Monday, August 05, 2013

Time May Change Me

This November marks the 10th anniversary of this blog. When I started the blog (under its original name, Pop Life), I was 26-years-old and starting my first year as a teacher. I was perennially single, living in a one bedroom apartment near Uptown Minneapolis. I bought two or three CDs a week, minimum.

As I write today, I'm 36. I've been married for five years, and I have two sons, aged 3 1/2 and 4 months. I live in a three bedroom house in Saint Paul. I buy, at most, 5 physical CDs a year. I download one new album every 3 weeks, on average.

I share this to illustrate a couple of points. One is that my music consumption has declined significantly. There are a host of factors contributing to that decline, but above all it's time. I'll touch on this a bit more later, but it's not my main concern.

The other point involves technology, namely the rise of the mp3. The iTunes Store actually made its debut the same year as this blog, and the resultant availability of legally purchased music has revolutionized everything for me. At that point I had spent a good 10 years building a massive collection of CDs (LPs, too, but we'll get to them later), and the change, which somehow seemed both gradual and swift, was lost on me at first. I was reluctant to let CDs go; I've always been a collector and amasser. Also, being a fan of cautionary science fiction from the '50s and '60s, I was also wary of trusting my entire music collection to a machine.

So, it wasn't until about four years ago that I gave myself over almost fully to digital purchases. It just made sense, both economically and spatially. And once I realized I could live without the physical object, those two-thousand plus CDs sitting on my shelf started to seem silly. I realized that my Sony 5-disc changer was going months without use. And once I worked out being able to play my iPod in my car, well, my CDs became all but obsolete. They were basically space-consuming back-ups. Why would I buy more of them?

I also applied this revelation retroactively, and began culling my collection. Over the last three years I have gotten rid of over half of my CD collection. I ripped the tracks to iTunes, and sold off the plastic.

(Note: I have that collector's gene, so there are still a few artists that still get a CD buy, even if it's only to keep the full run intact: Fiona Apple, Ben Folds/Five, Death Cab For Cutie, Fountains of Wayne, Honeydogs, Jimmy Eat World, Kaiser Chiefs, Sloan, U2, Rufus Wainwright, Robbie Williams)

Technology has also changed the way I react to my music, though this isn't so easily explained. In past years, I've explored my changing attitudes towards albums on this very blog. Previously I was an album guy. I wanted front-to-back masterpieces, not a handful of tracks I loved and a bunch of others that bored me to tears. In recent years I've started to gain more appreciation for albums that hit some big highs, even if they don't sustain them. I blame technology for that. When one has the ability to create their own versions of albums with a few clicks, perfection is less important.

But, lately, as I'll explain later, I've found myself going back on that a bit. In the process of navigating these two viewpoints I've gained a wider appreciation of both. For example, The Postal Service's Give Up (also released 10 years ago) is not a masterpiece, but it does have some unforgettable moments. It can't be dismissed outright, even if it doesn't belong on an all-time album list.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Another side effect of technology on my listening goes back to that appreciation of the physical object. If there's a danger with the proliferation of digital music, it's that undervalue it. Even if we pay good money for a set of songs, they take up no physical space and are therefore easy to forget. Skimming through my iTunes, I regularly come across albums I forgot I even bought. Sure, CDs and albums got ignored before downloading, but they were still there on the shelf, leering and reminding you of their presence.

Partly this phenomenon of losing track of albums is a personal one, owing mostly to my own proclivity for excess. Even before I had an iPod I was a quantity guy. As I said, during my heyday, I bought a lot of CDs. A LOT. At one point I had a whole separate CD spinner rack devoted solely to albums I hadn't listened to yet. This brings us back to time. I'm a dad now. I have three additional people sharing my space. Music can be a uniter of people, for sure, but the act of truly listening to and absorbing an album is a solitary one. So with less time to listen, I've had to be more choosy not only about new albums, but about which albums I go back and spend more time with.

But this summer I've had the chance to go back to my old excessive ways. My wife's maternity leave ended just in time for me to take over care of baby Theo for the summer.  Our older son goes to daycare, my wife to work, which means I'm at home with an infant who gets no say in what we listen to. And unlike past summers where I've busied myself with home projects or post-graduate work, I had an open slate. What that has meant is a lot of listening, and a lot of thinking about what I've listened too.

See, as my CD buying has dwindled over the last few years, I've developed a new buying system. If an album really knocks me out, I want to own it. But instead of buying the CD, I buy it on vinyl. Now I'm no audiophile (no one with one working ear, Brian Wilson excepted, can reasonably claim t be), but I love vinyl. I love the active nature of the experience: Pulling it from the sleeve, watching it spin, flipping sides, looking at those big old covers and lyric sheets. (Nostalgia for my record-playing youth is no doubt a factor, too.)

So you could say that new music listening technology has inadvertently benefited as supposedly outdated one. Here's my logic: The problems the music industry had been working to solve since the dawn of 8 tracks and cassettes are gone now. You can take your music anywhere, and you can have as much of it as you want, thousands of songs in your pocket. While this is great, those of us who still want a tactile, quality-driven experience have returned to the format that did it best. We can have it both ways. Thanks to my years of prodigious buying, I have nearly 20,000 songs on my iTunes. Enough to listen for 51 days straight and never hear the same song twice (unless it's a remix, demo, or live version). I've got my quantity. LPs are my quality.

Part of my listening this summer has involved going through my older LPs and deciding what can go and what must stay. In doing this, I realized that I have unconsciously developed a four tier system of album assessment. I'd like to share that with you.

Tier 1: Vinyl
This, of course, is what I've just been describing. Since vinyl is not a medium that lends itself easily to skipping songs, you want something that's quality front to back. Note that some albums may be vinyl-worthy, but because they came out in the dark age of 1991-2005, they may not be available on vinyl, making the category title a slight misnomer. As I said, these tiers work retroactively, so one thing I did when reevaluating my LPs was to decide if something was really worth having on vinyl. That led, logically, to me wanting to fill in the blanks of albums I want to own on vinyl. Yay! Record shopping!

In terms of new albums, in the three years since I started my vinyl policy, I've only bought five new records in that format: The Cars' Move Like This (since I had all their other albums on vinyl already), Adele's 21, The Decemberists' The King is Dead, Van Halen's A Different Kind of Truth, and Vampire Weekend's Modern Vampires of the City. That last one, being so recent, was my only gamble. The others I let marinate for about a year before pulling the trigger. I really like the Vampire Weekend album, but I wouldn't have bought it this early had I not found it for very cheap at a record store.

In case you are thinking practically, yes, this means I might end up buying these albums twice. Ideally I'd get it on the cheap digitally and then make the further investment in the vinyl. There are other ways around this (Spotify, Rdio, streaming, illegal downloads), but I'm okay paying twice, especially if it happens as infrequently as it does.

Overall, these are the albums that should make my all-time list. More on that soon.

Tier 2: CD
Obviously a step down. The CD is worth keeping, either as part of a collection, or because it was a gift, or because I like it, just not enough to take the next step up to vinyl. The album itself may have some slight flaws.

Tier 3: Digital only (Entire album)
This tier is very similar to the previous one, with the main difference likely being that I bought it post-2010. It's a good album, worth keeping fully intact on iTunes or my iPod, or both. It's just not good enough to compel me to need to study a lyric sheet or piece or cover art, or that I am terribly sad if I forget to listen to it, thus the slightly lower status.

Tier 4: Digital only (Selected tracks)
In this case I've dismantled the album for parts. It's most likely a record that really didn't connect for whatever reason, but that contained somewhere between one and five songs worth saving for playlists or random shuffle appearances. The rest of the songs have been deleted without remorse.

As I go over these categories I find that there's next to nothing that won't fit fairly neatly in one of them. The next step in my thinking relates to this blog. For several years I've had two sidebars. One titled My 20 Favorite Albums and another called Yearly Album Lists. The former is self-explanatory. The latter is a collection of the albums I liked best each year from 1963 on. In developing my tiers, I decided to look back and see if they matched up. I would expect, of course, that my favorite albums list would all land in the vinyl category, and that at least 90% of the yearly top 10 lists would as well. I was right about the favorites list, but the yearly albums one had a wrinkle. In looking over the list, I discovered there was that many of the albums I'd chosen I hadn't listened to since the year they came out. With my summer listening opportunity, this was the perfect chance to remedy that.

As of today, I've finished that process, and boy was it illuminating. Two takeaways: One is that I need to expand my Favorite Albums list beyond 20. That process is going to be starting soon. The other was that my yearly album lists were useless beyond being historical artifacts. I was shocked to find how many albums I thought would be in the vinyl tier now barely would qualify for the digital only.

Here's where I could take a huge navel-gazing detour into the way our perceptions of music (and indeed, all forms of popular art) change over time. I could postulate the complex reasons why this might happen. I could muse upon the way we always consider our current self a finished product, when in fact life experience shows us the folly of that way of thinking.

No matter what, I don't blame myself or these albums for their tumble in stature. I truly did feel something strong for them in that past moment in time, and that's not worthless. It's sort of like an ex; you can fondly remember why and how much you liked them, you just don't actually feel it anymore. I just didn't expect there to be so many exes! Albums such as The Shins' Wincing the Night Away, Kylie Minogue's Fever, The Jealous Sound's Kill Them With Kindness, and James Iha's Let It Come Down all made the top spot in their respective years, but from my current perspective none of them made a good enough case for moving out of the CD tier. The most shocking case of this for me was Radiohead's OK Computer. I can still appreciate it as a work of art, but the connection was gone. That was alarming and surprising.

(Let me interject here that I know that not every piece of creativity we digest needs to be complex, perfect, and part of the permanent canon. It's okay to have some junk food in our reading/watching/listening diet. This is another place where digital music has greatly served mankind: Guilty pleasures are now easier to access, because now it takes nothing but a click to enjoy some Adam Lambert or Rihanna, whereas in the past you'd have to seek out the entire album and have that thing sitting in your collection. I'm not certain, but I believe this is how normal people regard various forms of entertainment: It's there to be consumed, disposed of, and not overthought. I'm not normal, though, so it's a bit of a bitter pill when you have limited time to devote to pop culture, to spend it on something "bad". However, I recognize that expecting perfection is not realistic.)

But let's not focus on the negative. Instead, let's look to the future. I've eliminated the Yearly Albums List sidebar. It's too inaccurate to keep live. I'll leave the lists that I've been posting every year since 2004 in the Review Index, but that's as far as I'm going. And, as I said, I'm going to be expanding that Favorite Albums list beyond 20. Final number to be determined.

A couple of caveats:
1) I'm fully convinced that any given album can be considered a masterpiece to someone out there. Reaction to art, afterall, is subjective. So I would never put this list forth as anything definitive of anything other than my own personal preferences. That's why it's called MY Favorite Albums.

2) As such, my own list makes no attempt to be comprehensive, certainly not of pop music history (I've got nothing before 1965), nor even of my own tastes (favorite bands like Fountains of Wayne and Kaiser Chiefs don't have a single album that made it over the hump, though Welcome Interstate Managers and Yours Truly, Angry Mob both came damn close). Nor have I worried about getting a balance of gender, race, or genre. Let's face it, I'm a white guy with a weakness for melodic pop music. The list leans that way.

My loose criteria for judging an album is as follows: Great cover art, expert flow, emotional truth, 10% or less filler (no filler is just short of a myth; there are always going to be songs you like a bit less than others), and a strong finish. Plus that certain je ne sais quoi. This is all evaluated by a panel of judges that includes my past selves and my current self. My future self doesn't get a say yet, though I'm sure he'll weigh in eventually. As such, the side bar is a constant work in progress, to be amended or contracted at any time.

This whole process of considering the sea change in my music consumption habits and my new criteria for album quality have shaken loose some other thoughts. I'll be sharing those soon.

3 comments:

Uncle E said...

This was a fantastic essay, one I have had trouble putting into words myself over the years. I used to own well over 2000 vinyl LPs back in the day and gave them all away to move to a different country (Toronto Canada to San Diego). It's a move I regret (sort of...I do not regret lugging around 20 or so milk crates from place to place), but something that I have come to peace with over the years as my CD collection grew. Starting my own music blog back in 2008 rekindled my obsession but, like yourself, family and other such responsibilities have curtailed my buying habits somewhat. I still buy the physical product and have become enamored with those "Deluxe Editions" as of late. Go ahead and say it: SUCKER! But really, it keeps me in the game so to speak, if you know what I mean. Involved, actively, and if better packaging (WAY better in most cases), better sound and bonus bits is the benefit in addition to being able to find them on Amazon for a song I think I'm stuck here for a while. Lastly, I'm with you completely on the whole "Best Of The Year" thing. Looking back most of my picks have ended up in the 'where are they now' files. Excellent post, absolutely loved it, great job, pip pip and catch ya later!

Paul Allen said...

Thanks, Uncle E!

Wow. I have about 300 LPs, and that seems like a lot. I can't imagine having 2000! If I did, I'd have to get rid of one of the kids...

Charity said...

Great!