On the very best of days, the biggest decision that I have to make is what album to listen to when I get home. These moments are rare, mind you, but there are times when immersing yourself in a record from start to finish can change the course and the mood of your entire day. In this digitized, shuffle-play society of ours, where every song is readily available with the push of a button or the click of a mouse, it’s easy for music and artists you truly love to get lost amidst the frenzied din of convenience and short attention spans.
That’s what makes putting a record on my turntable such a calming, centering act. The rush of the outside world fades away as soon as the needle hits the groove, and I’m left to blissfully enjoy an album from start to finish in the way that the artists originally intended. Vinyl is making a resurgence, in part because of music lovers’ reaction against the MP3/streaming industry, where singles and playlists rule and the album has become a lost, antiquated art form.
Complete musical artistic statements still matter to a select few of us, and a vinyl record provides a tangible, illustrated entry point into a musical world. The what/where/when/how aspect of music is frequently neglected in the digital age, in favor of the immediacy of easily consuming a new hit single, adding a like or a comment, and quickly moving on to the next big thing — but the liner notes, album art, gatefolds, and deluxe-packaging that come with vinyl records invite you to immerse yourself in a record, an experience which augments the impact of the songs themselves.
Even the Zen-like act of brushing off my records and making sure the needle is free of dust and lint is another way of drawing me nearer to the music found within. Listening to vinyl is a far more interactive experience than mindlessly shuffling through iTunes or Rdio (R.I.P.), as there is more required of you than merely hitting play. You have to meticulously care for your records as well as your turntable, and if you want to listen to that big hit single on side B, you have to get your ass up off the couch, flip the record, and make it happen yourself. In this On Demand day and age, where everything can be controlled by remote, Amazon orders (including vinyl orders, ironically) arrive in an hour, and cars can drive/park themselves, it’s both rewarding and humanizing to play a small part in any creative experience, especially one that matters to me as much as music does.
There is a beauty in discovery layered within the vinyl experience, as well. On any album, there are clear standout tracks that caused you to buy the album in the first place and that make that record part of your treasured collection — but when you listen to an album from start to finish, the deeper cuts subtly reveal themselves, while the tone and tenor of the record begins to take shape around them. Those less significant songs could easily be skipped over in the digital realm, but vinyl allows those unheralded tracks to shine and play a crucial role in crystalizing the themes and ideas of the entire cohesive record.
I carry an infinite music library around in my pocket all day, and I take full advantage of the convenience and thrill of hearing any song I want at any moment — but when I come home, the only thing I want to listen to are my albums. I crave something more substantial in the music I consume within the sanctity of my living room, and my records are all I turn to. I don’t listen to vinyl because it’s the hip thing to do (I’ve owned a working record player since I first started buying music in the ‘80s), or to tap into a sense of nostalgia for a bygone era. I truly believe music sounds richer and fuller on wax, and after a day spent immersing myself in the polished purity of digital sounds, it’s gratifying to hear songs I love in an analog format while holding the sleeves and jackets of the albums themselves.
Music becomes a far more personal experience for me on my home stereo with my turntable spinning, and that sense of intimacy brings me closer to the heart and emotion of the songs. For that moment, the outside world fades away and the music is everything. The only thing. The way it should be. The white noise of the headlines and the endless hum of social media will be there when the record is over, but for that fleeting instant while the album is spinning, only the songs matter, and with each record I put on, I fall in love with music all over again.
Erik Thompson is the clubs editor at City Pages, and a freelance music writer in the Twin Cities.