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The CD Case

Compact discs may be more out of vogue than ever, but some albums will always sound best with lasers

There are approximately 100 compact discs on my desk right now. Behind me are two racks holding another 2,000 discs. In my basement, there’s an additional couple thousand, and in my mother’s basement there are about a dozen boxes holding hundreds more of my passionately adored glorified coasters.

I collect vinyl, too, and I’ve held on to some old cassettes. And of course I have two hard drives full of MP3s and a paid subscription to a music streaming service. But at heart I’m a CD collector. I still own CDs I purchased when I was 14. I haven’t retained anything else from when I was 14, except for my teeth. It’s possible my copy of the Singles soundtrack will outlive my molars.

Not only have I not gotten rid of my old CDs, I also buy new CDs nearly every week. Call it loyalty or lunacy, but the CD remains my preferred music delivery device. It’s more convenient than vinyl and more tangible than digital. I like the sense of continuity it gives my music collection, jumbling up records I bought in 1992 with 2003 and 2011 and yesterday. I like picking out discs for car rides and letting them collect over the course of weeks in the backseat. The rest I like looking at on display in my office — it’s part monument, part money pit, part mirror, part climbing hazard for my 2-year-old son.

Even if I wanted to sell my CDs, I probably couldn’t, and I actually like that, too. Used CDs are worth virtually nothing now. But the upside of this is that you can buy older albums on disc for virtually nothing. I’m sympathetic to arguments that Amazon is an evil empire, but I must admit to conspiring with the enemy to build my collection of Miles Davis and Joni Mitchell albums, at prices much lower than the downloads. Accumulating has never been easier, and my shelf space never tighter.

Perhaps I should feel a little embarrassed admitting to all of this. There’s a lot of pressure in our culture right now to essentially imagine CDs out of existence, to mentally finish off what the market is slowly suffocating. Over and over, we’re told that nobody buys them anymore. Only two demographics are commonly identified as CD purchasers in 2014: “old people” and “the semi-Amish not-quite-olds who can’t figure out technology,” the implication being that anybody who knows better wouldn’t bother. CDs currently exist in a cultural no-man’s-land recently defined by singer-songwriter Todd Snider as “post-hip, pre-retro”1 — the format is passé, but not so passé that it qualifies for reclamation.

CDs outsell vinyl records many times over, but CDs don’t have nearly the cachet or booster-ish press coverage. Even cassettes have been revived by indie labels like Burger Records, which are successfully remaking cheap, junky, and sonically wobbly plastic-encased media as collectible boutique items. (This partly explains why, at this very moment, there are cool kids listening to White Lion tapes post-ironically at the trendiest dive bar in your neighborhood.) CD buyers, meanwhile, are made to feel like we’re living in a Richard Matheson story. Just last week, it was reported that CD sales in the first half of 2014 fell 19.6 percent from the first half of 2013.2 Last year, CD sales represented 57.2 percent of total album sales, which was 10.4 percentage points lower than 2011, when CDs were already in steep decline.

This may sound like the death rattle of a medium, but I prefer taking a glass-half-full perspective: Can you believe that CDs still account for even that many album sales? It’s like discovering that Hollywood is secretly subsidized by VHS hoarders. Apparently there are at least a few people like me still out there: In the past six months, 62.9 million CDs were sold, nearly 10 million more than the 53.8 million downloaded albums. It might be a far cry from the 70.3 billion songs that were streamed during the period, but it’s also a hell of a lot more than “nobody.”

Regular listeners of the WTF With Marc Maron podcast know that at some point in each episode — probably during the monologue, but sometimes during the interview — Maron will typically talk about his love of listening to albums on vinyl. If he mentions a particular artist, it will most likely be Creedence Clearwater Revival. (One out of three times it will be “first four albums”–era Black Sabbath.) Now, I would be as annoyed by a middle-aged man pontificating on the purity of hearing music on wax as you probably are if I didn’t happen to agree with Maron. Listening to CCR on vinyl is indeed phenomenal. Can I interest you in Side 1 of Cosmo’s Factory — hey, where are you going?

My point is, just as there are albums that are well suited to vinyl, there are other albums that work best in other formats. If we are talking Young MC’s Stone Cold Rhymin’, Fine Young Cannibals’ The Raw & The Cooked, or Adam Sandler’s They’re All Gonna Laugh At You! — to name three random but scientifically sound examples — I think we can all agree that shelling out $29.99 for a deluxe vinyl to be played on a stupidly expensive turntable just doesn’t seem right. Those records demand to be played on tape, preferably on a boom box that was purchased in the electronics section of a department store that went out of business in 1993. It feels appropriate to hear those albums this way, just as hearing “Lodi” with pops and crackles feels appropriate.

As for the CD format, I can’t imagine listening to, say, Green Day’s Dookie any other way. Dookie is to CDs what Creedence is to vinyl. It is a record resting eternally in the collective memories of aging music fans, a lost piece of data tucked inside scarcely used multidisc changers and laundry baskets full of shit leftover from collegiate apartments. The Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head is like that, too. So are Odelay, Siamese Dream, and Exile in Guyville.3 You can’t hear those records without anticipating the parts where the disc is scratched to hell and won’t stop skipping.

I realize that my pro-CD argument may seem like it’s predicated entirely on personal experience and nostalgia. There’s no reason anyone hearing Dookie for the first time today can’t enjoy it via streaming. But I’m not disparaging new technology or changes in music consumption; rather, I’m making a case for CDs enhancing the listening experience for certain kinds of albums.

And I have reason to believe I’m not alone here. A few years ago I interviewed Father John Misty, early in the promotional cycle for his excellent 2012 album Fear Fun. At the start of our conversation, he casually alluded to listening to Slayer’s Seasons in the Abyss right before I phoned.

“That’s crazy,”4 I said, “I just bought Seasons in the Abyss at a used CD store yesterday.”

“It’s a very CD kind of album,” he replied.

Exactly.

Just in case not everyone is convinced by what Father John and I are talking about here, I will attempt to make my case with greater clarity by listing five types of albums that justify the continued existence of CDs.

1. Albums that make 79 minutes feel like a (mostly enjoyable) eternity

One thing that people who love CDs and people who hate CDs can agree on is that the format encourages the creation of big, fat, impossibly unwieldy blocks of music. Compact discs can store more information than vinyl and cassettes, and for a while in the ’90s, artists were obliged to fill up every last available byte of space on those silver discs, for better or worse. CDs therefore ushered in a golden (or “golden”) age of long-ass albums. Granted, in many cases this resulted in excessive records that only masochists (and possibly Matt Pinfield) ever played all the way through. But every now and then, a band managed to capitalize on the maxing-the-hell-out-of-your-record potential of the compact disc.

Take Lateralus, the third album by prog-metal band Tool. Lateralus clocks in at 78 minutes and 58 seconds. It is the longest single-disc CD that I own. It is two minutes and 11 seconds longer than Wilco’s Being There, which is packaged on two CDs. But Being There is consciously presented as a CD that wants to be a vinyl record, while Lateralus is a CD that was made to be a CD. Being There forces you to change discs in the middle of the record, while Lateralus just keeps going and going with machinelike steadiness. Being There tries to warm the digital chill of CDs, while Lateralus climbs into a very deep freeze.5

You can stream Lateralus if you want. (Not on paid services, as the band doesn’t allow it; YouTube, however, offers numerous streams presumably posted by fans.) But you’ll never finish it that way. It is physically impossible to play an album that is 78 minutes and 58 seconds long when you also have access to a billion other songs. At some point — perhaps after enjoying Danny Carey’s kinetic drum fills on “Ticks & Leeches,” though likely long before that — your trigger finger will get itchy. Lateralus must be played on a CD player located on the opposite side of the room from where you are seated, presumably after you have been immobilized by an oversize turkey sandwich or horse tranquilizers. Only then can the greatness of this record be revealed.

2. Albums that utilize sketches, between-song musical interludes, or other interstitial material

A good case study in how changing formats have affected the way that art is not only packaged but also actually conceived and created is Kanye West’s discography. His first album, 2004’s The College Dropout, is his longest. It is 36 minutes longer than his most recent (and shortest) LP, 2013’s Yeezus, a record largely experienced by listeners online. Dropout and 2005’s Late Registration (his second-longest record) have the most sketches, and they’re also West’s best-selling albums in a physical format. He has largely forsaken skits since then, with the exception of 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which is arguably his best album-length statement and worst album to play in a bar.

The lesson: Artists are less inclined to put certain kinds of tracks on a record if they think people will never play them.

Now, you could call this a welcome evolution and I wouldn’t disagree. But on rap records where skits play an important role — like Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, or any Public Enemy album — the CD format is ideal for appreciating the linear construction and occasional nonlinear digressions. It’s one thing to punch up “Tha Shiznit,” but what about the (easily skippable) interstitial track “W Balls”? Are you going to stream “W Balls”? Because “W Balls” is essential, man.

3. Albums with hidden tracks

With a few exceptions (most notably “Her Majesty” at the end of the Beatles’ Abbey Road), the practice of placing songs not listed on the album sleeve at the end of a record didn’t become commonplace until the CD era. For a few years, they were a fixture on seemingly every significant album, from Nevermind (“Endless, Nameless”) to The Chronic (“Bitches Ain’t Shit”). In retrospect, this seems like a waste of time. But it speaks to what makes listening to music on CD unique.

Those who proselytize about vinyl tend to value the ritual of the listening experience — sifting through stacks of records, placing one on the turntable, and then getting back up 20 minutes later to either flip the record or put on something new. Those who stream music tend to like the anti-ritual of the listening experience — the ability to just press play and allow a limitless supply of music to play as your attention wanders.

The CD listening experience exists at the happy medium between these extremes — there’s the ritual of putting on a physical disc, but sometimes after having the same album on for more than an hour, your brain needs something to shock it back into consciousness. This is why hidden tracks were invented.

4. Albums that go meta and reference being played on CD

The top two all-time instances of this happening are as follows:

“Hova Song” at the start of Jay Z’s Vol. 3: The Life and Times of S. Carter, when Jay says, “Yeah, I know you just ripped the packaging off your CD / If you like me, you reading the credits right now.” Somehow, the translation for the streaming era gets you less hyped for the rest of the record: “Yeah, I know an algorithm directed you to this track / If you like me, your attention is divided among 27 other tabs right now.”

• The “Hello, CD listeners” hidden track at the midpoint of Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever, when Petty stops the record for a few moments in fairness to vinyl and cassette listeners.

5. Albums that are Zaireeka

I guess it’s possible to make a record that can only be wholly heard by playing four audio streams at once. I suppose you could do that with four different vinyl records, too. (Jack White might be attempting this as we speak.) The Flaming Lips initiated a series of self-described “experiments” around the release of Zaireeka using cassettes played simultaneously on boom boxes, and in 2011 released a 12-part “symphony” intended to be played on multiple mobile phones. But Zaireeka is different in that it’s a stupid idea that turns out surprisingly well when you try it. Like the CD itself, Zaireeka is impractical and its existence made more sense 15 years ago, but I’m glad it’s still around.

Filed Under: Music, CDs, The Flaming Lips, Tom Petty, Public Enemy, Kanye West, Tool, Green Day, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jay-Z

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden