Good music forces you to listen — not just a good song, a good album. A good album is concise (or not so concise) and to the point. It has layers and moods and direction. It is a snapshot of an artist in a moment. It is a timely statement that will never change. Unfortunately, the way we currently listen to music makes it difficult to listen to a full album the way we should. I myself usually listening to my iTunes on shuffle. Vinyl records are the only true way to hear music and be really conscious of it.
Somewhere around my junior year of high school, I had a vision. It was like a flashback or something. I recalled seeing a box in the attic of my house full of vinyl. I knew it was still there. So I went off in search of it. I rummaged and moved things around until I finally found it, like buried treasure.
Looking through the records, though, I was on the whole disappointed. My parents came of age in the early 1970s, so there was some crap in there. Who's Bread? Who's Seatrain? Boz Scaggs? Tubular Bells?
(“You don't know Seatrain?” I could hear my dad saying.)
It was a big stack, so there were some really good ones too.
Some James Taylor. Neil Young. Carly Simon. Stevie Wonder. My dad also had an impressive collection of classical music. Even in his youth, he was always looking for a little bit of everything. What was there that he didn't yet understand? Why do some people love something so much? That's why we are here, to find out.
But I digress.
That day in my life illuminated vinyl as something relevant to me. A record was no longer the way people listened to music in the past. It became something tangible in my hands. Each album was its own thing. There was artwork, there was an aesthetic. It was not just a band and a genre on a list; it was a living breathing piece of music.
And that was before I could even play the albums.
Sometime later, my dad surprised me with a record player, one of the great surprises he's given me. I hadn't asked for it, or even thought of getting one, but one day and $90 later, there it was in our house. We picked a record and listened to it.
Listening to a vinyl record is the process. Remove the record from its case, blow off the dust (if it's old), put it on the turntable, and lower the needle. You can hear the crackle and pop as it glides along the strip of dead air.
Then the music starts.
It's right there, carved into the record. Living, breathing sound. Turn off the amplification into the speakers and put your ear to the record, and it's coming off of it. It's there, coming from the record.
The way we currently listen to music, with iTunes and iPods, suits the way we live today. Music is designed for multi-tasking, it is designed for portability, and it is designed to be instantaneous. It is designed to be always there and ready to be played and shared — and this is perfectly fine. It is who we are today.
But good music is meant to speak and be heard.
I'm not here to make the case for records sounding superior to today's formats. Though they hold more sound than an MP3 or CD, they sound very similar. With the proper speakers, it is very hard to hear the difference. What a record does is connect with the listener as a whole. It is an experience; it is the act of “listening to a record,” much like “watching a movie” or “reading a book." It is its own thing.
I went to college in Keene, NH. It was a small New England town, and there was a great record store. People would sell their old records to Turn It Up (said store), and the store would resell them. Most of the records were old, people my parents' age turning in the old vinyls they no longer listened to. The store had some new vinyl, but it is expensive to make a record, and so it is also expensive to buy new vinyl.
Going to the store and just flipping through the music became a weekly hobby of mine. Each week, I'd come home with two or three new records. It was music I saw and bought based on the name or the album art or word of mouth. I would get to my room, turn on my record player and listen to them.
And really listen — with a record player, you have to, partly because you have to flip it, but mostly it is just too hard to listen to a vinyl and not pay attention to each and every song on it. It is captivating. Listening to the music, reading the liner notes, and looking at the album case becomes a sensory process. It becomes an event.
Vinyl records force you to physically listen to music. Once you really hear the music on vinyl, the whole album become unforgettable. It is how I heard Springsteen's Nebraska and Deja Vu and The White Album and Eat a Peach. In my mind these albums are pieces of art, not just collection of songs.
Some may argue that vinyls are making a comeback, and some may argue they are gone forever. (Let it be known that I rarely agree with Bob Boilen, and don't in the latter article.) Either way, I think that it is an indisputable fact that having a vinyl record and listening to it side a to side b forces people to hear music in a way that is being forgotten. It's not lost, just put to the side until you give vinyl a shot.
Yes, records are not portable, and yes, the record player is kind of bulky, but it is living music. Once you put a record on the turntable and just sit back to listen to it, it all makes sense.