My Stinky Cardboard Collection

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I started collecting vinyl records before I even had a way of listening to them.

There was something about the music I listened to, which was mainly composed of classic albums from the 60’s and 70’s. It just felt like this music was meant to exist within the grooves of a large black disc and encased in a sheath of cardboard, rather than being merely a series of invisible repeating digits inside of a rectangular device. To this day, I feel a little guilty playing older albums on Spotify. It’s like I’m twisting the music from its original form, warping it to fit my modern day sensibilities. Every time I stream Blonde on Blonde through my phone, I can feel Bob Dylan’s beady eyes on the back of my neck, as if to say “You’re doing it wrong!”

So why did I collect records if I couldn’t listen to them?

Because it just felt right. Being able to own these albums physically seemed like a natural extension of discovering them aurally through iTunes or Spotify. The vinyl record is the format that classic rock was meant to be in. Add that to the fact that there was a record store, Siren Records, only a short walk away from my high school, and it was just too tempting not to start digging into vinyl.

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My local record store, complete with bearded hipster.

And it really is a beautiful format. Seeing a digital approximation of an album cover on a dimly lit iPhone screen simply does not compare to seeing the real thing the way it was originally intended.

I started to visit the record store about once a month, just to check out what they had. If I saw an album that I already liked, or an album that I had seen on greatest album lists but not actually listened to, I would think about buying it. I have distinct memories of finding the 1989 debut LP by my favorite band, The Stone Roses, among the rows of vinyl at Siren Records. But my happiness was tempered when I thought, “How long has this been sitting here? Why has nobody bought it yet?” And to be fair, The Stone Roses don’t have much of a fan base in the States, so it’s not exactly unheard of that this incredible album would go unsold.

And then it happened.

I received my first record player for Hannukah when I was seventeen. I was finally able to listen to my records. And you know what? It would be awesome if every young person in America knew how record players worked. It’s a revelatory experience. Putting that needle down on the edge of a record and letting it play is like stepping into the past and truly understanding the logistics of how music used to work. It’s much more intimate to play a vinyl record than it is to simply press a finger to a touch screen. It requires actual effort, and it forces you to be more involved with the music.

In addition, it sounds better. Yeah, I know all music nerds will tell you that, but it’s true. Music from the 60′ and 70’s wasn’t recorded digitally, so it wasn’t really meant to be played though headphones. It needs more space to travel through, because having that music right up against your ear will make it sound rough and coarse. The stereo separation of older music wasn’t meant for headphones either. I’m no audio expert, but I can see a clear difference between the way music sounds now and the way it used to sound. And there are obvious exceptions. For example, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and The Eagles’ Hotel California sound great in headphones even though they are 70’s records, but that’s because they contain lavish, precise, and exorbitant production that not all albums were so fortunate to receive. And a small portion of modern music (Arcade Fire comes to mind) has more airy production that lends itself to being played on vinyl. But on the whole, the sound of an old rock record on vinyl, complete with the organic scratching and hissing that most record players produce, seems to truly unlock the potential of the music.

Here, compare a song from the 60’s to one from 2013.

The latter song sounds like it was meant for headphones, while the other feels like it needs more space to exist in, right?

Anyway, the summer after I got my first record player, I went on a cross-country teen bus trip. The goal of this trip, called Etgar 36, was to explore the history and culture of America, and also to meet with interest groups and hear opposing perspectives on current divisive issues. And every city we visited, I would seek out a record store. In Boulder, Colorado, I found a copy of my favorite album of all time, Arthur by The Kinks. In Rasputin Records in San Francisco, I found Who’s Next and Bridge over Troubled Water.

And I had some memorable exchanges with record store employees too. For example, at Amoeba Records in Berkeley, California, I found Blondie’s Parallel Lines. When I brought it up to the counter, the woman working there said, “You know, this was the first record I ever bought, and I never noticed that this guy’s wearing Star Trek socks on the back.” I looked. She was right.

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Click to zoom.

It’s little things like that that made my vinyl hunt worth it.

So when I returned from my trip, I had expanded my record collection to a decent size, and I actually had the ability to listen to the albums. But then I realized something. Listening to my records was something that I didn’t actually do very often. It’s not that I never played them, but I found that my records stayed off the record player for much longer than they were on it. For one, my vinyl collection obviously didn’t encompass everything I wanted to listen to, while Spotify is virtually limitless. But even when I wanted to listen to an album that I had on vinyl, I found myself reaching for my phone instead. The convenience of streaming music made it a no-brainer compared to the “hassle” of setting up my record player. After all, I’m a millennial. Convenience is all I’ve ever known.

It seemed like I was just using these records to decorate the walls of my room more than I was actually listening to them.

And then it hit me.

I was collecting just for the sake of collecting. There was no real purpose to buying these records other than the satisfaction of owning them. It reminded me of my Star Wars-obsessed dad. He has been collecting Star Wars memorabilia for years, and now our basement is saturated with shelves full of action figures, books, posters, statues, and all manner of collectibles.

Was he who I was destined to become?

Would I end up in a house piled high with old, musty pieces of cardboard?

Not that being a collector is bad, necessarily, but it’s an expensive pursuit and I don’t think my heart was truly in it.

So I stopped.

For a while, I kept away from vinyl, and I busied myself with exploring more modern music. When I went to college, I didn’t bring my records or my record player with me. But when I came back home for winter break, I decided to bring them all down to my dorm room, because how cool would it be to have the only record player on my floor, and to be able to blast records whenever I wanted to? I packed up all my records in a plastic container, and I even pinned some of them up on my dorm wall along with some posters for decoration, like I had done at home. But this time, it would be different. I resolved to actually use my record player whenever I could. It’s hard to find time to play my music out loud, having a roommate and all, but I’ve accomplished something very important to me.

I’ve found a happy medium.

I’m going to do something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I’m going to go through Rolling Stone‘s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” from #1 all the way to #500. No matter how long it takes me, no matter how many sidetracks I end up following, I’m going to do it. And every time I come across a record that I own on vinyl (and there are a decent number of them on the list), I’m going to put my record player to good use. Right now, I’m at #11, Elvis’s Sunrise compilation, which includes everything he recorded for Sun Records in the early 50’s. Can you believe that in the three years that I’ve been listening to rock music, I haven’t yet explored Elvis, the king of rock?

It’s time for me to fill in all of the gaps in my net of pop music knowledge.

And my records will help me get there.

I’ll still buy a record once in a while, if I find one that I feel like I need to own. There’s a record store a short walk from my dorm, and when I saw The Zombies’ 1968 magnum opus Odessey and Oracle in the window, I couldn’t just let it sit there.

And really, who could pass this up?

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4 Comments

  1. I’m enjoying your writing, Noah! This one I can really relate to. There is no match to the quality of sound that you can enjoy with a clean album on a good system. You might want to check out the work that Neil Young is currently doing in trying to achieve exact replication of recorded sound.

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