A Stack of CDs – Remastered 2021

Essay

Feb 16 2021

Gold Tape
This essay is about my love of music, and my yearning for a more private and tactile listening experience. (This was published in February 2020 and Remastered in February 2021.)

Dear Reader,

I promised myself: When the new Rorie album comes out, I will get a record player. 

I’ve known Rorie (Erin) since the days of my beloved yellow boombox. As kids, we listened to CDs on it together, singing showtunes, composing choreography for fun.

Last year, when she announced her first full length album, I couldn’t just play it as a digital download. There I was, on her Kickstarter page, selecting the vinyl, even though I didn’t have a record player.

A few weeks ago, the vinyl record arrived and I thought, well, it’s time. I ordered a turntable, hoping it would get here before I left for a road trip. 

The night before our journey, I came home from a walk to find the box waiting for me by the door. Not even hanging up my coat, I ripped it open to set it up. I’d test out the Rorie record — just play it a little, to make sure it worked okay! Without meaning to, I sat on the floor, listening to the whole thing, right then, my coat still flung over its chair.

As the record played, I felt perfectly at peace.

When I stream music, I feel pressured to share, react, boost the artist’s Spotify count.

Vinyl feels like freedom. A private performance. Just the music and the artist and me, like the boombox in my childhood bedroom. The songs have space to breathe, to reach me. No action required — other than flipping the record over when it reaches the end of Side A.

Growing up, even when iTunes was an option, I stayed analog as long as I could. 

The digital interface felt unfamiliar, uncomfortable.

In high school, when my peers had iPods, I still used my walkman, and I still had that boombox. Every morning I’d press play; every weekend, I grew my collection.

I went into the city on Saturdays for my voice lesson, and stopped by Newbury Comics afterwards. Usually, I browsed solo, making my pick of the week on a whim, by whatever caught my eye.

Sometimes friends chimed in. Alexandra visited from New York and insisted I try Little Earthquakes. I listened to that weird album every day in October before it finally clicked. I gave it time, and now it’s there, a cherished part of my life soundtrack.

On my first visit to Oxford, I brought home the most British albums I could find at HMV. The Kooks, Lily Allen, and Kate Nash became the music behind my study montage, eventually bringing me back.

When I moved to the UK, I gave digital music a proper go.

It would be silly to bring CDs in my suitcase. Instead I downloaded this new thing called Spotify: a candy shop of options.

Overwhelmed, I strived to emulate the feeling of a stack of CDs within the platform. Dreaming of Newbury Comics, I organised my digital playlists by album.

Back to the present, I still use Spotify like this. But with my new record player, I’m determined, one album at a time, to bring back the stack. 

On our road trip, we drove to the Highlands, arriving in time to prepare dinner. I’m still learning to enjoy cooking, but one thing is for certain: the first step of any recipe is to select a soundtrack.

The cottage had wifi, but I delayed setting it up to enjoy that in-the-woods feeling a bit longer. To my horror, this meant that much of my music had disappeared from Spotify!

Actually, it wasn’t really there to begin with. All that time, I had been playing it a distance, streaming it from its cloud.

I opened iTunes instead, and we played that digital download of Rorie’s new album. The vinyl feeling flooded back.

Alone in the wifi-less wilderness, it occurred to me how public it feels to stream music, and how political.

Every time I stream a song, I vote for that artist’s success and visibility. I flag my support, sending messages to music labels. All the while, I’m being watched. Play counts tally up who I am, who I like.

Spotify knows me so well. When I do explore what the platform picks out for me, I usually like it. A lot.

But it’s not as good a story, discovering an artist by algorithm. 

Not as memorable as being handed favourites from insistent friends. Not as special as borrowing disks from my parents’ personal collections, where I found Aerosmith, Elton John, and Fleetwood Mac.

I remember picking up Ray of Light at my school’s yard sale, and feeling so satisfied when a favourite teacher complimented the choice. I remember how my pre-ordered copy of Teenage Dream arrived in the mail, cotton candy-scented.

CDs take up more space, but it’s space I can see. Digital clutter goes on forever, while also never really being there. Even in the car, listening to CDs, we have to keep pressing buttons to prevent the media player from connecting to Bluetooth. The car really loves Bluetooth! 

It takes so much effort to simulate simplicity on a digital device.

I don’t want to see the play count, or popularity. I just want to listen. I just want to be there – here – with the music.

I love the physical setup of vinyl. I love the scrutiny required to land the needle on the right rung. I love to nestle the disk back into its case with clean fingers. It feels good to use my hands, to connect my motions with the music, a “Dance” – like Track One of Valley in the Mirror.

I extend a hand to the music and ask, as the song does: Can I dance with you forever?

Until the Next Chapter,

Xandra

P.S. Please write back, on Patreon or email, and let me know: what’s your favourite album?

EPILOGUE

29 January, 2021

Dear Reader,

A year later, still yearning for analog, I looked up used CD players in my neighbourhood and found one for £10.

It’s not yellow but it’s beautiful, with a wood-carved exterior. We brought in the CDs from the car, and ordered more. When the music shops open again I’ll resume my in-person browse.

I started a project, choosing 12 albums for each month of the year. My listening experience is attached to the seasons of the year and seasons of my life. Just like Valley in the Mirror will always remind me of last January, other albums bring me back to Januaries past, to be remembered in Januaries of the future.

Here are my January Albums, listed in a flow-y order that makes sense to me. Maybe they’ll become your February albums.

Until the Next Chapter,

Xandra

The January Albums list is available for Heroine Training Patrons (starting at $3)!

Audiobook & January Albums on Patreon

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