Lengthy non-sports story. Proceed accordingly.
I don’t know if there’s anything I blew more money on in my teens and 20s than compact discs.
Seriously, this was where virtually all of my disposable income (or, you know, gift money from parents/grandparents) went.
I started buying music on my 8th birthday when I used a $10 bill I got from a relative to purchase Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ on cassette tape.
Slowly, over the next four or five years I built my tape collection to 20-something strong, not counting the Garth Brooks ‘No Fences’ tape I stole from my dad (I wish I were kidding).
In 6th grade, I got a Discman (God I hope nobody reading this needs an explanation for what that is), which, coupled with the big CD stereo my parents had in our basement allowed me to make the switch to CDs. I don’t remember what my first CD purchase was. It might have been Metallica’s Black album.
It was at this point that I began spending lots of money on CDs. Whenever I had spare money, from a birthday or whatever, that’s what I bought. I joined both Columbia House and BMG and did the 8 CDs for a penny deal, and unlike most people, I actually bought the necessary 4 full-priced albums over the next three years or whatever to fulfill the agreement.
The great thing about CDs, of course, was the ability to skip from song to song, so much better than the guesswork that went into blindly fast-forwarding, rewinding, fast-forwarding on cassette tapes trying to find the right spot (who doesn’t remember that momentary high when you would get the tape to stop exactly at the beginning of the song you wanted to hear?)
Some said this cheapened albums, and led to more musicians putting out albums full of filler that surrounded two or three good tracks. Maybe that’s true. It didn’t feel like it to me. By the time I was in college I had become pretty well-versed in just about every kind of popular music, having journeyed from (in order) R&B, rap, country, metal, punk and finally classic rock. I had a lot of crap in my collection, but I had a lot of really great stuff, too.
I couldn’t possibly try to count the hours I spent in my parent’s basement, situating one of those floor/video game chairs between the TV and the stereo, listening to albums front to back on a pair of headphones while playing Sega Genesis.
I don’t know how many CD players I went through over the years, from boom boxes to discmen to car stereos (twice I had a CD car stereo stolen out of my car) — I even at one point had a waterproof CD player in my shower. You know you’re a dork when you would actually take the time to pick out a CD to play in the shower. I did.
My senior year in high school, for my birthday, I got a home stereo with a 60-disc changer, and man, I thought this was pretty much the greatest piece of electronics a person could own. Sixty CDs at one time! On random! Imagine the possibilities!
"It’s like having a radio station that just plays my CDs!" I said to I don’t know how many bemused friends and unimpressed girls.
And to be fair, it was pretty cool. There was about a 10-second delay between songs as the changer switched discs, but, yeah, you put it on random and it was basically a precursor to what we have today with iPods.
It was easy to continue to sink money into CDs, because it felt like they were the height of technology. With tapes and vinyl you always knew something better would eventually arise. But what would be better than a disc? Anyone who had wasted hours upon hours dubbing cassette tapes from friends or off the radio surely looked forward to recordable CDs — which arrived around the turn of the century — but beyond that, it was hard to predict that CDs themselves would eventually become outdated. And even if music did go digital, it was theorized, people would still buy CDs because they like to be able to hold things in their hands. This is the same argument people have made about newspapers surviving in the digital age, I might add.
Even after mp3’s became popular with the Napster explosion, everyone that I knew just took those Napster files (which took about a half-hour each to download in the days of dial-up internet) and burned them to a disc. I, like every other person who attended college in the early 2000s, still have a CD carrying case chock-full of crappy albums and mix tapes burned onto CDRs. This was another way to quickly make your collection huge. My roommates and I all burned each others albums even if we didn’t share many of the same tastes. You could buy a pack of 60 CDRs for $15, so why not burn your buddy’s Brooks and Dunn album, or your mom’s Billy Joel Greatest Hits double disc, even if you knew you were never, ever going to listen to it?
For such a big music fan, I was way late to the mp3/iPod party. I was still buying CDs well into the 2000s. Still lugging the big black book with me on road trips, still trying to find storage for a thousand soda and beer-stained jewel cases.
The Argus Leader hired me as a full-time staff writer in late 2004, and one of the first things I did was bring a little CD boom box to put on my desk and about 30 CDs — in their cases — to stuff into the bottom drawer of my desk. And for the first year or so that I worked there, I used them often, even though by this time mp3 players were fairly popular.
I finally got an iPod in, like, 2007 or so. I don’t even remember exactly. Considering how much I worshiped the ability to put my 60-disc changer on random, you can imagine how quickly I took to putting an iPod on shuffle.
But seven years later, I’m not so sure that I’m not falling out of love with my iPod a little bit.
I just got a new one this Christmas, a 160 GB classic.
160 GBs is, frankly, unnecessarily large. That’s room for approximately 40,000 songs. If I were to upload every single song I own — via CDs, tapes, vinyl (yes, I’ve got a big vinyl collection, too, but that’s another overly self-indulgent nerd-blog for another day) and downloads, I probably wouldn’t have half that many songs. But I don’t put entire albums on my iTunes list, just the ones I like, or at least think I might possibly be in the mood to hear sometime.
And that’s my problem with the iPod. It devalues great albums. It encourages an incredibly short attention span. If you’re like me, every time you fire up your iPod, be it to go for a run or to drive across town, you find yourself skipping over song after song, even though they’re all songs you like — they’re from your collection.
I often think to myself while frantically pressing the skip button over and over, ‘What are you waiting for? These are your favorite songs. Which one are you hoping to land on?’
The answer, I suppose, is that I’ll know it when I hear it, and I usually end up stopping on whatever is the most recent addition to my collection.
But that’s kind of depressing for me. Listening to albums in their entirety was a big part of my musical education. As a teenager, I’d put a disc in when I went to bed, and almost always listen to the entire thing. I wouldn’t skip the songs I didn’t like unless they were truly awful. Because that was part of the experience. Even if you didn’t like a particular song, it was important to experience it, to understand the message the artist was trying to convey, to put every song in context with the album as a whole. Sometimes songs you didn’t otherwise like became more listenable just based on the sequencing and its relation to the other songs on the disc. Sometimes the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
That’s an experience that has been lost due to the iPod.
This is the fault of the listener, of course. I could just upload entire albums to my iTunes folder and listen to them in their entirety. And lately I’ve tried to force myself to do that more often.
I recently used Wilco’s ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ as the soundtrack to a 5-mile run on the treadmill, and I was floored by how great I had forgotten it was — as an entire body of work. There are no standout tracks on that album, no hits. But taking it in from the buzzing and whirring of the opening notes of ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’ to the atmospheric, feedback fadeout of ‘Reservations’, I was struck by what a complete and fully realized work that record is. To take it in bits and pieces or skip from song to song is to do the project a great disservice. I’m venturing into alt-rock nerd mode here, but for me and other like minded listeners, that record is a tremendous experience.
A week later I played Soul Asylum’s ‘Grave Dancers Union’ in its entirety, and while it certainly wasn’t the front-to-back masterpiece that YHF is, I was again surprised to find it far better than I remembered. People remember it for the devastating video to ‘Runaway Train’, but it’s a strong and varied record, and ‘Without a Trace’ qualifies as one of the best songs of the 90s.
There are dozens of others that would likely provide the same listening experience. I look forward to rediscovering them.
But there are very few modern albums that I own in their entirety, let alone that I would take the time to listen to. I haven’t bought a CD since 2005. I’ve downloaded only a handful of full albums since then. Mostly I just pick up random tracks here and there. And yeah, that serves a purpose, too. It’s a good way to trim the fat.
There are literally zero mainstream artists that I have an interest in these days, and even the alternative ones that I like have struggled to make the kind of four and five star reviewed records I used to surf Rolling Stone and Spin looking for.
Another thing that sucks about digital music, of course, is that if you don’t back it up on a disc, you can lose it. If your hard drive crashes or you just get a new computer, you have to start over.
I’ve had to recreate my iTunes library four times. Each time, I’m forced to dig all my CDs out of the storage room I keep them in and spend a good two or three days putting the songs back into my library. Whatever songs weren’t backed up on a disc or saved in my iTunes purchases have to be re-downloaded.
That process looks like this. It’s a pain in the neck.
But this time around, I’m going to be less of a skip-button slave. I’m going to show restraint. Instead of endlessly searching for the elusive song of the moment, I’m going to let the iPod run the show and just roll with it. And if I have an hour or more, I’m going to pick one of my favorite albums and play it front to back. Because that’s how great records are supposed to be experienced.
Epilogue: My 15 favorite albums, in no particular order.
The Clash - London Calling
Bob Dylan - Love & Theft
Ike Reilly - Salesmen and Racists
Lucinda Williams - Lucinda Williams
Matthew Ryan - May Day
The Replacements - Let It Be
The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street
Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker
Bob Dylan - Blood on the Tracks
Sex Pistols - Never Mind the Bollocks…
Tom Waits - Mule Variations
Uncle Tupelo - Anodyne
Whiskeytown - Faithless Street
Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
Son Volt - Trace