So Sarah and I finished something recently. Something that has lasted for many years, and at times we thought it would never end, but it has come to a natural finish, and in many ways I feel a sense of relief.
We finally got to the end of listening to our entire CD collection in alphabetical order.
I’m a music-bore. We’ve discussed this already.
It was a project we started more than eleven years ago to bond our music together, and probably the most profound ‘getting-to-know-you’ exercise of all. At that time, I was still living in my home city and commuting 40 miles or so to see Sarah every weekend, and the intention was to eventually merge our CD collections. Since then, we have moved in together, done two housemoves, got married, had a child, and seen that child of ours grow up and start primary school and begin to develop her own musical taste.
Of course, we didn’t listen to the CDs daily. Entire months went by when we didn’t take part in this project. We almost exclusively listened to the CDs in the car on long journeys whenever we could. Summer holidays were invariably a good time to get through a chunk of them. And as time went on, we added to our collection, and would listen to the additions as and when we got them, thereby covering all newcomers.
We established certain rules. All artists would be listened to, whether or not the other partner was a fan, which meant I had to listen to Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette without complaining about it, which was really really hard because I hate Jagged Little Pill. After listening to six Tori Amos albums in a row (I’m a fan, but six in a row? It gets a little bit… much), we decided to limit artists with multiple CDs in our collection to a representation of a maximum of 2 or 3 for the most essential artists. This meant that Sarah avoided rather neatly the prospect of listening to every single Steely Dan album, more’s the pity (oh, and just to pre-empt the inevitable snarky comments I seem to get about me being a Steely Dan fan: Go stuff your balls in caustic soda. The ‘Dan most definitely rule and their albums are the motherfucking bomb. The only thing about being a Steely Dan fan aged 18 in 1995 is that it doesn’t pull the girls).
We’ve also learned a great deal about our musical tastes. Sarah hates, with a burning passion, 80s pop music, but not necessarily 80s Goth. I’ve learned that I cannot bear All About Eve. Ugh! Ghastly and twee. Sarah has discovered that Peter Gabriel leaves her completely cold. I like XTC, but find them distant, and prefer it when they pretend to do psychedelia (as in The Dukes of Stratosphear EPs). Sarah firmly believes ABC’s The Lexicon of Love is a terrible album. I believe that the worst album we own is The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter by The Incredible String Band. And Sarah is baffled that I have decided to keep The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter so that I can point to it and say that it is the worst album I own. Some albums we acknowledge to be utterly terrible, yet have a particular charm to it (Essential Funk vol. 2, which I bought in Camden in August 1995, contains music that is neither Essential, nor Funky – despite being determined attempt towards the Funk, and I suspect most of the artists are Scandinavian with song titles like Frozen Tundra Lady – and yet I have a particular affection for it). Curiously, we have not discussed which of our CDs is the best.
Some of the CDs we listened to as part of the project have been heard once and never listened to them since – it’s somewhat inevitable, as with books and DVDs, that you buy something, consume it once, and then leave it forlorn on a shelf. Some of them were better than we remembered them to be. Some of them were delightful surprises, some of them were disappointments. Some of them were old favourites that have fallen by the wayside over the years (much as I loved it as a teenager, and played it near-constantly in 1993, I don’t think I’ve listened to Automatic for the People by REM since working through the ‘R’ section more than five years ago). It’s rare that we’ve heard something that we both dislike utterly – almost every CD we own has something that makes it worth keeping, although I am much more likely to keep something than Sarah is. She is brutal.
Our musical taste largely consists of mainstream, mid-tempo, 4/4, non-dissonant rock and pop, although a lot of the albums are by moderately obscure artists. We have some rather obvious classics (What’s Going On, Pet Sounds, Dark Side of the Moon, Rumours) that every music-bore owns. We also have a fair amount of things that are relatively unknown, but deeply significant for personal reasons. A chunky proportion of the CDs are jazz, there’s quite a number of folk CDs – with a leaning towards female singers; quite a lot of funk, plenty of Rhythm and Blues (but not much 21st century R’n’B), a fair smattering of heavy metal, more country n’ western than either of us would have expected when we started this (albeit more alt-country than, say, Garth Brooks or Tammy Wynette), some pockets of absolutely batshit crazy “unlistenable” blasts of noise and truly experimental items of freaky weirdness (including that astonishing Chris Watson recording of the zebra carcass being eaten by vultures – which was always good to mention in order to freak out my much younger colleagues who said they liked “weird” stuff, when actually they just liked My Chemical Romance), odd bits of Prog, some classical (a large part of which are the Minimalists) but very little Opera, a reasonable amount of electronica but very little out-and-out dance/techno/rave/acid house, and practically no contemporary chart music of the last 15 years. There are lots and lots of compilations (mostly funk, soul, but also world music, doo-wop, blues, and folk), some of which are homemade mix CDs by various people, including ourselves.
And finally, something to be a bit proud of. We have quite a lot of recordings by local artists from our city’s thriving music scene, or CDs that we’ve bought directly from the artists at gigs. How very ‘Fair Trade’ of us.
When we started, we probably had 700 or so CDs between us. This has now more than doubled. It’s tempting to now go back to the beginning and start all over again. This is unlikely to happen, for several reasons:
a) Cannot be arsed right now.
b) Sarah never wants to hear ABC again, and I would rather eat my balls than listen to Alanis Morissette without being allowed to bitch about it
c) It took 11-and-a-half years to get through the whole thing. With all the CDs we own, plus the potential additions we will make to our CD collection over the average year, it will probably take us 15+ years to do it again, which would take us well into our 50s
d) Alice is now beginning her own CD collection, and it’s shaping up quite nicely (Kate Bush, Bowie, etc) so the amount of CDs we’d have to get through would include hers, which, in about five-to-ten years’ time are probably going to be completely at odds with mine and Sarah’s tastes, they’ll explode in number, and are probably going to be in a format we haven’t considered yet, which renders the whole thing a bit pointless and anachronistic.
In reality, it is The Neverending Story (and no, I can’t resist putting a link to the most ridiculous song of the 80s. Sorry all, especially Sarah). There is never enough music. We will always be listening to our music collection, either in an order, or as a random exploration. It evolves, it shifts, it changes, it matures, like any relationship. Now, with our daughter, we will be seeing it in a new light.
As an exercise, I’d heartily recommend it. It has seen us through tens of thousands of miles of car journeys, caused much discussion and debate, and been a real journey through our psyches, our pasts and our future together. What the hell are we gonna do now?
**NOTE on alphabeticisation for pedants, by a pedant**:
Alanis “Bumhead” Morissette belongs under M. All solo artists are ordered alphabetically by their last name. Bands go by their first letter (although ignoring ‘The’). Hence, The Beatles belong under B. The The would come under ‘T’ as they are The followed by The. Definitive article “The” followed by bandname “The”. It’s easy.
Things get complicated when you have an artist like Dr John. He’s not got a doctorate as far as I know, and his real name isn’t John. Therefore, I treat his name like a band name, and he’s filed under D, as is Dr Octagon and DJ Shadow. Then you have acts like Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. Although he is arguably a solo act, the name is a pseudonym, and the album is credited a band called Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, so he goes under C. PJ Harvey (which is orginally the name of the power trio who made the first two albums) goes under P. Then there’s Scott Walker, which is another artist under a pseudonym, but by this point I can’t be bothered to argue, and it is monumentally pedantic (if I weren’t being already) to place him under E for Noel Scott Engel, and besides, Sarah would get incredibly annoyed at having to hunt for Scott Walker under ‘E’ all the time.
Soundtracks are sometimes filed under the artist name (as with Vangelis for Blade Runner) or under the film title (as in O Brother Where Art Thou?), depending on whim.
Oh, and if there are multiple CDs by the same artist, they’re filed in the chronological order of release, with best-ofs at the end. So Swordfishtrombones by Tom Waits comes before Frank’s Wild Years, for reasons that are plainly obvious.