Many people dismiss the rapture as absurd religious dogma, but it’s not. It’s real. Just ask my CDs.
The great reckoning came the weekend before last, when the room-by-room cleaning, organizing and culling spree Mrs. YHT and I have been conducting to make way for all things baby-related reached the office, where stacks-on-stacks-on-stacks of CDs had been accumulating for as long as we’ve been in the house. During those five years, my vinyl collection grew like crazy, but my CD stash, which included everything from albums bought with my parents’ money in high school to mix CDs burned by college friends in Kazaa’s heyday, went largely ignored. It grew too, but more gradually, like a tree you barely notice until is its roots start cracking the sidewalk. My mom still surprises me with CDs — she’ll mail me things she hears about on NPR and finds interesting — and I love when she does, but I usually upload them to iTunes and listen via my phone. Once they became part of the plastic forest in the back corner of the office, the likelihood of seeing the inside of a CD player again was slim.
That forest is gone now. It wasn’t easy — I attach sentimentality to physical objects like hapless bugs attach themselves to spiderwebs — but after dragging the whole mess out into the living room and going through it item by item, all that’s left is a nearly full 120-slot CD tower and a few binders and spindles that still need sorting. It was a serious bummer in a lot of ways, but I thought I’d share the process I used in case it’s of use when you’re forced to perform your own deforestation.
Here are the categories I ended up splitting things into:
- Keepers — The Fugees’ The Score. Blink 182’s Enema of the State. The soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Time capsules I wouldn’t jettison for anything in the world. I can’t remember when Mrs. YHT and I lumped all our CDs together, but we weren’t particularly territorial about it, and with all that to draw from, there were plenty of no-brainers. Keeping these physical copies around isn’t quite as satisfying as it is with records, which have a clear tactile advantage, but I can’t let go of the idea that objects absorb importance and are somehow changed in the process. They’re part of a story you’re part of, and their being around can keep a long, lost part of you from being lost forever. (The sentimentality spider spins on…)
- Maybes — When I started sorting, I didn’t know how many CDs the tower I had would hold, so I made a “Maybe” pile, but most of them stayed. (Back story: Mrs. YHT’s parents are in the process of moving from the PA to the VA, and her brother let me have the CD rack that he used growing up. He also let me keep his copy of So Much for the Afterglow. “I will buy you a new life,” indeed.)
- Stuff to sell, maybe — I’m terrible about this with records. I buy things at Goodwill I believe are worth more than $1, then I get home and remember that I’ve never sold anything on eBay in my life. (It seems oddly daunting, I dunno…) So… anyone want a copy of Better Than Ezra’s third album?
- Mixes — They had to go. I couldn’t fathom uploading them to iTunes and adding the artist names and song titles one at a time like a psychopath. Lumping them all together made saying goodbye a little easier, like ripping off the band-aid quickly. It’s so haaaaard to say gooodbyyyyyye to yesterdayeeeeee…
- Mixes with high sentimental value — OK, so obviously I didn’t throw out ALL the mixes. How heartless do you think I am? The DJ at my sister’s wedding burned a mix of everything he played that night, and I have two intact copies, so those stayed. As did a one year (dating) anniversary mix I made for Mrs. YHT, a mix I made for the ride up to PA before our wedding, and some particularly well-curated mixes made by friends. (The sampler that musical sherpa Clay made when the wonderful Muscle Shoals movie came out ain’t going nowhere.)
- Albums that belong in iTunes — This was a pain in the ass. I made a stack of all the albums I wasn’t keeping a physical copy of but wanted to have files for. First I checked to see if they were already in iTunes, then I imported the ones that weren’t in there. I could have searched Spotify and skipped over those, but the music hoarder in me refuses to jump into the ownership-less future with both feet, so I popped discs in and out of my laptop’s optical drive the whole time I sorted. And then for a while after. Like I said, a pain in the ass.
- RVA — I have a section in my cube-style IKEA record shelving just for Richmond music, and I thought it would be fun to single out the local CDs and stack them with their vinyl brothers and sisters. Black Girls, Jonathan Vassar, more Black Girls, the CD that came with my vinyl copy of Nelly Kate’s Ish Ish… lots of fun stuff.
- Missing — Jewel cases of valued albums that were missing said albums. The disc for Spoon’s A Series of Sneaks surfaced during the sifting process (say that five times fast), and having the “Missing” stack made reuniting it with its case a snap.
- My crap — I started writing songs in high school, and I’ve recorded crappy, lo-fi versions of many of them, almost always with the help of a built-in laptop microphone. There’s an entire spindle of burned discs with two or three sketchy songs on them, and as vain as it makes me, I can’t get rid of any of it. It’s not pretty, but it’s an autobiography. It’s unalterably, unguardedly me. It’s also hilarious, like the self portrait you’re forced to paint in school before you have a handle on that whole “perspective” thing. I’m temped to put some of it on Soundcloud just for kicks.
- Mom’s picks — If mom sends it, son keeps it. End of story.
- My dad’s Robert Johnson box set — Because I got into blues around the same time I started playing guitar, and because I’m a jerk, I stole the discs from this set and put them in a CD binder ages ago. But my parents never threw away the box, and I decided to put it on display above my record cubes. That space is turning into my own version of the bookshelves you see behind NPR Tiny Desk Concert performers that are packed with CDs, records and all manner of music-related ephemera. I finally have a place to put the signed drumstick I got at a Virginia Coalition concert more than a decade ago. And the booklet that came with the Bob Dylan live album I decided to (partially) upload and toss because the second disc broke the very first time I tried to take it out of the case. I mean, c’mon.
As wrenching as the process was, the benefits didn’t take long to bubble up. The day after the rapture, Mrs. YHT and I drove up to northern Virginia to help her parents move a few items into their new place, and I brought along a smallish CD binder I hadn’t opened in years. We listened to 40oz. to Freedom all the way through (even the credits at the end), marveling at the collage of styles Bradley Nowell was able to assemble. Sometimes you revisit your middle/high school favorites and roll your eyes, and other times you experience a very specific kind of vindication. With new (well, old) ears and a whole network of additional experiences to draw on, you hear things in a completely different way, and when they’re as fearless and brilliant as 40oz. to Freedom is, you can give your inner adolescent a high five (even though your inner adolescent would probably be too embarrassed by you to accept it and would ask you to stop embarrassing him/her in front of his/her friends).
Nowell’s was a vast musical vocabulary — he quoted his influences constantly — and almost all of which went over my head the first time around. Now it’s like a picture coming into greater focus, with details and surprises cropping up left and right. The way he packs multiple song ideas into a single track, drifting from theme to theme while the rhythm section holds firm, playing the same steady grooves in shifting contexts. There’s a glut of creativity there that I sensed when I was younger, but it makes even more sense now. Same goes for his voice, which shrinks or expands to suit each phrase, dancing back and forth along a continuum of seriousness and humor, always with effortless intonation.
I knew he was good, but he’s even better than I realized. If this is the kind of enjoyment that can result from a CD rapture, you can beam me on up.