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Digital Downsizing: CD to MP3 the Hard Way

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When paring down your music collection, is it OK to prune songs off classic albums? An aesthetic (and moral) dilemma...

I finally decided to take the plunge and undertake the enormous task that so many others have. It's an arduous task. An emotionally draining task. An apparently endless task…

I’ve decided to clean up / par down my record collection. It’s spread across several rooms in the house and basement and -- if you include the hundreds of CDs permanently borrowed by friends -- several states. Moving this collection around over the years has become a huge headache. So it’s time for better living -- through technology!

I’m converting all my CDs and LPs to digital files, one at a time, and piling them onto the computer hard drive for later distribution to iPods, phones and other mobile devices. I will also be stashing them to various remote server spaces, for backup and/or future access via the data cloud -- once I figure out what that means, and what I’m supposed to do.

Those of you who have been down this road already know how nostalgic the trip can be. I’m sorting through approximately 25 years of music collecting across various media. There’s even a cassingle or two in here somewhere. The oldest items include a handful of old vinyl LPs I kept for reasons sentimental (Blondie’s AutoAmerican; the first record I bought with my own money); aesthetic (Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, for the four-panel gatefold); and mysterious (why do I have Donna Summer’s Bad Girls on LP?).

Ripping CDs to digital is easy enough, and I’ve borrowed the hardware to handle the LPs and cassettes. Now comes the controversial part.

I’ve decided to prune my collection a bit, tossing some albums entirely and sifting though others to select only certain songs, or to deliberately de-select others. Some albums, of course, you just don’t touch as they exist to be listened to as a whole, in order, with no omissions. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, for instance. Or Rush’s 2112.

Many albums, though, have clunker tracks that I’m not interested in preserving. Some might only have one or two keepers. I’m trying to be as ruthless as possible -- even cutting particular routines out of comedy albums. (Surprising how much of Bill Hicks and Mitch Hedberg is disposable.)

I have strong feelings about this, in an almost philosophical way. I’m the opposite of a pack rat (an ascetic mouse?), and any time I move I tend to get rid of about 80 percent of what I own. I hate clutter, and that extends to the digital realm, as well.

In the interest of full disclosure and peer review, I’m listing below a few of the specific albums I’ve been… hmm, adjusting is the polite term, I suppose. You’ll note a predilection for ‘80s and ‘90s musical genus that used to be called “college rock” -- these were my prime music buying years. Feel free to register objections and/or affirmations in the comments section, or share your own stories of digital downsizing.

Automatic for the People, REM: A soaring, beautiful album, except for that Platonic ideal of retarded earnestness, "Everybody Hurts". With that worthless can of corn gone, this album is perfect.

Celebrity Skin, Hole: The first four songs are the best EP to come out of the post-sanitization grunge era. The rest -- off to that great Recycle Bin in the sky.

Absolute Best, Al Green: A good example of a collection that should stay complete. When you want Al Green songs, you want a lot of them in a row, sequential or shuffled, doesn’t matter.

In My Tribe, 10,000 Maniacs: I decided to prune all of Natalie Merchant’s self-righteous social-issue-of-the-week songs. By my count, in this one album she tackles: child abuse (“What’s the Matter Here?”), illiteracy (“Cherry Tree”), substance abuse (“Don’t Talk”), militarism (“Gun Shy”), environmental abuse (“A Campfire Song”) and poverty (I think) (“City of Angels”). What’s left is diamond-like in its compact greatness, and I don’t have to listen to Merchant’s undergraduate public policy musings.

In Utero, Nirvana: A heavy-rotation staple in college, I surprised myself by realizing the only song I wanted to hold onto was “Pennyroyal Tea”. Sigh. The '90s are well and truly gone.

The Trinity Session, Cowboy Junkies: Perfect record, perfectly sequenced. Something I found out in college: Start slowly sipping whiskey with the first track, “Mining for Gold”, and by the last track you will achieve the ideal state of Hank-Williams-style drunken melancholia.

Television's Greatest Hits, Vol. 3: 70's & 80's: This is a fun one, an old CD of TV themes. Keepers like “Welcome Back, Kotter”, “WKRP in Cincinatti” and “Sanford & Son” remind us that the '70s were the Golden Era of theme songs. You may have hears rumors that the “M*A*S*H*” theme song sometimes makes me cry a little, but no one can prove that.

Flood, They Might Be Giants: Turns out you can throw out all of Side 2. Who knew?

It’s Blitz! , Yeah Yeah Yeahs: The last album I actually bought, I can’t pare this one down yet -- it simply hasn’t percolated long enough. But I’m worried. YYYs -- those are my boys (and girl) and so far with this, their new record? Not feeling it.

Hootenany, The Replacements: The title track, “Buck Hill” and “Lovelines” are such obvious filler, I’m only doing what should have been done in 1983. It’s a little scary cutting Paul Westerberg songs. He seems like the kind of guy who might track me down and punch me in the mouth.

The White Album, the Beatles. Surely, there will be repercussions for me here in the afterlife. Dare I violate The White Album? I dare: “Piggies” is out. Sorry, George.

The list goes on. I must say, it’s been a surprisingly liberating experience -- and one I suspect many others are undergoing as the era of physical media distribution draws to a close. In any case, I’m now lighter by several dozen gigabytes and my iPod shuffle is mean and lean.

I realize that to some purists, the idea of whittling down albums like this is akin to ripping pages out a novel. Actually, come to think of it, I really need to lighten up these bookshelves. Hmm…

Readers interested in this impulse to 'clean up one's room', so to speak, might enjoy Michael Antman's essay on the subject, "The Future is an Empty Room"

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