by Ben Shine
I've often been told I'm ahead of my time. I've also been told I'm old-timey. But I like to think that I'm so far ahead of my time that I'm actually behind the times. Or is it vice versa?
I've been listening to music on vinyl my entire life. I ruined almost every one of my mom's records as a kid. I scratched and put skips in all of them, from the Rolling Stones' Some Girls to Beethoven's Piano Concertos. The first album I was allowed to pick out for myself was Men at Work by Men at Work - on vinyl.
In my late teens, I started collecting more and more music on vinyl, mainly because that's what the bands I liked were putting out. And, as cassettes and CDs were the go-to formats for major labels, vinyl felt special, different, a little bit rebellious. Mixed tapes, well, that's a whole different topic, but let's just be clear that making mixed tapes was the only single good reason for the cassette in my world.
That feeling of rebellion may have been my reason for buying vinyl, but there are millions of reasons to love vinyl. There are lots of arguments about why music sounds better listened to on vinyl, and I agree with all of them. It sounds warmer, has more body and is more dynamic, while digital music is compressed, flattened and lifeless. A lot of nuance gets lost in the digitization process, never mind the nuances that repeat listenings have etched onto vintage vinyl. There's also the tactile experience with a record, the act of physically and carefully setting a needle down on a record to play on a turntable is the polar opposite of hitting play on Spotify. It's a multi-sensory experience.
Vinyl is also a natural fit for people who like collecting things. Record nerds can hunt for first pressings, promotional copies, monophonic copies, re-mastered re-issues, picture discs or their favorite album in mint condition, near mint condition, very good condition or "don't worry about it" condition. Different record labels produced different versions of albums in different countries and the quality of each varies greatly. Led Zeppelin's IV is a good example. It was released on vinyl almost 200 times. Today, the original 1973 British pressings is the most sought after and pricey, and the US white-label "Porky" version follows closely behind.
Fast forward two decades, and I have a new reason to love vinyl - the Perfect Sides Listening Collective. The collective is composed of music nerds like me. In the group, there is a metal head, a diehard collector, a guy who runs a whole shop devoted to turntables, and a handful of other guys - who love music and like listening to it on pressed black discs. We've all also been musicians at some point.
We get together almost every month, rotating hosting duties. At each gathering, each member plays one side of a record - a perfect side of an LP. A perfect side is one side of an album that takes the listener some place. It's about 18 minutes of musical bliss with no bad tracks. It's widely understood that a perfect side is never dependant on the recording job on the album, it's more about what happens on the album.
Otherwise, the rules are loose. There's been some debate about not allowing soundtracks, no matter how badly I want to play Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come, which I believe transcends genre to be a truly perfect album of music. "Best of" or compilation albums are absolutely forbidden. Live albums are discouraged, but I did sneak in Nina Simone's gorgeous Nina Simone at Newport and there were no complaints, especially since that performance contains the heartbreaking lyrics and mind-boggling piano work on "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To."
When we got started - two years ago - we thought that the conversation would center on the techie side of recordings and music. But, ultimately, our choices have become very personal. Everyone just brings records that are either special to them, that they want the rest of the group to hear, or thought they needed to hear again in a better setting. After all, we can't always bring the few records that I consider to be truly perfect records - the Beatles' Abbey Road and Neil Young's After the Goldrush to each meeting.
Instead, we've introduced each other to Can's EgeBamyasi, Tame Impala's Innerspeaker and Larry Norman's Only Visiting This Planet. We once brought "the record that changed your life" and got to hear John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, Swervedriver'sRaise, and the Velvet Underground Velvet Underground (my pick, of course). We've got a member that regularly shows us that some of the classic rock we grew up hearing on the radio in the 70's and 80's is amazing when heard in it's original context and with a bunch of good friends. He's brought Boston's self titled, Kiss Alive, and even CCR's Green River. They were actually pretty good.
To be fair to our hosts, the lady of the house is always offered time for a side, and we've been treated to the likes of Cyndi Lauper'sShe's So Unusual, Built to Spill's Keep it Like a Secret and Ride's Nowhere.
Just as my "perfect side" is typically personal - and my picks are often less influenced by logic than by my own life and how music connects to my experiences - vinyl itself is special because it offers a more complete musical experience. Fortunately for vinyl diehards like us, vinyl sales are on the rise. 2012 sales were the highest since 1997. These days, we can find more releases, which often sound better and come on thicker, premium vinyl. In fact, vinyl's becoming so mainstream that hipsters have started putting out cassette tapes again.