It all has to start somewhere.
I’m not talking about the Big Bang or Creationism. I am referencing how we uncover the music that we love, the tunes that shape our souls.
When you’re younger, you never want to admit the source of where you discovered new music. Perhaps we didn’t want our older siblings to get the credit. Or maybe it wasn’t cool to say, ‘I heard that song in a department store’; ‘I read about it in the magazine.’; ‘It came on the radio.’ And so on.
Well, back in the nineties, it wasn’t as easy to learn about new music as it is today. There was no algorithm.
One of the most significant sources of music discovery back in the 90s was compilation CDs. There was also Columbia House, the infamous 10-discs-for-a-penny company. More on the latter in a future post.
The old school compilation CDs put out by record labels were generally designed to showcase up-and-coming artists who had full-blown records on the horizon. It was these CDs, often picked up at local record stores because they tended to be cheaper than full-length albums, that introduced me to many of the bands that are near and dear to my heart. Though back in the 90s, I would have never admitted that.
For instance, it was the “From Bedrock to Jellystone,” 2-disc Flintstones-themed compilation that introduced me to Quicksand. Fred, Barney, and “Fazer,” yeah, that makes a whole lotta sense.
And track three, Hothouse Flowers’ “Thing of Beauty,” was really pretty, and hasn’t been listened to since I sat down for this post. And despite not thinking about the track in over two decades, I can still sing along.
Stand by the river on a moonlight evening
Lovers are loving and grievers are grieving
And the water does a dance upon the stones
I sit and listen, I will not ignore
1995’s “Wanna Buy a Monkey” delivered songs from artists I was already rocking out to: Ass Ponys, Face To Face, and the woefully underappreciated Paw. But the compilation CD also introduced me to Dishwalla of “Counting Blue Cars” fame.
Perhaps my most influential compilation disc, the one that set me on multiple musical discoveries, was “new edge muzik” from Columbia/CBS Records circa 1990.
Where else would a kid from Queens unearth the funk of Fishbone, the sludge of Alice in Chains, who-the-fuck-is-this-mumbling guy Bob Dylan, and the true art-house indie of Poi Dog Pondering? MANY years later, I learned Poi Dog Pondering was covering New Order on “Love Vigilantes,” but I digress.
I’m pretty confident that little-known Darden Smith, with his straightforward singing-songwriting style on “Listen to My Own Voice,” turned me on to the “simple” storytelling rock that I still enjoy today.
During the summer of 1992, it was “Afternoon Delight: Love Songs From Sub Pop” that further expanded my musical taste. With ZERO knowledge of what “afternoon delight” meant, I was in love with the music on the compilation disc, and lightyears away from that kind of delight.
Seaweed’s “Clean Slate” sounded like grunge with a shot of adrenaline. Kickass overdrive.
The Afghan Whigs’ “Let Me Lie to You” is what the 16-year-old me imagined whisky and sex sounded like. I was pretty much right.
Smashing Pumpkins’ “La Dolly Vita” gave me a taste of the band that would define my 90s.
And Sebadoh’s “It’s So Hard to Fall in Love” made me feel like I could be a rock star. Hey, I can record in a basement too…maybe there’s still a chance.
With the dawn of MP3s in the early 2000s, I, like many people, was convinced that the death of the store-bought CD was imminent. And from a utility standpoint, we were all correct. However, we made a miscalculation, one that many generations make; we discounted the power of nostalgia, both our own and the resale market.
The first CD I bought, OK, OK, actually my mom went to the store and bought it on my behalf, was Temple of the Dog, straight from the newly minted K-mart, circa 1991. I remember wondering why it came in this big long cardboard box when the CD itself was relatively small. But I appreciated the additional artwork, quickly taking a scissors to it, expanding it horizontally, and promptly hanging it on my wall. RIP, LONGBOX.
My early-teen ambition was to have a monstrous CD collection. I was motivated. I was also fortunate that a few of my early jobs provided music for free. The best of all being, College Music Journal (CMJ) where I held a part-time job during college. The pay? Eight bucks an hour, and at the end of your shift, you could go into the CD Room and take whatever you could carry. At the time, there was no greater currency. Music trumped money. In hindsight, this might have been my highest-paying job. 😉
When they were through with them, these promotional-only CDs, tossed aside by editors, became a gateway to a multitude of musical genres and styles.
Every week I would bring my reggae-style, Nepalese-stitched knapsack and cram as many compact discs as I could fit. The bag was great because I was able to insert two neat stacks of music. And I loved those car rides home with the bag as my co-pilot, inserting disc after disc looking for the next audible magic.
Eventually, I was so rich with music that I graduated from the CD rack on my wall to a rotating hard plastic Laserline CD tower, first with a 64-disc capacity and then 200. From there, I was forced to line my CDs in stacks against the wall, directly under my blacklight Guns n’ Roses poster. I was running out of room.
Years later, when music went through it’s short-lived “free” period, and the Wild Wild West of Napster and peer-to-peer file-sharing was born, I decided I no longer needed physical music clogging up my space. Craigslist was relatively new at the time, and an ad kept drawing my attention:
I buy your CDs. $1 each. Any condition.
I did some quick math: I was looking at thousands of dollars to let go of albums, many that already lived on various digital devices.
When the guy came to pick up the CDs, I asked him what he does with them. His story, which made sense to me, was that he would package them up and ship them to Russia. University students were happy (and desperate!) to get access to American music, even if it was a few years old by the time it arrived. Since the only way he could economically get the CDs to Russia was by sending them in large shipping containers, my man needed to buy in bulk to make it worthwhile. He was upfront that he would turn each CD into several dollars of profit.
Thankfully, I did hold on to a couple of boxes of CDs; some of my favorites, and some that were just too damaged to pass along to anyone else. And some, of course, were the compilations that defined my teenage years.
No Alternative delivered Matthew Sweet with “Superdeformed” and an unnecessary Soul Asylum cover of “Sexual Healing.” And DGC Rarities, Vol 1 still lights me up when I hear the sweet but crunchy “Jamie” from Weezer.
Whether they were new bands or just new tunes, I am no longer afraid to admit where I discovered many of the artists that I still appreciate today. It was thanks to the old-school compilation CD. God bless the curators and purveyors who assembled the soundtracks of our youth. Now, how the fuck do I play these things?