Records, like books, offer a subtle sentimentality that many of us seek in the modern era. I grew up listening to my dad’s records, albums he had carefully collected over the course of his adolescent and adult life. He filled our house with Steely Dan on Saturday mornings and Bob Dylan on Sundays. As I got older, he would routinely take my brother and I into Boston to look at used records. We’d accompany him to old shops that smelled of musk and mildew, watching as he carefully sorted through boxes and shelves until he found a record that intrigued him. He’d take the vinyl out from the yellowed sleeve, giving it a thorough examination for any scratches that might interfere with the sound. And after every trip, he’d come home and fill our home with new sounds from old artists.
I’ve always been intrigued by vinyl records. Holding a heavy disc in your hands makes you feel like you’re truly experiencing an album. And much of our current musical lingo comes from the record tradition, so it feels authentic to listen to music this way. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also grown to appreciate albums in their entireties. We spend so much of our time listening mere fragments of musical collections, gravitating towards a track or two rather than the whole work. I’m guilty of merely listening to one track, placing it in one my own playlists and neglecting the context from which it emerged. But there’s value in treating albums like novels. Each song works as a chapter, leading into the next and offering themes that resonate throughout the whole collection. While listening to my dad’s records, I realized that I actually thoroughly enjoyed the process of listening from start to finish. Granted, most vinyl LPs require the listener to flip the disc and re-place the needle halfway through, but I still found the listening experience highly immersive. There’s no “shuffle mode” to rely on; instead, we’re forced to focus on how songs fade into one another from Side A to Side B.
Thus, I reached a certain point in my development where records seemed like a worthy investment. I started small, beginning with a Panic! At the Disco collector’s item that included a vinyl in its box. While I can’t say that I listened to the album more than a few times, I was still entranced by the sound and experience of placing the record on a turntable and dropping the needle on the first track. A few years later, a friend of mine gifted me Elliot Smith’s Either/Or for my birthday. He had built a record collection of his own, including recent and retired albums across a variety of genres. And a few holiday seasons ago, my parents presented me a powder blue record player to bring to school. I had seen these vintage-esque, Crosley creations, wanting one of my own for years. But while the item looked and felt beautiful, it lacked the capability to actually produce high quality sound. The speakers within the player were cheap, and the needle broke after just a few weeks of use. These briefcase record players were always on display in my local Urban Outfitters, alongside shelves of new, overpriced vinyl records. And for a moment, I thought I wanted in on that culture — to possess an object that looked and felt vintage, but was actually cheaply constructed in the modern era.
This brings me to my issue with the return of records. I ordered a few records recently from Amazon, only to find that nearly all of them skipped and showed scratches upon delivery. Because we don’t have to listen to records, as we have a million and more other ways of listening to music, I’ve found that records these days are designed for show rather than sound. And, really, when you speak to avid record collectors, they almost always cite sound quality as their dominant reason for choosing vinyl over digital recordings. MP3s are compressed audio files, meaning they’re lower in quality and don’t possess the same dynamic range as original recordings. While I appreciate the convenience and accessibility of MP3s, there’s definitely an audible difference between records and audio files. Records fill the room with a warmer sound, one that feels closer to the artist’s original performance. But, a poorly pressed vinyl on an overpriced, plasticized player is essentially useless.
Since my negative experiences, I’ve been more careful about how and where I purchase my records. I follow my dad’s procedure of analyzing discs in old record stores, even opting to test out the albums when I can. Records bring with them a plethora of benefits to the modern listener — they encourage us to listen to full albums and appreciate the vast assortment of sounds from track to track. So if you’re at all interested in vinyl records, learn from my mistake. Invest in a functional, perhaps less-pretty turntable, get your records in person and listen to albums in their entireties. And, remember, there’s something beautiful about listening to a record that someone else once owned and cherished. All of those dusty, old record shops house hidden gems that are just waiting to be rediscovered.
Anita Alur is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].Millenial Musings appears every other Wednesday this semester.