My high-school age daughter enjoys asking me, “What did you like to do when you were my age?”
“I’d go in my room and listen to records,” I respond. “Or I’d have friends over, and we’d play ping-pong in the basement and listen to records. Or we’d go to record stores. I also liked movies.”
At various times I have offered to set up stereo systems in each of my girls’ rooms. They declined. That’s not how they experience music. For many people now, music is delivered through a phone and ear buds, often discovered and shared on YouTube in bite-sized portions. It is something to be streamed, not owned. They would never consider sitting down and listening to an entire album with the gatefold cover and lyrics spread out before them.
My own relationship with albums changed over the years as CDs supplanted vinyl and my time demands and living situation evolved. I still listened to tons of music throughout the ’90s as I reviewed concerts and albums, launched a local music column and wrote entertainment features for the Chicago Tribune. After I married someone with a ridiculously early wake-up time, and we had kids who weren’t late sleepers, I began to maintain a quieter existence.
Plus, I wasn’t getting the same kick from music as I previously had. Some of that involved aging out from what was popular (I was primarily a rock guy as rock moved to the margins), some involved realigning priorities (one is less inclined to blast Redd Kross when babies and/or spouse are sleeping), and some stemmed from the sense that I’d discovered all that I was going to discover, aside from the occasional new album by Spoon and Radiohead.
I visited record stores less frequently because what was I looking for? The fun lay in the hunt, but I already had my mono copy of Sgt. Pepper, my original pressing of Odessey and Oracle and my MoFi CDs of Murmur and Nevermind.
Yes, artists such as Elvis Costello, the Who and the Kinks would rerelease numerous versions of their albums with different bonus tracks each time, prompting some suckers (raises hand) to get the same album over and over. I’ve lost count of the number of variations of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society I own. But when your main activity is buying duplicate copies, you’re spinning your wheels.
Also, browsing CDs was way less satisfying than flipping through records. After those wasteful long boxes were jettisoned, you were left looking at miniature versions of album art, with little variation from copy to copy. Those easily chipped jewel boxes were a drag, and CD stores were antiseptic, lacking that pleasing, musty smell of stores stuffed with cardboard and vinyl.
Then there was the elephant in the room: Amazon. While Tower Records, the Virgin Megastore and other music meccas were closing, just about every version of every album, import or domestic, was available online. If you have idiosyncratic tastes, as many of us do, you were more likely to find what you were looking for on the internet than in a neighborhood store, and more specialized outlets and Discogs weren’t such online forces back then. Score one for the Evil Empire.
That was then.
Now vinyl has mounted a remarkable resurgence while digital physical products have fallen back. In 2020 revenues from vinyl sales exceeded those of CDs for the first time since 1986 , and over the first six months of 2021, 19.2 million vinyl albums were sold, compared to 18.9 CDs. That figure marks a whopping 108 percent increase over the 9.2 million vinyl albums sold over the first half of 2020.
Count me in that trend. I never sold off my vinyl albums or disconnected the Dual turntable I’d had since high school, but until the past couple of years, I still was listening to—and buying—primarily CDs.
Record Store Day nudged me back toward vinyl as I rediscovered the fun of the hunt while tracking down exclusive releases from R.E.M. (their acoustic live album released under the name Bingo Hand Job was a find, though it doesn’t sound great), Bob Dylan (the excellent acoustic test-pressing
version of Blood on the Tracks), Fleetwood Mac (I love The Alternate Tusk) and Al Green (I splurged for a discounted Hi Records Singles Collection and later got a green/blue vinyl copy of his 1969 album Green Is Blues).
The pandemic refueled my vinyl passion further. While I was spending lots more time indoors feeling depressed, music became a necessary pick-me-up.
I decided I was due to upgrade my system and bought my first turntable in decades, added a preamp to boost my previously underpowered speakers, and, uh-oh, everything sounded way better, warmer and more immediate. I wanted more.
With record stores—such as Squeezebox Books & Music in Evanston, Rattleback Records in Andersonville and Chicago’s three Reckless Records locations—having expanded their vinyl offerings, I once again got into the habit of thumbing through stacks of albums. This act brought me a dual kind of pleasure: Not only did I enjoy flipping from record to record but also was transported to a time when record hunting was such a central part of my existence.
As I ramped up my crate digging, I found that I hadn’t discovered all that there was to discover. Far from it.
I started taking deep dives into areas I’d previously skimmed. How did I not own all of Stevie Wonder’s classic period albums? Or Joni Mitchell’s? Hey, these Kraftwerk albums are awfully cool...
Following a tip from ever-enthusiastic Squeezebox owner Tim Peterson, I bought the Studio One Rockers compilation at one of the 2020 Record Store Day drops, and that sent me down a rabbit hole of vintage ska, rocksteady, reggae and dub—and, no, I could not have distinguished among all of those terms two years ago.
But my richest area of exploration has been soul/funk/R&B from the mid-‘60s through the ‘70s. The way that Ann Peebles’ tracks jumped out of the Hi Tide Groove RSD compilation prompted me to track down her punchy early albums recorded with producer Willie Mitchell and that same Hi rhythm section that worked with Al Green. Fun fact: John Lennon, who loved Peebles’ 1973 hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” was seeing her at the Troubadour in L.A. on that infamous night when he taped a Kotex to his head.
I already owned the Super Fly soundtrack, but Curtis Mayfield’s first two solo albums, Curtis and Roots, also are killer. So are the first few Bill Withers albums—how had I not gone deeper than the hits? (“Use Me” was always my favorite.) And the Isley Brothers—the hard-rocking funk and sweet balladry that the expanded band of brothers laid down in the ‘70s is a far cry from the original Isleys’ early ‘60s hits, such as “Shout,” “Twist & Shout” and “This Old Heart of Mine.”
These excavations have connected me with more current music as well. For the past several years, the Ohio-based Colemine Records has been putting out funky, organic-sounding singles and albums, as heard on its Soul Slabs compilations. A highlight of this fall has been seeing breakout group Durand Jones and the Indications perform a joyous concert at the Vic.
I love talking about music, and if you’ve gotten this far, I’m guessing you do too. “Listen, Listen” will be a recurring Caropop feature in which I (and maybe some of you) go deep on albums and songs we’re enjoying. I leave it to you as to whether “Listen, Listen” is a Merry-Go-Round or Sandy Denny reference.
Great music is meant to be shared. Let’s turn up the volume together.