We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the ironic promotional cassingles is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, how a regretful fan of vinyl records can re-create her discarded collection.
Kirsten Elbourne Mathieson writes: "I'm big-time regretting getting rid of all of my record albums years ago. Any advice for someone starting from scratch with vinyl after all these years? What albums must be heard on vinyl rather than CD/digital?"
First off, I feel terrible for you, because sometimes the hardest losses to overcome are the ones we've imposed on ourselves. Fortunately, your situation is largely reversible, though I've got a fairly overwhelming batch of follow-up questions to get us started.
How big was your collection? What made you decide to get rid of it in the first place? Did you replace the music with CDs or digital files, or did it drop out of your life altogether? What is it about vinyl that you miss — the artwork, the warmth of the sound, the smell of the records in your basement, the cachet of the medium? Are there specific albums you miss playing on a turntable, or do you simply miss thumbing through row upon row of LPs?
It's an overwhelming bundle of queries, so let's stick to the one most likely to produce an illuminating answer: What do you regret about your decision to dump your vinyl?
If there are specific records you miss playing on a turntable, start by replacing those — dig through flea-market bins and thrift stores and garage sales and eBay or Craigslist postings to track them down. My sister managed to acquire virtually every punk and new-wave record she'd loved in the '80s in bulk at a single estate sale; be patient and resourceful, and you can cobble together a formidable vinyl collection without too much expense. (Newly pressed records, on the other hand, will cost you.) Remember that you're not the only one who's given up on the format and dumped a collection unceremoniously; befriend your neighborhood trash collector, and you can probably even get records for free.
When it comes to identifying albums you absolutely must hear on LP — music that just doesn't sound the same in digital form — I'd encourage you to look to your own past. What records have you loved hearing in your basement, or rec room, or most private personal space? Which records did you play in your bedroom as a kid? What albums speak to you personally and trigger emotions?
To me, the chief strength of vinyl is the flip side of its chief weakness: You can't take it with you. Every other music format this side of piano rolls can be heard portably while you do other things, but a turntable holds you captive — records so often sound like home in large part because that's the only place you're likely to listen to them. Start with the coziest music you can conjure, and comfort will follow.