Eight or nine years ago, I decided to limit the number of CDs I owned to 2,000. The decision wasn’t arbitrary—I had (and still have) two CD shelves that each hold a thousand. I reasoned then, in the days before we had nearly every piece of music ever recorded at our digital fingertips, that this was a solid number. If I listened to the entirety of my physical music collection (not counting vinyl), it’d take me about two months straight. At the time, that didn’t seem unreasonable.
I wasn’t getting rid of anything, not entirely anyway: If I got a new CD that I wanted to keep and needed to nix an old one in order to keep the number at 2,000, I’d still keep a digital copy—everything on a hard drive, which is also backed up. The idea of both of these things—keeping CDs and having everything digitally safeguarded—seems quaint now. Until the machines take over and enslave us, pretty much any music that’s ever been released and distributed will be readily available. Even then, our digital overlords (call them “Alexa”) will probably let us hear what we want to keep us docile.
And now car CD players are going the way of the dodo as well, which makes my physical collection seem even sillier: Pretty much the only place I actually play a CD anymore is in the car, and if whatever comes after my Honda Civic doesn’t have one, they won’t be much more than glorified booklets.
That said, I’m not ready to give them up just yet, and I may never be. Having grown up with physical media—records, then tapes, then CDs—I prize the booklets, the liner notes, the physicality. I have strong visual memories of my favorite records, which is something that’s largely gone away in the digital-listening world. I could describe in minute detail the artwork of my favorite albums from the ’90s and ’00s, but there are records from the last few years whose songs I cherish but whose covers I’ve only seen rendered in thumbnail.
So I’m going to purge. My goal is to cut the number of CDs I own in half during the next 12 months. First I’m going to binge, though: I’m going to go through the entire collection and carefully consider what I’d like to keep—and why I’d like to keep it. I’m going to write about the process along the way, going in depth on some of the bands and albums I’ve amassed over the years and glossing over others. The pieces—in a column I’m calling Binge And Purge—will offer more personal reflection than critical analysis, though there will be some of that as well. I’ve spent nearly my whole life as a music junkie, from ’80s radio obsessive to record store employee to music journalist to concert promoter. My CD collection doesn’t tell that whole story nor does it provide some sort of diploma. So I’m going to try to enjoy thinning it out while publicly remembering what got me to 2,000 in the first place. With each installment of Binge And Purge, I’ll reference what’s staying, what’s going, and even what CDs I might actually add to the permanent (okay, probably semi-permanent) collection.
Oh, and I’d be remiss to not mention Noel Murray’s 2008 A.V. Club column/experiment Popless as both the inspiration and precursor to this column. Unlike Noel, I won’t be abstaining from new music while I do this, and I’m not going through the entirety of my digital music collection, but I hope to accomplish some of the same things he did—specifically, a greater appreciation for a smaller number of things. And getting a thousand CDs out of my apartment, because that’s going to feel great. And now, I’ll dive into it: I have pulled a Sony Walkman out of cold storage to assist me. It’s a blue model D-E350 whose battery door won’t stay closed, but it still runs like a champ.
.22: Numbers precede letters in my collection, so instead of filing this band under T, it’s the first disc on the shelf—and the first to go. I own The Patriots mostly because of its artwork, which is a series of funny paintings by Milwaukee artist Tom Stack, called Birds With Shirts, which I first saw hanging in a café over a decade ago. The band didn’t last long, and while I always liked its straightforward, slightly math-y rock, I probably own a dozen other similar discs—three-piece, lots of low end, shout-sung vocals—that I actually listen to. If I want to look at the birds, I can go to Tom Stack’s website. Purging one.
I should mention right up top here—and this is not a boast, but a germane fact—that I probably paid for about 20 percent of the CDs I own. Between writing about music for most of my adult life and working at a record store for more than a decade, I’ve been sent—most of the time unsolicited—pretty much every CD I’ve wanted. My lack of attachment and guilt might play in my favor here, since most discs I cull won’t come with the sting of, “There goes another $15 I shouldn’t have spent.”
!!!: I own two CDs by the band pronounced “chik-chik-chik,” and I can’t remember the last time I listened to either of them. I’m pretty sure the only song of theirs that I really need to hear on record ever again is “Me And Giuliani Down By The Schoolyard (A True Story),” which traveled in the same orbit (musically and otherwise) with LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge.” Listening to the band’s 2001 self-titled debut confirms it. Even the album containing “Giuliani”—2003’s Louden Up Now—can go. I can pull out the occasional track (“Must Be The Moon,” from 2007’s Myth Takes is pretty great) from the cloud when I’m in need, and the band is still irascibly party-starting live, so if they’re playing a barbecue that I happen to be walking past—as happened a couple years ago at South By Southwest—I will stop and wiggle. But the discs can go. Purging two.
Abe Vigoda: Skeleton, this weirdo-punk band’s third album, inspired lots of breathless excitement in 2008, but it didn’t have much staying power: A cacophonous crossbreed of Vampire Weekend, Captain Beefheart, and no wave, it seems remarkably fresh at first, but I’m not sure there’s much in the way of songs underneath the sounds. Purging one.
AC/DC: AC/DC has famously refused to release a greatest-hits album throughout its long, hit-filled career. The band even kept its music off iTunes until fairly recently because it wanted listeners to hear the full albums, as they were intended. Well, I’m sorry, AC/DC, but I want to cherry-pick the hits, and I’m not sure why I own Back In Black, High Voltage, and Highway To Hell on CD. If they come up on iTunes shuffle, I’m going to be excited, but I’m never going to pull them off the shelf. So three more down. Purging three.
And here’s where I start to question whether I should keep certain big names on the shelf for my son, who just turned 6. When I was 9 or 10, I couldn’t get enough of AC/DC. I remember changing all the words to “Big Balls” with my friend in second grade and giggling like a madman, and I think the riffs to “Back In Black” and “You Shook Me All Night Long” might fundamentally change his DNA (in a good way) if he hears them at the right time. Then again, maybe seeing them on his dad’s shelf would only make him think they’re uncool, not to mention the fact that in a few years he may have no way of conveniently listening to them, and he’ll just be into to some new EDM subgenre that sets farts to the sound of a drill press.
Acetone: Acetone was lumped in with the slowcore movement of the early and mid-’90s, but its tendencies toward the psychedelic usually turned me off. I was more into (and still am) the weirder, darker, slower world of Low, Acetone’s labelmates on the now-defunct Vernon Yard. While I barely care about the band at all, I absolutely cherish one of the three discs I own by them and listen to it fairly frequently: The 1995 all-covers EP I Guess I Would is a dusty, gorgeous set of classics that aren’t all that reworked but are nonetheless fantastic. There are songs by Gram Parsons, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Horton, all great, but none are as doleful and terrific as Acetone’s version of John Prine’s “The Late John Garfield Blues.” So I’m keeping that one, and the two full-lengths I have are gone. Keeping one, purging two.
Adem: Pulling two Adem discs off the shelf, I have no recollection of what they sound like whatsoever—a good sign that they won’t make the cut. I do recall that it’s some kind of side project, and looking it up it comes back to me: It’s the guy from Fridge, the duo that also spawned Four Tet. Listening to Homesongs, Adem’s 2004 debut, I’m reminded that I loved it intensely for a short time. It’s a measured, engaging set that sits toward the folk end of folktronica. It sounds intimate at least partly because it was recorded at home—hence the name. It’s getting a reprieve while I listen to it some more, though its follow-up, Love And Other Planets, is going into the reject pile. Keeping one, purging one.
Adorable: This one’s easy, because I know they’re all staying. Adorable released its first singles on Creation Records in 1992, an incredible time to be affiliated with the label, which was putting out amazing records by Swervedriver, Slowdive, Teenage Fanclub, Ride, and The Boo Radleys. I remember buying its first single, “Sunshine Smile,” at a record store in Iowa City—no idea why I was there—and being blown away. (This was way back when you had to buy things on faith, which is why having the imprimatur of a label like Creation really helped.) The band sounded like a more accessible Jesus And Mary Chain—still full of piss and vinegar, but willing to put the big hooks front and center, not behind a wall of fuzz.
After more fantastic singles came its 1994 debut, Against Perfection, which is spoken of in hushed tones by a very small group of people. Adorable is one of those bands that seemed on the verge but then absolutely collapsed, either because of public disinterest or label politics—maybe both. A second album, Fake, was just as good, but no one bought it. The band made it to America once, just briefly, and I saw it open for a shitty, long-forgotten major-label nu-metal band called Mind Bomb. I bought two T-shirts, both of which I think I still have somewhere. I’m keeping everything on the CD shelf here, because the memories and the music are equally strong: the two proper albums, a B-sides compilation with awful artwork but great liner notes (Footnotes), and even a bootleg disc called Final Show. Somewhere in a closet I’ve got all the original CD singles, too, which I’m not counting against my final tally. (Not just yet, anyway.) Keeping four.
Air: I once interviewed Air—a.k.a. Air French Band—for Magnet magazine, and it was one of the more difficult interviews I’ve ever done. Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel didn’t seem terribly keen on talking about their music, which is a bummer because I’m pretty sure this was around the time of 2004’s Talkie Walkie, the floaty, gorgeous synth set that finally matched 1998’s Moon Safari, home of “Sexy Boy” and “Kelly, Watch The Stars.” I’ve also got three Air discs that I haven’t touched in a decade, so those (Love 2, Premiers Symptômes, and Pocket Symphony) are out the door. Purging three, keeping two.
Ali G And Shaggy: Before Borat, there was Ali G, Sacha Baron Cohen’s thug-lite character who was insanely popular in England before he made any sort of mark in the States. Before I had sense, I apparently paid $10 for a CD single of Baron Cohen, in character, singing a song from Ali G Indahouse. With Shaggy. Purging one.
The Album Leaf: I hadn’t listened to In A Safe Place in forever and was ready to drop it in the purged pile… and then I put it on and remembered from the first few seconds how good it is—like an American Sigur Rós, which makes sense considering it’s an American guy (Jimmy Lavelle) joined by members of Sigur Rós and recorded in Iceland. Keeping one, for now.
Alkaline Trio: Our own David Anthony wrote a great piece about falling out of love with Alkaline Trio, and I could relate a little bit (except I was there, because I’m old). I saw the band play dozens of times in its heyday, and I count several of those shows among the most exciting I’d ever seen. I remember promoting a show with them at The Globe in Milwaukee, long after they’d gotten too big to play there—it held about 200 people. I was already older than most of the crowd by at least a bit, and their energy—like the band’s—was so young and electric. (Try not singing along with “I’d love to rub your back” from “Nose Over Tail.”)
Here’s a fun story: The band’s label asked me to write the bio for 2001’s From Here To Infirmary—this is something music journalists do on occasion, and I’ve done a handful over the years. Anyway, I tried to get singer-guitarist Matt Skiba on the phone a bunch of times to get some quotes but didn’t have any luck. With the deadline looming, he called me in the middle of the night, we chatted about the new record for a half hour or so, and I wrote the bio. I then saw him (or he may have called me) about a week later, and he said, “Oh, man, we have to talk so I can give you some quotes for the bio!” Turns out he was so wasted he didn’t remember the initial conversation at all, which should come as no surprise to anyone who’s heard his alcohol-heavy lyrics from the time.
Anyway, the records: I fell off not long after Infirmary, though I do like the occasional song from later records. I think it’s me rather than them—I prefer the manic youthful energy of Goddamnit and Maybe I’ll Catch Fire and especially the self-titled compilation of their earliest stuff, so I’m keeping those and ditching the rest, though I’m tempted to give Damnesia, a collection of acoustic-ish reinterpretations of older songs, one more spin just in case. Keeping three, purging six.
The tally: Okay, after one round, I’m keeping 12 and getting rid of 20. I’m ahead of the curve! Maybe this is going to be easier than I thought…
Personal Hall Of Fame (the discs that I’ll take to the grave, maximum of one per artist): Acetone, I Guess I Would; Adorable, Against Perfection; Alkaline Trio, Goddamnit.
Next up: Lily Allen through Eric Bachmann.