Run down a list of your favorite music podcasts. There’s a good chance Vox’s Switched On Pop is on there; maybe even Goin’ Off; Dead End Studios’ Is the Mic Still On? Could be; Slate’s Hit Parade? Highly likely; but have you ever heard of Strong Songs by Kirk Hamilton? Chances are you haven’t, and you’d be remiss to have not.
The name “Kirk Hamilton” might not sound completely unfamiliar to some. Before he took up the duties of hosting his own solo music podcast, Kirk was a recurring co-host to Kotaku’s own gaming podcast Splitscreen, and while he’s still part of the core podcast crew, he’d dropped all editorial responsibilities from Kotaku by the end of 2018. There’s great literature he made for the gaming outlet, but Kirk wanted to resume his passion for music. Along the convoluted detours of life, he’d ended up writing about video games when deep down, his passion for music was still brimming even as he failed to turn it into its own produce with an identity and a true voice of its own. Strong Songs is a product of months of prior planning, but also, ample expertise gained by producing and co-hosting Splitscreen for almost four years.
A version of Strong Songs had prototypically already lived on in Splitscreen before it was developed into its own entity. With every week’s episode, Kirk would share a favorite musical piece of his, but it was very clear that his addition to the podcast wasn’t exactly organic–it’s not every day that you listen to a gaming podcast only for one of the co-hosts to drop deep nuggets of knowledge on a Jazz piece at the tail end of every episode. Kirk’s “Music Pick of the Week” segment was an early experiment to see if Splitscreen’s core audience of gaming nerds can give them just enough leeway, so that it may interest them in what he has to say about music. Judging by Strong Songs’ current profile, it’s safe to say the experiment was a success, and so Kirk went on to do his own thing as it was long overdue.
Strong Songs is an amalgamation of many different interlocking parts. It brings those peculiar musical sensibilities of Splitscreen’s “Music Pick of the Week”, with deeper analysis permitted by the show’s longer runtime. Since Kirk is not at a rush for time and is the sole arbiter of each episode’s scope, he’s allowed to experiment with the format of the show away from the whims of a control-happy podcast network or an attention-usurping advertiser. From the moment you press ‘Play’ until the outro rolls, everything you listen to has been recorded, mixed, and mastered by Kirk himself. It is very crucial for a music podcast to not overshadow the musical pieces being played for reference, or conversely assign music too much auditory budget that the host’s words are very hard to pick up on. Kirk Hamilton quite fortunately delivers in that regard without fault, and it serves as a very solid foundation for his style and delivery; reverberations of which can be heard in Splitscreen, but most are quite unique to the show’s format given its music-focused nature.
What else constitutes the podcast are stylistic choices unique to Kirk’s ability to deliver a solid narrative behind each and every song he’s dissecting. As Kirk brings up the subject of analysis for each episode, he explains the concepts at work in making the music we so enjoy today. He does so in different ways depending on the nature of the musical piece playing–for example, if Kirk is referencing vocals for commentary, he will outright mute himself and accommodate for the vocal delivery by smoothly transitioning in and out of it with his own observations; if it’s a musical motif or a harmony of some sort, Kirk will strategically place it behind his voice while he keeps breaking it down as to not disturb the flow of the episode while maintaining a strong resonance to the music playing through sheer repetition; and when Kirk is really feeling himself, he’ll do a listen-along with the audience, taking them along for the ride as he audibly chuckles and lets the joy of music course through his veins.
This is further complemented by Kirk’s incredible ability to carry on the show on his own–podcasts are usually a team effort, but Kirk manages to keep it just lively enough to retain his audience’s attention. This is surely in no small part thanks to his appearance on Splitscreen in the past, but it’s also aided by his natural cadence for invitational speech and the one of the most podcast-adjacent voices I’ve personally heard in quite some time. You don’t have to take my word for it–just listen, and you’ll come to the same conclusion.
Kirk Hamilton @kirkhamiltonI think my favorite thing I learned while making this episode is that when Angelica first introduces herself to Alexander, she sings Eliza's character motif instead of her own: https://t.co/XavhSO6rvj
The show took on an unusually high spike of popularity when creator, co-producer, and co-performer of the Hamilton musical Lin-Manuel Miranda shared his approval of a particular piece of analysis from Kirk’s show. It is very rare that a music podcast gets the co-sign from to whom a piece belongs — and since Kirk covers a lot of classical hits, this wasn’t a sure thing coming — but Strong Songs got its seal-of-approval from the unlikeliest of sources. Once of the most beloved musical and theatrical works of recent years was sure to bring Kirk a lot of much-desired notoriety, and as it was expected, Kirk’s Patreon page has gotten a significant kick of new backers, soaring just north of two-hundred patrons as I’m writing this. As the show has gotten this jolt of new listeners, its future is no longer in limbo and there’s sure more to come as the show is now much less of a financial liability for its creator.
It’s not often this page dedicates an entire story to one single piece of media, much less one with as narrow a scope as this one, but Kirk’s output as a creative duly justifies it. What he’s been able to achieve while writing for Kotaku was already nothing shy of impressive — his review of Red Dead Redemption 2 still remains one of the finest pieces of gaming critique literature ever to have been made — but even as he distances himself from the bizarre machinations of a constantly-shifting behemoth of an industry, he manages to land his feet smoothly in the music podcasting scene with absolute ease. Nothing about the transition from reporting on video games or reviewing them, to now meticulously breaking down Michael Jackson and Elton John feels forced, or unwarranted–it all flows together smoothly, and if anything, it’s to Kirk’s credit that this transition was as successful as it is. It all could have fallen apart very quickly, but his dedication to putting in the work necessary to keep his audience engaged, as well as pay the art of music the respect it so deserves, made it so his podcast feels as essential a contribution to the music commentary scene as any. Kirk just came in, incinerated everything you took to be ground-rule about music podcasting, dispersed it, put it back together, turned it inside out, upside down, and just presented the whole in a package that often boxes way outside of its weight-class, but ends up triumphant anyway.
Music criticism can often feel condescending and disparaging in tone–artists haven’t made it entirely subtle they have deep grievances with the way music critics misread many of their intentions or even in some extreme cases, make pointed criticism on grounds that are completely false or inconsistent with assessment of comparatively potent past work. But Kirk Hamilton isn’t here to bash your favorite song, he’s here to celebrate the strength of good music–it’s called Strong Songs after all! When the show is so explicitly built on the celebration of the music artform, it’s very hard to make the case that it’s like any other music podcast you’ve ever heard prior.