Wesley Willis: Wesley Willis is a Chicago legend for good reason: His massive frame was matched only by the joy he took in singing—and the mental illness that plagued him. It would be easy, especially in hindsight, to think that people listen to Willis’ music to make fun of him, but in my experience that wasn’t the case. His songs—pretty much all the same keyboard demo song, which he sang/talked over—were naïve and the very definition of “outsider art,” but those who loved them genuinely seemed to be cheering for Willis. He sang about his favorite bands, his favorite venues, and the voices in his head that told him to do wrong. It was silly, but in a beautiful way.
I first met him in the early ’90s on Clark Street in Chicago, and was the recipient almost immediately of one of his famous head butts. (He had a permanent mark on his forehead from giving them so frequently.) I interviewed him for Milk Magazine, and Eddie Vedder—also a Willis fan—once told me how much he liked the piece, because it captured the weird, circular conversations that Willis specialized in. Willis frequently stopped in at Atomic Records—once he showed up in a taxi and told us he had been kicked off the Greyhound between Green Bay and Chicago for “acting up.” We got ahold of his doctor, who called in a prescription for us to pick up for him; in the meantime, he sat behind the front counter, drew some of his amazingly detailed pictures, and answered the phone for us. Out in the real world, he probably seemed like a scary menace. Those of us who knew him a little bit knew that he just needed a familiar place and face to get happy.
I once sort of co-authored a Wesley Willis song. (No, estate of Wesley Willis, I’m not trying to get a credit here!) He wanted to write a song about Atomic, and he called up and was looking for inspiration. He ended up with “This record store sells my CDs / A lot of people shop here to buy them,” among other lines. That song does not appear on the Wesley Willis album Atomic Records, though there’s a funny story behind that. He called the store one day and said, “If I named my new CD Atomic Records, would you buy 100 copies?” We of course said yes. The song appears on Drag Disharmony Hell Ride, alongside such classics as “Northwest Airlines” and “Veruca Salt.” Wesley died back in 2003 of cancer, but his legend lives on. I’m keeping a select few discs—he put out 50, and I used to have many more—since they’re all pretty much the same. Keeping three, purging two, and keeping the memories.
Wire: Here’s a difficulty with this project, and I’m not really complaining: I’m standing here naked, in front of you all, admitting that I don’t really care all that much about certain artists that are both generally accepted as “cool” (for whatever that’s worth) and culturally important. So I confront something like the three-disc box set that houses the first three albums by post-punk pioneers Wire, which I admire and like, but really never listen to anymore. I know they’re important, and I know they’re good, but they’re just taking up space on a shelf at this point. So I fare you well, and hope you, dear readers, understand that this project is much more about what’s important to me than what’s generally accepted as important by critics or the world at large. Those things sometimes intersect, sometimes not. Purging three.
The Wiseguys: And right after I let go of three discs that may have changed the direction of music, I’m keeping one that I just like because it’s fun and clever. The Wiseguys were like the less-serious cousins of DJ Shadow and The Chemical Brothers, cutting and pasting sounds and beats into party-starters. Their music was almost certainly heard on TV commercials more than anywhere else. And their second album, The Antidote, is fun as hell. Keeping one.
Wolf Parade: Sometimes I’m pretty sure I love Wolf Parade—especially Apologies To The Queen Mary—and other times I’m not entirely sure. They’re a band I don’t listen to a lot, but every time I do, I feel like I should listen more. Am I getting wishy-washy toward the end of the alphabet? I’m keeping all three for now.
The Wombats: I really liked the Wombats record with “Let’s Dance To Joy Division” on it—great song about a great band—but I haven’t really kept up with them or dug deeper. They did a solid Undercover for us recently, though, so enjoy that! Purging one.
The Wonder Stuff: I loved The Wonder Stuff in the late ’80s—I remember buying The Eight Legged Groove Machine at Mainstream Records in Milwaukee (on cassette, of course). But they were overtaken in my heart by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, who were roughly part of the same scene but never seemed as self-serious as The Wonder Stuff. There are some great songs in their early catalog—smart and sassy—but I never grab these records off the shelf anymore. Purging three.
Shannon Wright: I first saw Shannon Wright play on a bill with Eric Bachmann; they paired perfectly, since both were presenting their songs in their rawest forms. Wright had a weird light-up thing that music teachers used to use: She played an organ (or maybe it was an electric piano), and the display lit up with whatever notes she was playing. I’m just going to hang onto the record from that era, 1999’s Flightsafety, though I celebrate her whole catalog, in its harrowing beauty. Keeping one, purging three.
Steven Wright: I’m torn, because I don’t listen to Steven Wright’s discs—I Have A Pony and I Still Have A Pony—often, but they’re fantastic, and I feel like they’re some of the stand-up that I should play for my son fairly early. Oh, and he’s an incredible joke-teller. And why don’t I have any George Carlin discs? Keeping two, for now.
Wunder: From the Boards Of Canada school, though with a bit of jazzy flair thrown in. I have fond memories of the one Wunder record I own—no idea if it’s their only one—but I almost never listen to it. Purging one.
Wu-Tang Clan: Turning in my cred card again… I never listen to Wu-Tang Clan anymore. And there’s only one to purge, so here it goes. Purging one.
Robert Wyatt: Robert Wyatt is a British musician who was in Soft Machine and other prog-leaning outfits that I have zero knowledge of. His 1997 album Shleep is gorgeous and weird, but not a go-to CD choice, so out it goes. Purging one.
Wye Oak: Wye Oak and The A.V. Club have a long history together that includes many, many fantastic appearances as part of our Undercover series, and our declaration that the duo’s Civilian was the best record of 2011. (It totally was.) I actually wasn’t sure if I’d have a copy of Civilian on the shelf, because I’ve given it away so many times. (“You don’t have this? Take this one!”) And of course the catalog goes deeper than that record, from 2007’s If Children (which for some reason I don’t have) to this year’s odds-and-ends mini-album Tween. All excellent and worth your time. Keeping five.
X: Back when record companies were more generous, short albums were frequently released together on one disc. (For the longest time, Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and Come On Pilgrim were sorta inseparable in that way.) That’s the case with the only X disc I own, which features the band’s classic first two albums, Los Angeles and Wild Gift—together they’re only about 60 minutes of music, but it’s powerful, tuneful punk that lives on in spite of one of its singer’s total batshittedness of late. Los Angeles is 36 years old, but it sounds amazing. Keeping one.
Xiu Xiu: The world of Xiu Xiu is harrowing and emotional, and that’s the point. The only record of theirs I own features a borderline-breakdown version of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” that’s so raw it’s uncomfortable to even hear—and that’s not even frontman Jamie Stewart’s own song. (He did once write a ditty called “Dear God, I Hate Myself.”) So it’s not for everyone, to put it mildly, but Xiu Xiu does push the boundaries of expression, and they’ve earned loyal, fragile fans because of it. But I don’t bring this disc out much in my old age. Purging one.
Yabby You: I know very little about reggae, which is probably evident to anyone following along with this column. But there are a few things that have caught my ear over the years, including a collection by Yabby You called Jesus Dread. It’s mellow (naturally) and particularly tuneful. And it’s a lot about Jesus, which is a bit unusual for reggae (and he knew it). That’s not necessarily a plus, just an observation. Anyway, this one will be a digital listen from now on, Yabby. Purging one.
Yeasayer: I’m a solid Yeasayer fan; I love the early tribal-twinged indie rock and especially Odd Blood, which is pitched even weirder and more electronic. But I rarely pull these discs out, and they don’t have artwork anyway. To Spotify with you! Purging two.
Yo La Tengo: I’m really going to get my indie card revoked here, but I’m only a very casual Yo La Tengo fan. I’m much more likely to listen to one song at a time rather than a whole record, though that probably just means I’m doing it wrong. I think I ditched a few discs a while back, and I’m down to two—both great, but not essential when I’m out of room. Purging two.
Yo Majesty: I’ll remember Yo Majesty as one of the greatest shows I ever saw at South By Southwest—an unofficial show at some off-the-beaten-path venue. The hip-hop trio—at least they were a trio then, before splintering—were unstoppable, fierce, and fun as hell. Christian? Check. Lesbian? Yup. Amazing? Twas. But none of that translates to the records, I’m afraid, which might be why the group faded away. Purging one.
Thom Yorke: I really like The Eraser, but this promo is in a little cardboard thing that gets lost on the shelf. But the record itself is just as good as much of the recent Radiohead output. Discuss. Purging one.
James Yorkston: Quiet Scottish troubadour. So quiet that I can’t even hear it in my head. Purging one.
Neil Young: I consider myself a Neil Young fan, but I’m by no means a completist. I’m definitely in the typical late-’60s/early-’70s camp; On The Beach is my favorite, though I don’t actually own it on CD. (Wait, I do—I have a bootleg in a thin pack in another box, purchased during that long period when it was shockingly unavailable.) All that said, I have a weird collection on disc. There’s no reason I need Greendale or Living With War or even Unplugged, but I’m definitely keeping a bunch of classics. You know what’s amazing? Live At Massey Hall 1971. Get that one. Keeping six, purging eight.
You Say Party: Canadian dance-rock. Doesn’t necessarily live up to that name. Purging one.
Zero Zero: Guys from melodic hardcore band Lifetime laid down the guitars and picked up old synths. I remember liking this record, but just barely. Purging one.
The Zombies: Odessey And Oracle is one of those classic ’60s albums that I try to get into every few years, but never quite get there. I think I can find this for a dollar (or on Spotify) next time I want to try. Sorry, psych-pop boosters! Purging one.
Zumpano: Before he was a New Pornographer, Carl Newman sang in the even purer-pop outfit Zumpano, which released two great albums in the mid-’90s. I’m a little surprised these records weren’t reissued or at least re-pimped in the wake of the Pornographers’ success—Goin’ Through Changes is awesome. Keeping one, purging one.
That’s the end of the alphabet! But there’s more…
Another re-purgening: I went back through a week or so ago and pulled some more stuff that originally made the cut. Some of it is going into a box in a closet—you’re going to hear about that box shortly—some of it is going out. A partial list: some Clem Snide CD singles and bootlegs, Big Tobacco’s self-titled record, Death Cab For Cutie’s The Open Door EP, Catherine Wheel’s Wishville, David Bazan’s Fewer Moving Parts, All Time Quarterback. It totaled another 30 purged. And I moved the Bee Gees box set to a different shelf. NOW YOU KNOW.
And now, some things that were at the end of the shelf but that aren’t compilations or soundtracks.
Melba Comes Alive!: Is a prank-call disc that I barely remember—purging one.
Scharpling & Wurster: I own five discs of some of the greatest phone calls/radio comedy ever, but everything (I think) is included on the massive box set that Numero Group put out fairly recently. Rock, Rot & Rule is one of the funniest calls ever—it made the rounds on dubbed cassettes for years before it finally saw a release, and the goofy calls between Superchunk’s drummer and a WFMU host became legendary. We interviewed Wurster for Milk way back when, in character, and I once played Scharpling’s part—the exasperated straight man—on stage with Wurster at a SXSW party. A proud moment. Purging five. They’re all in the box set, remember!
A Very Milky Christmas: I used to put on a Christmas concert every year, and in 2001 and 2002, those shows were acoustic affairs featuring sets from some of my favorite singers. I’ve got CD copies of all those sets, and for some reason I’ve got them together at the end of the alphabet. All great, and all great memories: 2001 was Eric Bachmann, Eef Barzelay, Josh and Eli Caterer, Dan Andriano, and Travis Morrison—he showed up and surprised us, and we made him get on stage. The next year was Bachmann, Barzelay, and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie. And of course Davey Von Bohlen of The Promise Ring played at all of these as well. Keeping seven.
Crank Yankers: I used to have two Crank Yankers discs. I don’t know why. Purging two.
Kathy McGinty: More prank phone calls, this time from funny guy/artist/occasional rapper Derek Erdman. If I remember correctly, it’s a recorded female voice tricking gross dudes into having phone sex. Haven’t listened to it in ages, though. Purging one.
Celebrities… At Their Worst!: I must get this from my dad. These are discs full of celebrities freaking out, on set or in recording studios. It’s ridiculous, and I’m a little embarrassed to own them, but I do love hearing Orson Welles talk about peas, or Dean Martin go blue when he thinks nobody’s listening. These are going in a box in the closet, so technically I’m purging five.
Just Farr A Laugh: Last prank calls, I swear. These are awesome. Here, listen. Keeping one.
Compilations: I can’t tell you about all of these individually, can I? There are loads of tributes, some ’80s comps, a South Park thing, and more stuff I never, ever listen to. I’m purging 25 compilations, and keeping four that are just mix discs I made ages ago.
Classical: My parents met as members of the Dallas Symphony. My entire childhood my mom was a violinist in the Milwaukee Symphony. I grew up around a lot of classical music, which perhaps explains why I don’t have much in my collection—just a handful of kind of obvious things, plus some Erik Satie. But I can listen to any of this stuff via Spotify (or even Pandora, where it can pick for me!). Purging six, keeping one of the Saties.
The tally: The grand total is 857 plus another 123 as this final heave-ho takes me to 980. This is not a failure, because my wife had about 50 discs on the bottom shelf, and she’s purged about half of those. (This will not be a separate column, but keepers included The Housemartins, Third Eye Blind, and Morrissey, while Trembling Blue Stars and Phil Collins did not make the cut.) In other words, after moving a few things to a box in the closet, which is only sort of cheating, I DID IT. I mean, I knew I would, so maybe it’s not that exciting. I’m just trying to put a really exciting exclamation point on this process, for both of us, really. Thanks for reading along with me and commenting. It’s been fun. Bonus tracks below!
Personal Hall Of Fame (the discs that I’ll take to the grave, maximum of one per artist): Wye Oak, Civilian; Neil Young, On The Beach; Eef Barzelay, A Very Milky Christmas 2001.
Bonus track—the skinny packs: If you’ve been following along this long, first of all, thanks again! It’s been a fun project, and fun to interact with people—even those of you who think I’m crazy for having (or not having) something. So, in a closet, I’ve got a big box that has a few things in regular jewel cases that have sentimental value, like all the Adorable CD singles, a couple of autographed things, and Clem Snide bootlegs out the wazoo.
But also in this box is every disc I own that came in a skinny cardboard sleeve. Often those were promos, but also a bunch of CD singles and other random shit. Many of them are going right in the garbage, but there’s some cool stuff in here. A short list of interesting things inside: the Band Of Horses tour EP; Boards Of Canada’s Trans Canada Highway; some live Archers Of Loaf promos; some prank phone calls made by Scott Beschta of The Promise Ring and Erik Kowalski of Casino Versus Japan; Jeremy Enigk’s The End Sessions; Fugazi’s “Furniture” CD single; a couple of Grandaddy rarities comps; Neil Hamburger’s 50 States 50 Laughs—featuring a joke for every state; the original Interpol EP along with a note from Daniel Kessler that says, “Josh, I have been saying forever how I wanted to send you my band Interpol’s new recording, so here it is”; lots of Maritime demos, that great Modest Mouse live album…
Oh, here’s a good one. Did I mention earlier that I did a remix once, for the band Pele? It’s called “Your Mother Is Cold.” I don’t know how to remix anything. I did it with a borrowed four-track, a microphone, and a turntable. (And some help from my friend Mark Waldoch.) It samples a bunch of other weird shit and puts it on top of the drum and keyboard tracks from the original song, “The Faber.” It appeared on a crazy, limited-edition remix disc called Emergency Room Egg, which features a hand-painted cardboard cover. I kind of like it still. I’ll upload the remix for you (above), and the original song is below.
Finally, since you’ve come this far, I’ll admit to you that I also put out another rap track, in addition to the one I did about The Dismemberment Plan. It’s on a compilation disc called A Very Milky Christmas, which was for sale at our 2000 Christmas concert. I appear alongside The Dismemberment Plan, Alkaline Trio, and The Promise Ring, who all recorded Christmas songs for the show/comp. I rap (if you can call it that) about being half-Jewish on Christmas and being a badass. (Sample lyric: “Pissed off ’cuz I got ripped off / My holidays cut short, over too soon / Hanukkah’s four days, and Christmas ends at noon!”) This track has not made it to the internet as far as I can tell, and I’m not going to change that. Thanks for reading.