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Music

Rock of Ages

Mark Dionne

Let's face it: you have a musical past and it can't be buried.

The fun list 100 Albums You Should Remove From Your Collection Immediately from jaguaro.org has been making the Internet rounds for a few months. Although there are some easy targets, this isn't the 100 Worst CDs of All Time. It's more ambitious, along the lines of 100 Praised and Widely-Owned CDs that Should be Trashed, but I still find the concept a little flawed. The theory behind the list seems to be the silly, pernicious idea that your CD collection has to be completely of the moment, each and every moment. I mean, nobody turned against Jane's Addiction and Nine Inch Nails faster than me, but I would never deny that Nothing's Shocking (#44) and Pretty Hate Machine (#24) had their moments in the sun. I remember one spring (1989?) when Nothing's Shocking was an incredibly exciting disk. An even worse inclusion is Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation (#49). For a long time -- and maybe even today -- I would be suspicious of any large CD collection that did not have Daydream Nation. Or at least Sister. I'm no Beatles fan and I don't own Sgt. Pepper (#74) or Let It Be (#5), but the sight of them on somebody else's shelf doesn't make me point and snicker either. None of these albums are making waves today, but there were certainly reasons to have them.

The list is based on the impulse to deny your musical past. It's the opposite of the autobiographical album shelving system in Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity. In Hornby's system -- which survived from the book to the movie -- albums are lined up in chronological order of purchase, putting the owner's musical past on display. I'm perfectly willing to admit that if I did this some Simple Minds CDs would show up in the first foot of shelf space. So what? Sometime in the mid-'80s I bought Simple Minds CDs. This isn't a point of pride or anything, but I'm not slinking off to the Used CD store under cover of darkness because I'm afraid the neighbors might not like Life In a Day either. Sure it's embarrassing when the presence of some CD proves you got suckered by some trend. Still, Death Cab for Cutie (#18)? Has there been enough hype for this band to justify a backlash? Maybe I'm just no longer traveling in hip, college circles. A Death Cab for Cutie CD would probably increase the coolness quotient of my own CD collection.

I've even had CDs I've been too embarrassed to sell back. Back in the days of disposable income, I was hanging out with a girl in a record store and tried to impress her with the obscurity of my music purchases -- an act easily as fake as pretending you never owned Nirvana's Nevermind (#3). I found a CD with a cool punk-ish cover by a band with a cool name on a label so independent I'd never heard of it. Turns out, it was a skinhead band. I don't mean an Oi! band or a straight-edge hardcore band. I mean a "Night of white power" skinhead band with the purgings and the blood purity and the worst power ballads in the history of mankind. Now there's a CD you should be ashamed to have on your shelf, which is why you break it into a few pieces and slip it into the trash. Other than actual Nazi albums or the need for cash, vigilantly regulating the coolness of your CD collection to perpetually reflect current tastes seems artificial and dishonest. Pretending to be always in the moment is the act of a poseur. How do you live like that? It would have taken a lot of effort in, say, 1992 to gorge yourself on Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Green River CDs only to sell them back a few years later in order to display Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg and Puff Daddy. The autobiographical system would show that during the grunge moment this alterno-boy got by with Nirvana, Sebadoh and one Mudhoney CD. I did pretty good avoiding the hype. If you sell back everything that looks odd now, what will you do for nostalgia? Hell, I guarantee I could get more people dancing at a party with Simple Minds than you could with any damn emo band.

The list strikes a chord because our CD collections produce anxiety. Add up the square footage occupied by your CD collection. Now if you were to hang a painting that size on your wall, I imagine you'd select it pretty carefully. I have friends who are incredibly knowledgeable about music. One friend in particular can recite obscure details from Kate Bush's recording career, cite specific months when members of the Beatles changed their hair, elaborate on entire catalogs of songs that have never been released and list everyone who entered the studio during the recording of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. You know when he's over and looking at a stack of my CDs I cringe and think, "That's the stack with all the Joe Satriani's." Satriani, of course, isn't even cool enough to have been praised enough to make some hipster list of music that's not as cool as everyone thinks. I have CDs that aren't even cool enough to be overrated. Everyone with a live Smithereens disk raise your hands. (What? Just me?) I have two compilation disks sponsored by Stolichnaya Vodka. I don't know where they came from. I may have found them in a bargain bin and picked them up for one or two songs. It's also possible that I drank enough vodka the Stoli people started sending me free things. Since it's the only place I have the Utah Saints I have to keep them, even though I wouldn't want to be judged on these disks alone.

I have an idea that might help everyone deal with the fact that they weren't always- and aren't constantly- music hipsters. I call it Double Deep CD Shelves. These shelves would simply be twice as deep as normal CD shelves so you can hide potentially embarrassing CDs behind currently cool bands. Beth Orton and Spoon sit in front of, and thus obscure, Dinosaur Jr. and Dire Straits. Twice the storage, half the embarrassment. Of course, the shelving system is also fluid. If someone loses status, their CDs can slide back. When someone becomes cool again, you don't have to go through the trouble and expense of repurchasing the CDs you sold back. Just slide them forward. You could even divide an artist's oeuvre between front and back shelves. Did you keep buying a band long after they lost it? The edgy, promising early albums go in front and the commercial, tired later efforts go in the back and it looks like you knew exactly when the inspiration vanished. The Double Deep Shelves would let you customize your collection depending on your visitors. When mainstream listeners are around, you can keep them entertained and maintain your musical integrity with accessible bands like the Strokes or the Pixies. But if you've got a sneering hipster just dripping with cred in your room, you can put the Strokes CD behind your DoubleHappys CD and bitch about how Is This It? is sooo over-rated and fake. Obviously, somebody could go digging around in your Double Deep shelves. I think I can R&D this problem and come up with some sort of Deluxe Double Deep Shelves with a false back. I'm not sure if I'd feel guilty making money by preying on people's insecurities, but I'm willing to find out. The budget minded can go with the standard model and hope that anyone digging around has their own CD embarrassments or is such a bullying hipster they'd find something anyway.

Now if you have friends like this -- think of Barry in High Fidelity -- selling back your embarrassing CDs might be the worst thing you could do. My friend Chris bought not one, but two CDs by the Thrashing Doves. In case you don't know (and why on earth would you?) the Thrashing Doves were like a knock-off of the Simple Minds fronted by a teenager clearly addicted to helium and commercial jingles. They made Ultravox sound like biker music. Owning these disks was just quirky until Chris sold them back to a local store. After that, my friends couldn't walk into that store without someone pulling the Thrashing Doves out of the used bin and shouting, "Hey Chris, didn't you used to own these?" or "Chris, do you want to add to your Thrashing Doves' collection?" Sometimes we'd try to get the store clerk to play one of the disks over the store speakers like Chris' personal soundtrack. Let's face it: you have a musical past and it can't be buried, no matter how strictly you might adhere to lists like jaguaro.org's. The harder you try to look cool, the harder your friends will try to dig up old photos of you with your .38 Special T-shirt. It's that simple.

If I can't get my Double Deep system on the market, I'm going to go with Hornby's self-aware system. After all, I wouldn't want to forget that I used to buy Simple Minds CDs. I can still picture the younger version of me doing that. In fact, if I listen carefully I can hear him. "Don't you forget about me." Hey, he can dance too!

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