A service known for its carefully curated playlists, Spotify's 'This Is' playlist series, each one focusing on a different legendary artist, often slips under the radar, but the series does an important service for fans and is one of the better products to emerge from the streaming revolution.
Guest post by John Miranda
One of Spotify’s under-appreciated gems is the “This is:” playlist series. Each one is dedicated to a different legendary artist, chronicling the high points of iconic discographies. This is: Kanye West. This is: Lorde. This is: Randy Newman. Yes, the last one is very much real and very much worth a listen.
Since the dawn of the streaming era, services such as Spotify have promised to build a comprehensive Alexandrian Library of modern recorded music. This is exciting, not only because of the endless flow of new music discovery opportunities, or the ability to find every song ever released on-demand at your fingertips, but also because of the way that such services inherently facilitate the canonization of great works, catalogued forever in the digital music archives. “This is:” fully delivers on the latter, creating digital capsules which will teach future generations, in so many songs, why Talking Heads, Missy Elliott, and Toby Keith were noteworthy artists in certain times and places. Furthermore, fans new and old can get a big picture overview of a famous creator’s contributions to the art form, discovering new favorites and remembering the classics. “This is:”, as a series, is one of the most fulfilling products of the streaming revolution.
I cannot tell you which playlists are objectively the best, since there are hundreds and hundreds of them and I do not know each artist’s catalog intimately enough to judge the playlists’ respective strength, relevancy, and tone. But in reviewing the playlists made for the artists closest to my own heart, I noticed a few different conceptual variations within the “This Is:” series.
Some of the playlists are basically anthologies, which mix an artist’s radio hits with acclaimed album tracks and fan favorites. This is especially the case with iconic rock artists like Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Prince, Billy Joel… These playlists typically run at about 50-70 tracks. So it’s a lot more than a greatest hits record in digital form. More like a primer course for new listeners who want to understand the ins-and-outs of a classic artist’s legacy. Or a feel-good refresher for diehard fans who want to relive the soundtrack of years gone by.
The hip-hop “This is:” playlists are usually different in that they incorporate way more collabs, guest appearances, and remixes. “This is: Notorious B.I.G.” contains as many post-humous tracks from compilation releases like Duets: The Final Chapter and Born Again as it does classics from Ready to Die and Life After Death. This is not necessarily the case with hip-hop artists like Kanye West, who have enough studio albums to fill up 40+ track playlists. But it is common for many of the hip-hop “This is:” playlists to extensively feature guest appearances and reworked tracks. Maybe because, while rock is about playing the hits, hip-hop has always been about remixing and rethinking preexisting music, incorporating samples and building upon a mountain of internal lyrical and musical references. Regardless, many of the hip-hop “This is:” lists feel like they are from a totally different series than the rock and pop lists.
Other legendary artists with much smaller studio discographies, like Fugees, Frank Ocean, and Joy Division, simply have their entire catalogs on the playlist. These playlists are not the most relevant, though. The “This is:” series is most fitting to artists with lengthy and diverse recording careers.
Who is missing from the “This is:” series? Well, plenty of notable artists. The musical universe is a big place. This is a very ambitious project on the part of Spotify, and it will take awhile for them to build a truly comprehensive collection of playlists including all popular music artists who have achieved enough critical or commercial success to earn the status of “”icon” in a certain genre or sub-genre. Among my favorite alternative bands from decades past, The Replacements and Guided by Voices are conspicuously absent. From the all-time lists of hip-hop’s most influential names, “This is: Big L” and “This is: The Pharcyde” are yet to be released. The series seems to have a surprisingly strong grasp on the importance of punk through the decades, with “This is:” playlists for Bad Religion and NoFX. But the Dead Kennedys are missing. And no band deserves a “This is:” to capture its evolution like Against Me! (the exclamation point is part of their name, but is intended in this sentence nonetheless).
Spotify also resists the temptation to engage in viewpoint discrimination or too-cool-ism when curating the series. “This is: Limp Bizkit” and “This is: Nickelback” are both serious and thoughtful playlists. Any remaining fans of those artists will surely be pleased.
You can even find “This is:” playlists for Mozart, Chopin, and Beethoven, though there does not appear to be an official playlist for Bach. Anti-Baroque bias strikes again.
And of course we are missing the notable artists who have withdrawn from Spotify for business reasons, like Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, and Taylor Swift, and the few holdouts who are still absent from all streaming services, like Tool, King Crimson, and Garth Brooks. Maybe one day. And thankfully, the playlist designers have restrained themselves from creating an unnecessary “This is:” for the band Sparta.
Overall, the “This is:” playlists are one of Spotify’s best original features, and deliver on a major promise of the streaming revolution - the canonization and preservation of great artists’ repertoires for future generations to discover and appreciate. When these streaming services build catalogs which are literally meant to encompass all the recorded music in existence, the opportunities are boundless. There is so much potential to discover a meaningful song in the streaming age, so many chances to find a needle in the digital haystack. And now Spotify has provided a shortcut, giving us curated lists of the greatest songs from the greatest artists.
John Miranda is a NYC-based attorney, musician, and media producer currently working on Album Tracks, a mini-doc series focusing on the music history of various cities, genres, and scenes. He also writes about music and digital media.