Albums hold a special place in my heart. It’s a love affair that began when I was a wee lad and has continued unabated for nearly fifty years.
What’s not to love about them? Okay, scratches and skipping needles. I’ll give you that. But outside of poor album care, there are a lot of benefits to having an album collection.
First, album artwork. Those twelve-inch square pieces of cardboard showcase some of the best, and worst, graphic designers and artists. The artwork is often the first indication of what kind of music you’re going to hear. In fact, I can often determine the genre of music by just looking at the album artwork. There’s also the fact that it gives me something to hold and look at while listening to the album.
Plus, there are iconic covers that still resonate today. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, designed by Hipgnosis. Or Roger Dean’s covers for many of the Yes albums. And there’s also Andy Warhol’s work for the Rolling Stones and Velvet Underground and the Alberto Vargas cover for the Cars. The cover art doesn’t have the same impact when shrunk down to a cassette tape, compact disc, or a thumbnail on a streaming site.
And let’s not forget the album credits, who played on it, producers, engineers, and often a list of people with no designation. Those were often friends of the band, groupies, and more often than not, their dealers.
And, in many cases, the lyrics were included on the inner sleeve. There’s something special about listening to an album over headphones and reading and singing along. I think seeing the words on the page makes me feel more connected to the music.
Then there’s the sound of music on vinyl. Here’s the thing, though. It has to be played on a good turntable with good speakers. Not necessarily high-end, but something that can play and present the music properly. Those cheap, portable players will work in a pinch, but in my experience, they sound tinny.
If you can listen to a new album on a good system, it’s magical. Sure, there is the occasional pop as the needle encounters a bit of dust or slight imperfection, but to me, that’s part of the experience. Digital music comes across as too polished, too clean. It’s a different experience. Vinyl produces a richer sound with more depth than its digital counterpart. I have a USB turntable that allows me to listen to my records through my computer speakers, which relay the music quite nicely. It’s not quite the same as a stand-alone turntable, equalizer, and tower speakers, but it’ll do.
I equate listening to music on vinyl to listening to it in a live environment. There’s a different quality to the sound when you hear a band play live. There are slight imperfections in the playing, maybe an instrument or two aren’t perfectly tuned, and the crowd noise underlying the music coming out of the venue’s sound system. But none of that takes away from the listening experience.
Of course, a collection of vinyl is going to take up more space than the music stored in the cloud. It’s not unlike collecting books. Sure, it’s convenient to carry a small device that displays ebooks and it frees up a lot of wall space, but there’s something to be said for the visual appeal of books lined up on a shelf. It’s the physicality involved. Holding a work of art (and yes, physical music and books are forms of art) in your hands is a unique experience.
Yes, I’m old school when it comes to music. Even my tastes lean toward music created pre-2000. Less auto-tune, less over-production, less perfection, and arguably more creativity. Albums from the 1950s (Kind of Blue), the 1960s (Rubber Soul), and the 1970s (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) all sound much better than anything that’s been released afterward.
And I’m not genre-specific. My collection includes everything from big band music of the 1930s and 1940s to jazz of the 1950s, the classic rock and blues of the 1960s, the R&B and the British heavy metal of the 1970s, new wave, punk, and more. Every era and every style has something to offer. If it’s on vinyl, I’m going to try and add it to my collection.
Of course, the question is: Do I have an addition? Should I seek help? No, I have it under control. I’m more likely to buy a stack of books than a stack of vinyl, but the temptation is always there, whispering in my ear, “Man, wouldn’t that sound good on a turntable?”
I’m not trying to disparage digital music. I listen to it quite a bit, usually in the background as I’m writing, reading, or painting. Vinyl is for active listening, with good speakers or headphones, while I read along with the lyric sheet (occasionally singing along) and peruse the liner notes. It’s a unique experience that I never get tired of.