at all.

But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realised the idea of objectivity in music and art in general is mad, and that the criteria writers use to distinguish a good album from a bad one (originality, influence, beauty) are all largely personal. That’s not to say that music is entirely subjective, but stripping music to its objective realities is to strip it of its power.

Some cling to “canon”: the concept that, in popular music’s short history, there are already albums to be venerated above all others. These canons can be helpful; when I first started listening to music, lists like Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” were a godsend, not only useful in finding new albums to listen to but also addictive in the way I could check off albums like bucket list items as I listened to them. But the more music I listened to, the more I realised the idea of a concrete canon is revisionist, biased, and self-perpetuating, elevating the preferences of a few and writing off good albums not on the list as irrelevant.

Other writers tie music to popular culture to give it an emotional resonance, every LP part of something bigger; but while it’s true that the two are strongly linked, it’s not the thing that gives music importance. When Prince and Bowie died last year, they were mourned not because of their albums sales or how culturally relevant they were, but because of the difference their notes and words made in the lives of countless people. Connecting albums to movements or generations or zeitgeists can be illuminating, but it should never be the whole story, because the best albums, even if they are just collections of tracks, stand on their own. Music isn’t about genres or Big Monocultural Events or even culture itself – music is about the people who make it, the people who listen to it, and the silent agreement between both parties as to what the melodies mean.

This blog is not about being objective. It’s for talking about my favourite songs and albums, new and old and how they make me feel: the way I connect with them; the memories I have tied up with them; and their effect on my life. I probably don’t have it in me to write about artists I don’t like, mostly because it would be something of a chore, so I’ll just write about what I enjoy; but if I’m gonna keep this thing going, it needs a solid purpose for it to motivate me, and so I’m starting this blog for three reasons.

Number one is that this blog is writing practise. I’m an aspiring journalist so hopefully having something in the public eye to maintain will hold me to writing regularly and often and becoming better and faster at what I hope to do as a career.

Number two is that this blog is a forum. Music is there in every part of our lives, but with tastes more polarised than ever, most people don’t really talk about it, and when they do it’s shallow – either angry disagreement or fervent accord. We might talk about bands, but only the ones we know our friends will like; we might talk about songs, but never speak about what they really mean to us. But we have to talk about the things we love, even if they’re unpopular or uncool or disliked by the people around us, or we run the risk of losing the vulnerable joy that comes with sharing them. My hope is that, in talking and sharing stories about the music that’s special to me, I’ll inspire other people to do the same, or at least to appreciate their own valued albums a little more than they already do.

And number three is that this blog is a time capsule. In every generation, there are people who say that good music is gone – that music died with Mozart, or with rock ‘n’ roll, or with disco, or with hip hop, or with their adolescence – but these people will always be wrong. Music was around long before everyone I know was born and it’ll continue long after everyone I know is dead. The only feature of good music is that it makes people feel, and as long as there are people to make music and people to listen to music, there will always be music that is beautiful and true and that fits that criteria.

My hope is that I never forget that, but when I’m old and jaded, and the way I look at music is clouded with the fog of nostalgia, I very well might. And it’s not that I’m resigned to the possibility that aging will make me closed-minded to what now makes me the most happy (it’s absolutely terrifying) but maybe it’s unavoidable. My interests as a 16-year-old are not the same as when I was 6, and they’ll probably be completely different when I’m 26, when I’m 66 and when I’m 106. I’m excited for the future, but I can barely decide on my A-level options and I’m already being asked to think of university, of finding a career, of starting a family, and sometimes it can feel like I’m at the beginning of a long, open road with no clue where I’m going. All I can hope for is to capture the present moment now, to immortalise some part of my teenage experience while my ears are still open and my body is still resilient, preserved like fossils in amber on the Internet for that rainy day when the passion is gone.

My reasons for starting this blog made finding a good URL important (if this is something I’m going to look back on in 10 or 20 years time, it would have been dumb to name it something like ilovejamesmurphy.wordpress.com) but finding a decent name that hadn’t already been taken was a nightmare. In spite of all my brainstorming, the best one I could come up with was “parallel peaks”, so clearly I’m not much of a title guy. But even though it’s a syllable too long and the alliteration makes it sounds like a children’s book character, I’m happy with it because it alludes to three of my favourite things: the peaks of the soundwaves that music is made up of; the lyric on “Rushes” that goes “twin peaking highs and lows”; and the universality of music itself. I can listen to a song simultaneously to someone on the other side of the world, but our listening experiences never intersect. Yet even if we never meet, the stories I see shared on the comments sections I frequent make it clear that we can still have the same reaction, parallel peaks in emotion. Like a good starter pack meme, the best music reminds us that we’re all different, but we’re also all the same, and I think that’s really beautiful.

There’s lots of things I’ve touched upon in this post that I could have gone on about for much longer, and when it comes to songs and albums that are important to me, I’ve barely scratched the surface. But this is just a debut – hopefully, like the best musicians, I’ll only get better over time. So until my next post, here’s to music. Here’s to dancing to hits from every decade, to crying in our bedrooms to the same tune over and over, to blasting primary school bangers at parties and laughing at ourselves. Here’s to ABBA and Arctic Monkeys, the Beatles and the Beastie Boys, Carole King and Chance the Rapper, David Bowie and D’Angelo, Elvis Presley and Eminem, Funkadelic and Frank Ocean, Gorillaz and Grimes, Hank Williams and Hüsker Dü, Isaac Hayes and Interpol, Jimi Hendrix and J Dilla, Kanye and Kendrick, Lou Reed and LCD Soundsystem, Miles Davis and Michael Jackson, Nina Simone and Nirvana, Patti Smith and Prince, Queen and Queens of the Stone Age, REM and Radiohead, Slint and Stevie Wonder, Talk Talk and Tame Impala, U2 and Underworld, Vampire Weekend and the Velvet Underground, Wire and the Wu-Tang Clan, the xx, Yes and the Zombies. Here’s to listening to music to figure out the world within us and the world around us. Here’s to all of us, listening to our favourite songs, alone, together. Here’s to parallel peaks.

Joe