Music

Stacked Wax: The Vinyl Comeback

Zach Schonfeld

As music formats push inexorably towards convenience, compactness, digitization, who could have anticipated the resurgence of the clunky, fossilized LP?

“Tuesday night I reorganize my record collection; I often do this at periods of emotional stress....I try to remember the order I bought them in: that way I hope to write my own autobiography, without having to do anything like pick up a pen. I pull the records off the shelves, put them in piles all over the sitting room floor, look for Revolver, and go on from there; and when I’ve finished, I’m flushed with a sense of self, because this, after all, is who I am.”

-- Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

Dusty and dense, my father’s vinyl collection lines the walls of my family’s basement storeroom.

The collection is sizable, of value both monetary and personal, but there’s no readymade autobiography lurking within the boxed stacks -- no story, no coherence, certainly no concrete organizational mechanism by which to provide one. There are only fragments, half-formed and fleeting, glimpses and descriptors of the man my father was and is and perhaps maybe could have been. And, of course, dust.

From the ‘60s come classics -- Abbey Road and Tommy, Forever Changes and The Band -- everything you would expect, maybe require, of a baby boomer with just the right countercultural instincts intact. But there are also the shadier, more esoteric treasures, the early Zappas and Beefhearts, the Jefferson Airplane LPs that I imagine soundtracked a troubled adolescence among uptight immigrant parents. Which disc did he turn to when my grandfather pulled out the wooden spanking spoon after a long day at the tuna factory he worked? Was Uncle Meat the potent antidote to a dismal suburban Jersey landscape? Was Ummagumma there when my grandfather threatened -- and ultimately followed through -- with a one-year boarding school sentence?

More importantly, perhaps: was it allowed to come, too?

The ‘70s hit. College, too. The collection explodes, all psychedelic colors and acid-drenched prog fancies and Grateful Dead live releases befitting a 1974 graduate of the University of Vermont. Lots of Stones, too: there is the faded Sticky Fingers with the zipper broken off, the Flowers compilation whose tracklist I could never comprehend, the Exile on Main Street double LP with the letters ALOI scrawled across the grooves. His college girlfriend’s name, he explains when I ask. This I regard as some bitter victory for my father, if not the whole male sex: she probably broke his heart, but he kept her mint-condition first-pressing Exile (it would even, some 30 years later, grace his eldest son’s turntable), and there, in that bitter exchange, a failed relationship holds its own cruel equilibrium three decades later. Better luck next time, Aloi.

I sense his life-long completist instinct: there are more Moody Blues and Emerson, Lake & Palmer LPs in one place than should ever be spotted outside an East Village record shop; there is every Neil Young release from the self-titled (‘68) to Re-ac-tor (‘81); there is a section of a crate devoted entirely to Chicago, another for Steely Dan. This is the father who once saved $270 worth of pennies in a massive jar in our basement: he has always loved collecting things for the sake of collecting things -- in the age of Internet shopping, this spells danger. I see the endless Zappas and Nilssons and even one Devo, the lewd song titles and bizarre cover art, and sense his oddball humor streak. I remember hearing these as a child and laughing along, baffled but charmed.

The discerning cratedigger will here notice the white, multi-disc radio compilations and concert specials (the deluxe Woodstock compilation set is a definite gem) that mark my father’s beloved tenure at WRUV, the University of Vermont college radio station. These are his clearest and most treasured college memories (make no mistake, they are far from clear); this is the experience that shaped him more than any class, this is the extracurricular involvement that directly and decisively launched a career path in radio. I wonder which discs he spun on air, which he saved for the dorm room, which ones tormented the dreaded freshman year roommate with the military haircut. And which are missing because that disgruntled roommate stomped them into oblivion.

And then, more tellingly, the FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY: NOT FOR SALE engravings. He had entered the radio industry, working for Westwood One in the early ‘80s. If the pay was good, the free records were better -- and they came home with him every night.

I see singer-songwriters galore -- Joni Mitchell’s Blue, James Taylor’s Greatest Hits, Carole King’s Tapestry, a near-complete Simon & Garfunkel collection -- and know that he has met my mom, that music tastes have merged into one comprehensive if messy synthesis, because isn’t that what marriage really is? Soon come instrumental excursions into George Winston and Keith Jarrett, a few minimalist nods to Glass and Reich. I favor the massive Einstein on the Beach set with the corner apparently devoured by a mouse, but it was Music for 18 Musicians that kept me up at night in high school.

And soon, too, come glaring holes where I appear: the empty spaces for records that I commandeered for my own collection, the missing sleeve posters that I snagged for my dorm room wall in college -- and, maybe someday, the lazily labeled burned CDRs that I hand him each night when he asks what it is that I’m listening to these days. This basement exhibit need not sit as a museum piece, frozen in time, amassing more dust. Let my interventions haunt its holes and gaps. But let them also bring to the collection recommendations and gifts, new releases that swim to my father in thinly veiled waves of nostalgia (Black Keys, Fleet Foxes) and also convey something unalterably new (James Blake, Panda Bear), intergenerational capital from a demographic that seems to have discovered vinyl not merely as an artifact to be looked upon, but a living, breathing medium to be revived and reclaimed.

* * *

Revival, indeed, seems the best term for the fate of the record. When I first thumbed through these crates, vinyl was dead, its industry relevance long since eulogized by the compact disc generation of 1988. But when I began scavenging through the heaps and seizing titles for my own collection a few years later, Generation iPod had begun buying vinyl in droves. Vinyl sales nearly doubled between 2007 and 2008 alone, a resurgence that has pleasantly baffled industry execs and pop culture theorists alike. It’s not just nostalgia, either: much of the market centers on college-aged consumers, new releases, indie labels, the like. As music formats push inexorably towards convenience, compactness, digitization, who could have anticipated the resurgence of the clunky, fossilized LP?

It’s not just about sound quality (though analog’s richer, fuller tone certainly plays a role), nor a fleeting fetishization of the past. Vinyl’s resurgence is inextricably tied to its most basic, unflappable tangibility -- the quality that mp3s, in their boundless convenience, most glaringly lack. If the Dropbox generation was supposed to drive the final nail in vinyl’s coffin, it has also, paradoxically, rendered the album format strangely refreshing for younger music consumers today. Many find themselves drawn to the sheer physicality of spinning an LP -- simply pulling out the sleeve, hearing the crackles, flipping over the sides. By listening to one record, you can forge a more visceral, tangible connection to the music. By amassing hundreds, you might begin to construct a rawer, messier sense of self.

It’s that essential, frenzied tangibility (Walter Benjamin might call it the aura) that fills the stacked wax in my father’s basement with something closely approaching identity. It’s the records themselves as much as the music -- it’s the ripped corners, the engravings, the pieces missing, all dusty and strewn. There is, I realize, an autobiography within his record collection, a chronology waiting to be consumed. You just have to know how to read it.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta



19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller



18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr


17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr



16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image