Curation via analog media


Throughout my teens and into my early twenties, I collected vinyl records. I started buying them for sampling and scratching with my turntables, but within a year or so of moving to Seattle in 2006, where I had access to several great vinyl-friendly record stores on Capitol Hill alone, I stopped buying CDs and redirected all my extra cash to records (and DVDs). New releases, old favorites, and unknowns with cool cover art—if I was going to buy the music, I was going to buy it on vinyl. And for all the same reasons you've heard: sound quality, tactility, big artwork and sleeves, and the inexplicable feeling that by listening to an album on vinyl, I was accessing a more authentic version of it. Bullshit, mostly, but you like what you like, and back then, at 19, living in an artsy city, spending my afternoons digging through racks of obscure '90s punk 45s in the back of an indpendent, locally owned record store felt like a very exclusive and very inaccessible (and therefor very cool) kind of cool.

Last summer, my folks sold their house and left my hometown behind. I'd been keeping my records at their place since I moved from Seattle to NYC in 2010, and had to decide what to do with them. I don't like having shit like I used to, so I invited some old friends over for first dibs, and then dumped the rest off at a newly opened local record store. The kind I would've killed to have access to when I was a kid, scraping around on eBay for Streets instrumentals and Crystal Method remixes.

Lately I've been feeling overwhelmed by my digital music library. I don't have any music streaming subscriptions, but I've been pretty proactive about seeking out and acquiring new music for a very long time, and currently have, according to Apple Music, just under 37,000 discrete albums. Is that too many? Probably. Is it cool, though? Also probably. While I am happy to enjoy a pretty wide variety of music, and while it's fun to browse my own collection and find stuff I've not listened to in ages, or have completely forgotten about, I also suspect it's damaging my appreciation of music in general.

The internet is ironically overloaded with thinkpieces about how the internet has overloaded us with information, so I'm not going to spend time on the idea, but it is interesting to think about that in terms of something I've been so actively, voraciously, desperately collecting and consuming in a deliberate effort to access and engage with as much of it as I possibly can for its ostensibly infinite and unique artistic merit. Do I think getting a few new albums a week has a greater net effect than reading several new articles a day about the presidential primary campaigns? Yeah, for sure, but that's because I think music is dope and politics is stupid. Those with inverse inclinations would likely feel accordingly. In either scenario, the problem is one of democracy.

I could and likely will rant about democracy a lot on this blog, but for purposes of this already overlong post, I'll keep it simple: when one allows every voice (album, news article) equal influence in her life, she loses all sense of hierarchy, and in such, priority, and in such, fidelity of appreciation. So, then, what to do?

Over the last several years, I (along with many of my peers, I'm sure) have developed a deep nostalgia and yearning for my generation's media: CDs. And what's not to like? They offer true lossless audio quality for a virtually unlimited number of listens (eat your heart out, vinylheads—who wants an album to sound worse with each listen?), they come in a variety of slick (if fragile) jewel (or cardboard, or metal, or or or!) cases that make satisfying, modern-age clicks and clacks when you open and close them, they often come with dense, elaborately designed booklets full of lyrics and liner notes (most LPs don't even include lyrics!), they're a great size, they have rainbow backs, you can listen to them in portable players that kinda look like low-interface cyberdecks, and they're read by fucking lasers, a most radical technology which my childhood led me to believe would be far more present in my future than it has turned out to be . And I know how unpopular this position is today, but plastic is fucking cool, man, especially when you start playing with transparency and tinting (all my favorite LPs were semi-transparent and/or colored/tinted).

Cassette tapes are cool too, but the audio quality isn't there.

So you combine these feelings—that I've got too much music to appreciate and that CDs are tight—and you get this want I have to curate a small collection of my favorite, or perhaps most listened to and most appreciated, albums on CD. And then of course to get my hands on a sweet portable NOS CD player so I can listen to them on the subway and elicit all the groans I feel entitled to after years of methodically examining the vagrancy of esotericism.

But no, giving into this want wouldn't really solve anything. I still have all this other music at my fingertips which I'm much more likely to listen to, thanks mostly to convenience, than I am to select and play a CD when, say, designing a website on my computer. The worst thing would be listening to a digital copy of an album I own on CD. How silly that would be! There's also the fact that fewer and fewer albums are released on CD each year, and though most of my favs come from the CD era (music was better in my day, blah!), it would be stupid to fall in love with a new album and be unable to add it to my official canon because it was never factory burned. I'll admit that's a silly concern, but why set standards you foresee yourself justifiably failing to meet?

That said, if I were to assemble a, say, ten-CD collection this very instant—allowing for the perpetual mutability of any favorites list—I think it would comprise the following:

  1. Abstract Tribe Unique - South Central Thynk Tank
  2. Björk - Debut
  3. Burial - Untrue
  4. Circle Takes the Square - As the Roots Undo
  5. Glassjaw - Worship & Tribute
  6. Gorillaz - Gorillaz
  7. Massive Attack - Blue Lines
  8. New Radicals - Maybe You've Been Brainwashed Too
  9. Paula Cole - This Fire
  10. Portishead - Dummy