29 March 2021

Let's spin some records!

System specs:
Fluance RT80, Ortofon 2M Red
iFi Zen Phono (balanced), Denon AVR-1804
Paradigm Mini Monitors (v.3)
I listened to a ton of FM radio growing up, you probably did, too. I also had a small record collection in my bedroom, and a stack of tapes in a big tattered case in my car.  As a result, I was slow to adopt digital music, CDs, MP3s and streaming content, not because I was an analog purist, mostly just because of the cost of conversion. 

I have always enjoyed listening to music, not so much for the sake of the lyrics, but quite simply as a background soundtrack that permeates nearly every moment of my life. As I see it, life flows better, most things are a little easier, food and conversation are more enjoyable, and I am more productive when there's music playing.

I'm not ashamed to admit that I listened to a whole lot of mainstream music during the early period of my life, Journey, Elton John, U2, Scorpions, Def Leppard, Prince, ELO, Pink Floyd, R.E.M., Van Halen and the like. These bands and artists, and this sort of easily accessible music-for-the-masses, was the gateway through which my musical tastes have since expanded and become enriched throughout the couse of my lifetime. In fact, many of these same groups still have a well-deserved place in my music collection to this day (in truth: all of the aforementioned do). The music of my youth is still on regular rotation in my life, not for the sake of nostalgia but because, at least to me, a lot of it is still quite diggable and good.  Still very diggable and very good, in many cases.

It's a bit strange to think that there was a time when analog sound, AM/FM radio, cassette tapes and vinyl records, was the only sort of music, other than live music (which is also analog, naturally, and presently ruined by COVID) one could listen to.

Likewise, it's hard to express how much I missed listening to analog music during all the years, from the early 1990s to the late 20-teens, when I didn't, because digital music, even for this reluctant adopter, became ubiquitous and tapes, and moreso records, were increasingly hard to come by.

And I think it's that "missing piece" which has played a such a large part in what has compelled me, in the past two or three years, to rebuild a vinyl record collection, literally from the ground up. And, honestly, I have been so content, so sincerely satisfied, in doing so. I really do love listening to vinyl records now, much more than I did back when I was a kid.  And I guess it is that simple reality that begs the important question: why.  Why do I prefer to listen to analog music, and, more to the point, why do I so enjoy listening to vinyl records played on a turntable?

The Internet is full of full-throated debates, passionate arguments, and even a few purportedly scientific justifications for why the sound produced by a vinyl record played on a well designed, carefully aligned, balanced, and appropriately amplified sound system might be superior to listening to a digital sound source or file.  That's not what I'm here to discuss, because A) I don't put much stock in any of that, ultimately our ears can only hear and our brains can only decode so much sound; B) I don't listen to music in an attempt to recreate an ideal soundstage or the most-accurate reproduction of the original recording (though I really do like the way my humble system sounds); and C) because, to me, the enjoyment of music is a pure, exhuberant, fully subjective, individual experience, wherein I find personal transcendence, introspection, and peace-of-mind, among other things.  It's not wrong to collect or play records for other reasons, but to me those other reasons just doesn't make a lot of sense. 

So why purchase costly individual vinyl records rather than buy what will ultimately be a much less expensive annual subscription to a high-quality commercial-free digital streaming service that will have absolutely everything, every album, artist, and song I'll ever want to listen to, for the rest of my natural life, abundantly available to me in one place, from anywhere in the world, all in an instant?
Buying records cheers me up
whenever I'm feeling low, too.

Because chasing down and checking-off an ever-growing list of must-have records for your collection is really fun.  Because flipping through crates filled with vintage vinyl in dank used record stores, or racks of mint shrink-wrapped discs in swank new music stores is always entertaining. Because building an eclectic collection of new and old records from multiple genres and eras is certain to expand one's musical, social, and historical horizons.  Because chilling out in your living room for a couple hours in the evening, either alone or with friends or family, playing records on the turntable is good for everyone's individual and collective soul.

At this point you might be expecting me to expound further on the benefits of listening to records.  And, without doubt, I could.  In fact, until a moment ago, I thought I would.  Because there are, indeed, dozens if not hundreds of other valuable and important reasons why seeking, collecting, and playing analog vinyl records is beneficial.  But, for the time-being, I'm not inclined to delve any further into my own reasons for doing so.  Instead, I'd like to be an encouragement to you to give record collecting, and more importantly, record playing a try.  I think you might dig it.  And if you do, and you get into it, and it becomes your groove, a way of life for you as it has for me, if it becomes something that transcends just a simple hobby, and begins to define you as an individul, well then, all the better.

So rather than waxing-on prosaically, I think I'll challenge you to a little exercise in self-awareness and introspection instead.  

You see, there are records and then there are records.  I like to imagine that every record in my collection is a work of art, or at least the original work of an artist... you know, someone who had something burning in their heart, a story, a picture, a set of songs, that they absolutely had to release.  And that record on my shelf, it is the final artistic form that that certain burning something took once it finally bubbled over.  I know this isn't always true.  I know that a lot of music, especially popular music by popular artists, is just so much dreck rushed to market with limited integrity just so someone could make a quick buck.  But, like most record collectors, I think, I'll be the first to tell you: there's not a lot of that sort of garbage in my personal collection.  But there probably is.  I just can't see it that way.  Because I dig it.  Seriously.  I dig every record in my collection.  Every single one.  Won't keep a record that I don't dig.  Won't keep a record that I wouldn't love to listen to, if, say, you came over to my house today and browsed through my collection and said, "Oh, cool! What a great record!  I haven't heard it in forever.  Can we play this one?"  If it's a permanent part of my collection, my answer should always be, "Yes!"

But like I said, there are records, and then there are records.  We've established that all the records in my personal collection are really good.  Many are really really good.  A few are truly outstanding.  Some are even critically important. But only a few of them are perfect.

An therein lies your challenge, dear reader.  I really just want you to find for yourself a few perfect albums, a few rare records that are flawless.  Not so much in terms of their physical condition, that's too easy a thing to assess.  For our purposes, I'm talking about records that contain no dreck, no schlock, no garbage filler, no wasted notes... hell, no wasted moments.  Perfect records aren't necessarily nostalgic records, or best-selling records, or well-reviewed records, however sometimes they are, and being so, or not being so, one way or the other, certainly doesn't exempt them from consideration.  But most of the time, perfect records speak to your heart in ways that are too personal to always fit neatly into one or more of those catagories.   To me, a perfect record must score a 10 on the I Will Listen To It Anytime scale.  And a 10 on the Every Song Is Awesome scale.  And a 10 on the I Will Never Sell It Nor Get Tired Of It scale.  A tall order, for sure.  Fortunately, finding and selecting your perfect albums is totally up to you. No one can pick your perfect records for you.  And the only way to find them is to sit back and listen. 

So, just for good measure, and by way of setting an example for you, here, entirely without comment and in no particular order so as not to introduce any bias, is an ever-growing list of perfect records from my own collection:

AIR - Moon Safari (1997)

Nirvana - Nevermind (1991)

Portishead - Dummy (1994)

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here (1975)

Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Kirsty MaColl - Kite (1989)

Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin (1969)

Eagles - Hotel California (1976)

Foo Fighters - Foo Fighters (1995)

Norah Jones - Come Away With Me (2002)

Led Zeppelin - untitled (1971)

Radiohead - Amnesiac (2001)

Beck - Sea Change (2002)

Fiona Apple - Tidal (1996)

Keane - Under The Iron Sea (2006)

Radiohead - Hail To The Thief (2003)

Zero 7 - Simple Things (2001)

Cracker - Kerosene Hat (1993)

This Mortal Coil - Blood (1991)

Uncle Tupelo - Anodyne (1993)

Jimi Hendrix - Bamd Of Gypsys (1970)

Radiohead - OK Computer (1997)

Travis - The Man Who (1999)

Camper Van Beethoven - Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988)

Elton John - Tumbleweed Connection (1970)

U2 - The Joshua Tree (1987)

Radiohead - In Rainbows (2007)


Unknown said...

its a very good list. Hard to disagree with any (except that Neil Young one...).

Unknown said...

Love it, RC! I'm going to have to think on my perfect records. Two that pop into my head are Kind of Blue and Excitable Boy, but it's a great excercise.

johncoe said...

Gotta be honest, Old King almost gets "that Neil Young one" culled from the list every time I listen to it.

johncoe said...

Kind of Blue, Somethin' Else, and Mercy, Mercy, Mercy are all currently in contention as additions to the list... Stay tuned.

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