Friday, May 21, 2021

Let's Have a Vinyl Listening Party...

If we were at my house, I'd make you a drink.
Brought to us by the beloved, madcap archivists at The Internet Archive
by Laurie Allee

So, I did something crazy when I was in my 20s.  When my roommate decided to move to Boston, I agreed to help her drive her truck across country from Los Angeles.  She planned  to sell most of her stuff before making the trek, and since I was also in flux -- and broke -- I added a few things to her yard sale to make some extra money.

Selling my jerky ex-boyfriend's leather jacket he never bothered to pick up was a no-brainer.  Selling jeans I no longer wore and jewelry I never really liked?  Obvious.  But selling my record collection...

...even at the time a little voice said, um, you might regret this.

"No I won't," my 90s self replied.  "Nobody listens to records anymore.  We listen to tapes.  CDs if we can afford them."

But... but RECORDS... my inner voice pleaded.

"I don't even have a stereo anymore!"  I insisted.

And with that, I lugged my box of LPs out from the back of my closet -- a box with Beatles and Artie Shaw, Psychedelic Furs and the Cure, the U2 I practically wore out when I was 19, the David Sanborn that always reminded me of my first boyfriend, Robbie Robertson, Everything But The Girl, The Smiths, The B52s, Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, Queen, Coltrane, The Doors, The The, Kate Bush, Crosby Stills and Nash, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Chopin and Mozart and more -- and unceremoniously dragged it over to the pile of items for sale on the sidewalk where, not even an hour later, a surfer guy in a Karmann Ghia gave me $30 for the entire box.

I have regretted it ever since.

In the age of Spotify, some people are surprised to learn that collecting vinyl really, truly is still a thing.   If your town doesn't have a local used record store, there are plenty of online options. (Even Amazon will ship you LPs.)

One of the things I truly miss about life before ubiquitous cell phone scrolling is the way we used to stop what we were doing and listen to records.  Vinyl has always been about a little more than just the music.  

Everything about vinyl is intentional: leisurely flipping through albums in a record store, deciding which ones are worth the cost, carefully opening the shrink wrap, pouring over the liner notes and album art, blowing fuzz off the record (while carefully holding it by the edges in between both palms,) delicately placing the needle onto the smooth little line at the record's outer edge, and then meticulously adjusting the stereo equalizer.  (I like more treble for jazz, and probably less bass than usual for rock.)

Then, just listening.  Not setting a playlist to random while scrolling Twitter.  

Just.  Listening.  

Taking time to experience the music.  Hearing the tsk tsk tsk tsk tsk at the end of Side 1.  Carefully flipping the record to listen to the rest.  Interpreting the album as a whole work of art, not just a collection of songs.  (Unless, of course, you popped for a Greatest Hits album.) Deciding which songs you'll lift the needle and skip ahead for the next listen.  (Moby Dick on Zeppelin II, Mother on the Police's Synchronicity, The Smiths' title song on Meat is Murder...)

So, what if I told you that the zany librarians at The Internet Archive have put together a collection of almost 8000 20th Century albums that are no longer commercially available? What if I told you they made pristine recordings of all of them, with all those wonderful little scratchy vinyl noises? What if I told you they scanned all the album covers and liner notes, too?  What if I told you that you are allowed to stream or download these recordings?

Imagine a used record store where every single album is one-of-a-kind and unavailable anywhere else ... and you can have all of them for free.

Welcome to the Unlocked Recordings Archive.  Okay, so you don't get the actual, physical records.  But the experience of browsing and listening to the albums in this archive is honestly the next best thing to visiting a friend with a killer album collection -- like, one that takes up three rooms.

This is an example of digital technology being used to preserve our disappearing analog world, and I can't begin to tell you how happy it makes me.  There's no algorithm leading you to things you might like.  There is not much organization of the archive, so it's as if your friend with the killer album collection never bothered to alphabetize the records, and you just have to wander around the stacks, seeing what you can find.

I knew I loved the folks at Internet Archive. They're already making sure every single book that has ever been written will have a digitized copy available online.  They are also saving old radio programs, old TV shows, old photographs and even old software.  I'm sure they will get around to archiving blogs.  (Howdy to readers stumbling upon this in the year 2070!)   

Make yourself a drink, and then click play above to listen to one of my favorite records.  My parents had this album when I was a child, and I was so surprised when I stumbled upon it and recognized the cover.  The recording of Fly Me To The Moon on it is one of the reasons I fell in love with jazz. 

After you enjoy my pick, take a look at the entire collection in The Unlocked Recordings Archive.  A small number of archived albums are limited to 30 second samples of each song, but thousands (and thousands) more are available in their entirety.  Design nerds: the archive is a staggering collection of album art from the 1930s-1970s.  Jazz, Big Band and Bossa fans: prepare to swoon.  There are symphonies and spoken word albums and early versions of audiobooks.  There are weird covers of even weirder originals.  Eclectic music buffs: there are things here that Dr. Demento would have found too strange to include in his radio show.  There are some truly bizarre records included in the archive, but more than a few treasures.  (Prepare to stay a while.) 

By the way, Revenge of the Analog is a great read about why we love collecting vinyl and buying paper books and shooting 35mm film and basically embracing the things tech told us we no longer wanted.  Digital minimalists will find a kindred spirit in David Sax.  I join him in a full-throated, celebratory cheer for all the robust, real, tangible things that are readily available if we just log off social media and look around.   

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 For a peek at the Internet Archive's Open Library of books, take a look at my post about it at Books With Laurie.

For other great analog things, here's my master list.

Stay tuned for more hands-on, analog activities to avoid phone scrolling.

For my guide to social media alternatives, click here

For great books to conquer digital addiction, click here

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