In Praise of Plastic: The Album’s Last Stand in the 21st Century

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I’ve been frequenting the CD vendor that sets up shop on Grove Street in a semi-conscious attempt to re-collect all the albums I parted ways with when I moved from Weehakwen to Jersey City. One day, I picked up a trio of great albums: Elvis Presley’s Greatest Hits, Lyle Lovett’s The Road to Ensenada, and The Beatles’ White Album.

Holding this last one, turning its busted old jewel case in my hands and examining the dirty white lyric booklet, I was transported back to a time when I would spend hours touring the New York City record shop scene, searching for Beatles albums on vinyl to spin on my trusty ol’ Numark turntable. I got Abbey Road at Bleeker Bob’s; I found a copy of Let It Be in the basement of Generation Records; and back when I still worked with my brother at the Meadowlands Marketplace, I nabbed both 1962 – 1966 and 1967 – 1970 from a garage sale vendor in exchange for a cup of Mrs. Crinkle’s amusement park fries. And I can’t forget the fateful day I stumbled on a copy of Meet the Beatles! while thumbing through my dad’s old Frank Sinatras and rebetika from the old country.

It wasn’t just Beatles albums I was after, but many other classic rock albums, from Morrison Hotel to Dark Side of the Moon. Where did all those records go? Well, with the exception of my prized Pearl Jam vinyl collection and a few other select records, namely Pink Floyd’s Animals and a Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons record, I sold my whole stash to a garage sale vendor for $50 when I moved out of that childhood home where I’d spun those black circles so much that I could hear the scratches and skips even when the songs came in over the FM dial. The same thing happened to my massive CD collection, all sold to Bleeker Street Records for $25, mainly because I didn’t want to lug them back to Jersey.

But it was right then and there, clicking closed the jewel case to a remastered edition of Meat Loaf’s 1977 classic Bat Out of Hell which I’d added to my trio of $2 CDs that I got to thinking about the very idea of an album. The last one I’d listened to was Tom Waits’ latest disc Bad As Me. Before that, it was Cake’s Showroom of Compassion. And before that, Pearl Jam’s Backspacer. No Mumford and Sons for me, no Arcade Fire or White Stripes, and certainly no Kings of Leon. Now, I’m not discrediting these bands in any way, nor am I disregarding the fact that I, too, have been caught humming the melody to one Coldplay song or another, or that I’ve got three or four Vampire Weekend medleys queued up on my iPhone. I just don’t own an entire album by any of either of those bands. And the worst part of it is that I’m okay with that.

Why is that, you ask? I’m certainly not a hater where indie music is concerned (I grew up when Roadrunner Records’ repertoire was still considered indie), nor am I a prude when it comes to the latest technology regarding song play. Despite that, however, I do think the culprit lies snugly hidden between the idea and the reality, where falls the shadow of form (or format, where music is concerned). It seems that the advent of the MP3 has caused a subtle downfall in the way we listen to albums, and perhaps even the way albums are put together nowadays. An album, as any music lover knows, is not just a few $1.99 downloadable singles strewn together into an extra-long EP; rather, it’s a series of songs sewn together by certain thematic threads with a central concept that dictates what kind of effect that album will have on any given listener. Moreover, an album doesn’t end with the final song or hidden track, but continues long after it ends, into the album artwork, and lingers in the lyric booklet and liner notes.

Today, there’s the song and not much else, since MP3 is the format of choice for most music lovers today. Because of this, we don’t need to listen to a whole album from beginning to end, to listen for a more complete message with each passing song; we can simply be satisfied by hearing one or two radio hits that a band has become known for and shuffle over to another song by a different artist. In short, today we live song to song, and we’re alright with that. It’s evolution, of course: “shuffle” on a CD player meant traversing songs on a single artist’s album unless you made your own mix disc; on cassette, you could fast-forward or rewind to find the song you want to hear, but hearing another band required taking out your tape and turning it over. The same rules apply to the CD. Same with a record, even. Today, “shuffle” means bridging the gaps between turning over a record or shuffling through your backpack for another CD to slip into your player and soaring through your entire collection of songs, artists, and genres spanning 50,000 songs –– more than we’d ever be able to appreciate on any given day.

And as I stood in front of those $2 and $5 CD bins at the used music stand, rummaging past newer bands I’ve never heard of in search of the sounds I’d collected all those years ago as a teenager with a turntable and a refined sense of rock and roll, I also noticed that as much as I’d like to get all warm and fuzzy about vinyl, it’s inside plastic where my most prized memories of music are encased. During high school, when I first discovered grunge, my pal Joey and I would make a weekly pilgrimage on foot from Weehawken to Secaucus, walk into Nobody Beats the Wiz, and peruse the latest selections of alternative and heavy metal, but it was always extra special on those Tuesdays when Pearl Jam rocked out with a new album. I’d pick it up at a nicely discounted price, then rush back home and sit in my room, snap the CD in the player, and listen while I paged along to whatever selected lyrics front-man Eddie Vedder decided to have printed in the booklet while marveling over the strangely evocative photos from bassist Jeff Ament in between.

In my eyes, the CD is not extinct, but it is caught in a perpetual state of reinvention, which seems to have begun back when the use of jewel cases became somewhat passé for many musical artists. The result? Disc wallets, which still kept everything about an album intact, from the music down to the artwork and lyric sheet. Because of that, CD booklets are evolving as well. Many of them are being made with the intention of getting someone to really want to own a physical copy over settling for the digital download because it’ll look awesome in his or her CD collection. My two favorite personalities are traveling along this path. When Tom Waits released his impressive tome of b-side treasures Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers and Bastards in 2006, it first appeared as a $30 hardcover book form the size of a CD and included lyrics to all the songs, plus never-before-seen photos. Even Waits’ most recent album Bad As Me has an “Ultimate Edition,” which includes a bonus disc with three additional songs packaged in a book-sized hardcover form. There are, of course, the traditional CD and vinyl versions as well, but guess which one I picked up…

Similarly, Eddie Vedder’s two solo albums, Into The Wild and Ukulele Songs, as well as the soundtrack for Pearl Jam Twenty, take after Waits in that they’re CD-sized hardcover book formats with lyrics and photographs inside. (Pearl Jam attempted something similar back in 1994 with the release of Vitalogy, which took the form of a softcover booklet.) Other bands may not go the book route with their CD releases, but they do their part. Wilco, a newer band that still releases albums on vinyl, includes a free CD version along with it, so the band’s listeners get the best of all worlds. And then there are folks like Trent Reznor, who attempt to make everything on their MP3 albums as engaging as their physical versions might be; the MP3 of Nine Inch Nails’ album The Slip features a unique image accompanying each track of the album. Thus, Reznor has further evolved the MP3 format while keeping true to his roots.

Perhaps my concern is not so much for the chart-toppers making Billboard history, but indie bands and musicians in New Jersey and beyond trying to make a name for themselves. As a spoken word artist coming of age during the open-mic scene of the early 2000s, I can more easily recall a musician like Jay Legaspi, whose album-esque EP I bought for $5 after he plucked his heart out at Cool Beans Coffee Shop, than a band or performer who told me to visit a Soundcloud or Myspace page and download some songs. I never do, no matter how awesome the music they played was. The truth is that there’s something more personal, and these days almost nostalgic, about handing someone a CD instead of directing them to iTunes. Even if it’s a CD wrapped in a sheet of paper with a black and white photo of you and your cat, something is better than nothing. After all, if it weren’t for a sole CD sitting on the free table at Tunes one Saturday afternoon, I’d never have heard about Icewagon Flu, the truly awesome band that would contribute music to my films on more than one occasion, most especially the title song to my short film Cerise.

This is in no way a thrashing of MP3s, nor is this a wistful tear-shed for the good ol’ days of vinyl. This is an anthem of praise for the compact disc –– the vinyl of a generation that doesn’t quite appreciate the soon-to-be vintage nature of the CD. We should linger ever so slightly hunched over the CD bins at Tunes or at the CD vendor during JC Fridays, ‘re-collecting’ all the moments that have made us more astute aficionados of music; for every glossy spine I run my finger past is another experience rebirthed by means of a laser beam needle smoothly gliding across the flat digitized surface of a compact disc, a technology I marvel at just as intently as the technology that creates records, as much as words and images associated with the sounds that enfold them. MP3s are for the minuteman generation, but we need not succumb to minute mentality.

So give me Gerald Scarfe’s mythical graffiti on The Wall and Roger Waters’ scribbles in the cracks; give me Derek Riggs in the Iron Maiden and the booming voice of Bruce Dickinson; give me my entire Pearl Jam collection with all of Jeff’s photos, page after page, and yes, give me Tod Brody’s “Contra”versial Vampire Weekend cover art. I’ll take it all in, a more complete experience to further complete the album that is us –– the listener.

So keep your iTunes library on your desktop and in the palm of your hand, but every once in a while, brush off your CD collection stacked in the corner of your room and slip a disc into that old Sony player that just won’t stop working. Then open up the lyric book and experience that one of a kind (and one at a time) pleasure of really listening to an album.